April 19, 2010

Do it with the lights on: TEDxSB Part 1



I spent Saturday morning attending the first Santa Barbara area TEDx event. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. If you don't know what TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is, check it out (and some amazing speakers) here.

I have to admit, having seen many of the speakers on TED's site, my expectations might have been too high for the local conference. The TED website says, "...the TED speaker team works with speakers well in advance of the conference to help shape a presentation that will succeed on the TED stage." TED also asks for video or audio of the speaker and for the person nominating the speaker to describe their speaking style. Speakers seem to be chosen as much for their ideas as for their speaking skills.

I'm sure there are mediocre speakers at TED, and according to the site, only about 3/4 of the speaker videos every make it onto the website. Still, I was hoping for engaging, passionate speakers who were able to convey their ideas clearly, and only a couple delivered.

I'm going to break out my TEDxSB posts over a couple of days. After all, there were a lot of speakers and, while I'm not going to talk about each of them individually, there's a lot of ground to cover!

Today I'm going to talk about the general organization of the event, the venue and some technical issues.

First I want to acknowledge that it's hard work putting together a conference like TEDx -- especially a free one -- and the event was smooth and without drama, from the perspective of the audience at least. Live speakers were interspersed with a couple of video presentations, and the whole thing was livestreamed.

There was a lengthy networking break in between halves of the conference. It was nice to meet some new people and catch up with some Twitter friends. Overall, the organizers put together a cohesive and well-organized show that ran on time and delivered some great content.

Now to the critique.

Stage

There was a large screen in the middle of the stage, and the speaker was off to the side in a small spotlit area next to (or behind) the lectern. This kind of setup implies that the slides are the most important aspect of the presentation, while the speaker is relegated to the corner.

In the case of the one speaker who didn't use slides but had one image that looked like a logo on the screen for his whole talk, this was even more distracting. I kept staring at the screen, waiting for the image to change.

But in this venue, the screen was fixed, so there was no other option. If you do end up speaking in a venue where the screen is portable, I recommend asking the organizers to move the screen into the corner to your left and put you in the center of the stage. Believe me, it's doable.

The stage was set with several chairs, a painted backdrop, and oddly, a bicycle. But no one ever used any of these props or pieces of furniture, so I'm not sure why they were there. To me, a distraction. The stage should be free of any items not relevant to the presentations. I don't want to look at anything but the speaker and their visuals; anything else makes me curious and divides my attention. "Is someone gong to be interviewed? Is someone going to ride a bike onstage? What's the painting for?" I'm sure I wasn't the only one.

Lighting

As I opened my computer to begin taking notes, the event began. And as it began, the auditorium lights went down. All the way down. As a note taker, I couldn't see my keyboard to type. I noticed people around me with notebooks and pens who couldn't write.

A dark room creates a barrier and encourages passivity in the audience; it's like watching a movie, but less entertaining. The audience is basically invisible. They can nod off and go to sleep if they want. They certainly don't have to participate.

And for a speaker, having the audience in the dark is like presenting to a black hole. There's no eye contact. You can't see their faces. You can't tell if they're responding, smiling, frowning or snoozing (unless someone snores). You can't interact with an audience in the dark, which sucks the life out of a presentation.

After the third speaker, I asked the organizer if he would raise the lights in the auditorium so we could see to take notes, and he graciously agreed to my request. This seemed to make a difference in the energy in the room, but it could just be that the first two speakers would have been just as dull with the lights on.

Introductions

Speakers, take note: You should always write your introductions so you have some control over what the introducer says about you. This doesn't guarantee that the emcee will practice your introduction or have any measure of polish, but at least you can choose the words.

I felt that the emcees lacked preparation and were winging the introductions, one more noticeably than the other. To me, this brings down the overall quality of the event. The emcees don't have to be as engaging as the speakers; that's not why we are attending. However, they do need to present themselves professionally, with confidence and poise, and create a strong transition between speakers.

If you are ever asked to give introductions or emcee an event, don't take this job lightly. You are part of the overall thread and continuity of the event. You help keep the energy flowing between speakers, breaks and activities. It's an important role; don't throw it away.

Along with the introductions, I would have liked a transitional slide with the speakers' name before each talk. There was no program, and not all the speakers included their name on their slides. For the purpose of taking notes, it would have been helpful to see their names on the screen.

Opening and closing

The conference closed on a fun and awe-inspiring note: a video of local skateboarder Kyle Chin taking an amazing downhill ride somewhere in the foothills of Santa Barbara (watch below). I wish the event had opened as strongly as it closed, with a powerful or humorous speaker instead of the two driest speakers of the day.

For the most part, the organization, venue and technical issues were handled very well, especially for a first-time event. Just a few tweaks would improve the overall ambience of the conference, and I am definitely interested in seeing what the organizers come up with next year, now that the inaugural TEDxSB is under their belts.

Enjoy the video of Kyle Chin! (Read part 2 and part 3.)



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