June 21, 2011

TEDxUCLA: The good and the great

I had the privilege of attending TEDxUCLA this past weekend. With spots for only 400 people and a dazzling roster of speakers, the event quickly sold out. So I got up early and hightailed it down to Los Angeles for a day typical of a TED or TEDx conference: chock full of innovative ideas, amazing art and music, creative expression and, oh yes, the occasional thud of a dull speaker.

First, I'll describe what was good and great about this conference, both in its conception and in the quality and ability of the speakers. Let's call these the "DOs."

1. DO: Acknowledge the tweeters, texters and typists

When I got my information e-mail from TEDxUCLA with the guidelines of the day, I first felt a little offended. "What? Anyone using electronic devices has to sit in the last three rows? Well, I never." Or something like that.

However, when I arrived and discovered that the auditorium was actually rather intimate, I realized that the last three rows were not so far from civilization. And as the day went on, I appreciated being surrounded by others taking notes on laptops and iPads. And I'm sure the rest of the audience appreciated not having our typing sounds interfere with their enjoyment of the day.

This was a win-win for speakers (who don't have to look at downturned heads typing away while giving their presentations) and audience members alike (who felt at ease to freely type, surf the Web looking up bios, and tweet out to followers without getting dirty looks from surrounding neighbors).

I also enjoyed the projections on the front walls of individual hashtags for each speaker. Every #tedxucla tweet went out accompanied by a hashtag for the speaker, which can then be searched later. Brilliant.

By the end of the day, I had met, had followed and had been followed by several fellow Twitter users that I never would have met otherwise.

2. DO: Encourage audience interaction

From the stretch breaks with "the wave" and flying beach balls to the Michael Newman introduction which included "Get out your smart phones," the most engaging presentations of the day were those which included the audience.

As in most of the TED talks I've ever seen, there tended to be very little interaction between speakers and audience. I don't know why this is the case; I don't know why TED speakers are encouraged to lecture rather than converse, but thankfully not all of the speakers of the day took heed of this tradition.

3. DO: Use compelling visuals and examples

The speakers at this conference had some of the more effective examples and images that I've seen.

Photographer Rachel Langosch showed slides of her young students' photos documenting their world; it was much more powerful than if she had just told us how her students took to photography.

Andrew Byrom used images to demonstrate how he went from designing typefaces to creating 3D sculpture based on typefaces, to building utilitarian objects from the same typefaces. The progression of his work was clearly laid out in his visuals. I beseech you to visit his site and look at his designs; they're unbelievable. Here's a (not-great) photo I took of one of his creations (hint: they're tables and benches in the quad outside the Broad Auditorium).

Eddo Stern, after describing how games and play can improve our mid-lives, showed a series of videos that completely challenged my concept of computer games. I had been a little resistant to his talk at first, but his examples opened my mind.

And I'll never forget Jimmy Lizama, who used stories from his own life, costume changes, facts about the environment, community and economy, and intriguing and humorous images to share one message: Get out of your car and onto your bike. He even gave us homework for how to do it. He's not just telling us what to do; he's living the life. He's not just promoting a different lifestyle; he's passionate about and committed to it. He made a huge impact on me.

4. DO: Tell stories.

The speakers who had the biggest positive effect on me were the ones who told stories. I've already mentioned a couple, above, but I don't want to leave out the best storyteller of the day (via 2001 TED talk video): legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

Just watch this video (even just a few minutes) to see what I mean.

Wooden told stories of his own childhood, of his dad reading poetry aloud on the family farm by the light of a coal oil lamp. He told stories of his students and players. He shared his philosophy of success, which was the basis of his talk: "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming." He shared the life lessons and rules he imposed on "the youngsters," a direct result of his father's teachings. He recited poetry from memory.

He was profound, smart, humble and funny. It was a great treat to see this talk from a great man.

5. DO: Use humor

Many of the speakers incorporated humor into their talks, but one stood out for his well-thought-out enhancement of a technical topic: Leonard Rome. Rome is a researcher who talked about his work with "vaults," minute barrel-shaped particles within our cells that can be used as drug-delivery vehicles for chemotherapy and vaccines, among other things.

His visuals included vaults which turned into hot dogs (after a mention of the resemblance), Homer Simpson representing a cancer patient, scenes from the movie "Fantastic Voyage," a picture of Minnie Mouse (as he described a female mouse immune to chlamydia), and many other humorous and simple images which helped the audience to understand the nanosystems he was describing.

He shared his initial impulse to call the vaults "Roma-somes," but wisely went with vaults instead. He expressed his desire to one day be able to say "Take two vaults and call me in the morning."

He made a topic that could have been overly technical and hard to understand (and to be honest, it still was, to some degree), fun and engaging.

On a side note, I also want to give him props for giving his colleagues props. When talking about new discoveries and contributions by colleagues, he generously named names.

6. DO: Offer solutions

It's one thing to talk about a problem and give stats and explain how bad things are. It's another thing to offer solutions that audience members can actually participate in and relate to.

Sometimes I listen to a speaker and I'm not sure what their purpose is, what they're trying to achieve, but this was not a problem with Jimmy Lizama, who told us exactly how to get out of the car and onto the bike; Yoh Kamano, who explained simply and clearly how we can use social media more effectively during natural disasters by geo-enabling our phones (and also included the audience tweeting #helpmeted to participate in his demonstration); or Stefan Sagmeister (via TED video) with the message, "If you have a lot of friends, meaningful friendships, or are married – you are more likely to be happy." Speakers who gave solutions to the problems they presented were more effective and felt more relevant to my life.

Overall, the conference was well done.

The lengths of the talk alternated between short, medium and long, and the topics/speakers also alternated between technical/scientific, environmental, creative, musical, political and medical.

Most of the speakers were interesting and engaging, and seemed to have some experience speaking or some training.

The auditorium was just the right size. It felt intimate, but was able to handle a large crowd.

The final act of the day was a real-time performance joining musicians live-streaming from Seoul, Korea with musicians in the UCLA auditorium, presented by CultureHub. It was incredibly moving and beautiful to be part of such a collaborative international experiment.

I can't wait till videos of the speakers and performances are posted online, so I can share all of these great presentations with you!

I will follow up this post in a day or two with my take on what TEDxUCLA could do better next time.

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