Every TEDxSouthbank speaker is asked to write a blog about their TEDx experience. This is mine.
Over the last three years I have been involved with TEDxSouthbank in a variety of capacities. In my first year I was a participant in the audience. The second year I was an advocate (a volunteer dedicated to supporting new participants immerse themselves in the TEDx community). Most recently I was a speaker.
Being involved at different levels, in different capacities has taught me many things. These are the top 11 things I wish I knew before attending my first ever TEDx event.
1. Ditch any preconceived notions
There is a world of difference between watching the (inspiring, funny, heart-wrenching, empowering) TED talks online and attending a TEDx in person. Speakers who bring their A-game are absolutely captivating. They take you on a journey into the world as they experience it, providing you come prepared to travel. You will laugh when they laugh, cry when they cry. You will feel the high of their highs and the low of their lows. If you have notions of coming to passively watch a series of talks being delivered, throw that out the window. Come prepared to be taken on a journey, but free of preconceptions about what that journey might entail.
2. Don’t expect instant gratification
Attending a TEDx event can change your life. It changed mine. But it wasn’t instantaneous. It didn’t happen that day. Don’t come expecting that by 5pm your new life plan will be in place (don’t laugh, I’ve heard people say it). It is far more likely you will leave exhausted with a complicated mixture of emotions, and experiencing what I call ‘TEDx brain whiplash’. Over the course of a TEDx line-up you will likely be confronted by talks highlighting the best and worst of human attitudes and behaviours, the greatest good and the worst evil. You will see the heights to which human dedication and perseverance can climb, and the massive challenges that are still confronting humanity, waiting to be tackled. For some the experience is overwhelming and it can take a few days, weeks or even months to process it all and decide on a course of action.
3. Leave isolating modern social norms at home
Even the most extroverted of us has become conditioned to refrain from striking up a conversation with a total stranger in a coffee queue. We would certainly never walk up and ask someone (pragmatically or existentially) why they are here and how they are looking to change the world. Leave this societal conditioning at home before you set out, because these are completely appropriate (even expected) behaviours at a TEDx event.
When you see someone alone, perhaps checking their phone (in earnest or because they are trying to hide their awkward aloneness), smile, walk over and strike up a conversation or else beckon them over with a welcoming wave. Time at TEDx is precious. The connections you make invaluable. Don’t waste a minute of it being the wallflower or digitally isolated modern human.
4. Have a quick contact handover tool
And speaking of connections, whether you’re attending a boutique, 300 participant TEDx event or one with a crowd of over 1000, there will rarely be enough time to connect with everyone you want to. Chances are you will be 30 seconds into meeting someone who you suddenly discover might be a perfect partner in your plans to change the world, when you are called back into formal talk sessions. Before they disappear into a sea of people you need to be able to give them your contact details quickly. Whether it is a business card or an electronic contact app you need something in place to handover your details quickly that doesn’t require you both to be on the same social media platform.
5. Embrace TEDx as a community not an event
When I left home to attend my first ever TEDx event I thought I was going to a single day event. I could not have been more wrong. Beyond the in-person event, an amazing online presence makes each independent TEDx a potential 365-day community. It allows connections made on the day to flourish and continue, and it provides a chance to connect with people you missed on the day, as well as alumni from previous years.
Members of a specific TEDx community can follow each other’s progress and support each other’s endeavours. Like any community you get back what you put in, but given the passionate, motivated and dedicated collection of people who form independent TEDx communities throughout the world, this is potentially the most supportive and well-connected community you will ever be a part of. So join the community, and engage online in the lead up to and beyond the in-person event.
6. Be confident
Many TEDx communities use an application process to determine who can attend their events as participants. This system addresses a number of objectives including managing the ever-growing demand for limited places and ensuring a diversity of participants.
But importantly it is often also a reflection of calibre. With so many people seeking a place, spaces are highly coveted. Some communities turn three or more people away for every one spot allocated. Organisers are pretty savvy at selecting their participants, so if they awarded you a space there was a good reason. So when you are in that room, you can engage with other participants and speakers with confidence. Your ideas, the contributions you have made to your chosen community to date, or the potential contributions you are poised to make have caught the attention of the organisers. You are in that room for a purpose.
7. Earn it
We all know TED’s famous tagline: Ideas worth spreading. I have come to learn that the people who gain the most from the TEDx experience are those who appreciate the opportunity they have been given, and pay it forward by literally spreading the ideas they experience on the day throughout their own communities: through conversations, through social media, through actions.
As one attendee put it to me so eloquently upon learning four people were turned away for every one person selected:
“I need to spread each of these ideas further and stronger than the other four people who could have been in my seat. That is how I earn it.”
8. Speakers are happy to discuss their ideas
Obviously every speaker is a unique individual, but it has been my experience that TEDx speakers are very happy to discuss their talks, which they have likely been working on for months, and which reflect an idea they are truly passionate about. So don’t be shy about approaching them in-between sessions, just be respectful and polite. (Please note speakers may not be keen to chat in the 30 minutes leading up to the delivery of their potentially-once-in-a-lifetime-TEDx talk, or to talk about something they did 10 years ago which has no relevance to the topic of their TED Talk).
9. Don’t monopolise the speaker's time
When you’ve been inspired by a speaker, and have summoned the (unnecessary) courage to go and speak to them, it is all too easy to fall into an in depth conversation to the extent you cross an invisible line and become that person monopolising their time. I know because I have been that person. If you are lucky you look around just in time to realise there are 20+ people circling you and the speaker, waiting for you to stop speaking long enough so they can jump into the conversation. If you aren’t lucky you remain completely oblivious and will probably head home never knowing you were that person (but everyone else will).
So, engage in conversations with speakers passionately, but be mindful of others wanting some of the speaker’s time as well. (N.b.: I would like to apologise to the 20+ people waiting to speak to Paul Verhoeven at TEDxSouthbankWomen 2013. I hope I pulled out in time for you to soak up some of his genius for yourselves).
A great tip if you are looking to break into a group conversation with a speaker is to politely interject and ask the speaker if they would like a drink. A young man did this very thing with me in 2014, returned promptly with a soft drink, (for which I was incredibly grateful) and seamlessly became part of the group conversation. Well played.
10. The talks aren’t the best bit
People often look at me sceptically when I tell them that the talks aren’t the best bit about attending a TEDx event. Don’t get me wrong, the talks are outstanding, and nothing quite compares to the electricity in the room as you experience compelling oratory first hand. Like the moment when you and the person sitting next to you are both holding your breath, or wiping aside a tear at the same time.
But it is not just the talks. It is a day filled with the forging of meaningful connections with people who share a passion and dedication to making the world good. Not the sofa sitters of the world, but the people who make things happen.
11. Do not waste it
This last tip is probably the most important. And though I am loathe to come across all Dead Poets Society, carpe diem, seize the day evangelical, it must be said that if you have managed to secure a spot at a TEDx event, and hence an invitation to become part of that community, you have been given a chance to take a moment and rethink the world and your role in it. Do not waste it.
Photograph: Rhys Herriot