Exploring What TEDx Talks Can Teach Us


The annual TED conference brings together some of the world’s most noteworthy movers and shakers in the fields of technology, entertainment and design (hence “TED”). But the event is expensive and invite-only and also only happens a few times a year. Videos of the talks are available for free online, but fans of the talks wanted more. They wanted in on the live action.

Responding in kind, TED started licensing its program out to anyone who wanted to throw a TED-type event, with the first held in March 2009. The events would be called TEDx, and would be created by local organizers for their communities. With no funding from TED, these homegrown events are a little shabbier than their progenitor. But they’re sprouting up worldwide and on a scale that even TED probably didn’t imagine. And while the first TEDx event was under two years ago, on November 15, 2010, TEDx celebrated its 1000th event with TEDxBerlin.

Since the first, there’s been TEDxSingapore, TEDxChCh (for Christchurch, New Zealand), and TEDxOil Spill. There’s been TEDxRedmond hosted by and for kids and a series entitled TEDxWomen. Almost every time a butterfly flutters its wings, somewhere in the world, a TEDx is going down. While many are rough around the edges, some have met TED standards and are honored by having their video featured on TED’s official site. But all of these events are a testament to the spirit of independence, and the crazy oddball stuff that comes with that spirit. And lucky for us, they’re also all required by TED to be recorded. While we have not been able to watch all 1000, in celebration of TEDx reaching this millennial benchmark we’ve compiled a few of our recent favorite TEDx talks below.

This one, from TEDxBoston, made it onto the TED site. Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR, a proud Princeton dropout, talks about using “mindshare” and “game dynamics” to build a game layer. According to Priebatsch, the last decade was the decade in which “the framework in which we connect with other people” was built. The next decade will be where the “game framework is built,” which focuses on the “motivations we use to actually influence behavior…and the framework in which that is decided upon is constructed.”

Linh Do gives a presentation at TEDxChCh (Christ Church, New Zealand) in which she talks about defying social norms and gives a spirited contextualization of TED within the ambit of Stuff White People Like. “You will all be happy to know that you are normal in some way, or at least ‘white’ if you will. Number 134 from the website/book is ‘liking TED conferences….’ So I think you all fit that bill.” Then she talks about the “web of social change [she] started down” with her company Change Switch, whereby she changed a million light bulbs.

Photographer, adventurer, and storyteller Aaron Huey shows photographs of the Lakota in South Dakota — one of many tribes that were moved off their land into reservations. The tribe was moved to the Pine Ridge reservation, which is “ground zero for native issues in the US.” Asked to talk about his relationship with the Lakota, Huey prefaces his talk with a trenchant observation and the difficulties of his photographic project: “And that’s a very difficult one for me because if you haven’t noticed from my skin color, I’m white. And that is a huge barrier on a native reservation.” This TEDxDU talk made it onto the official TED site as well.

Mark Lincoln Braun, aka Mr. Joybox presents his Joybox Express at TEDxDetroit, September 2010. This falls into the “entertainment” division of TED’s categories of presentations, and perhaps “technology” and “design” as well. This piece shows how TEDx entertainment, like TED, can find people who are making change with an oddball, off the grid, thinking-outside-the-box sensibility. Mr. Joybox took a trip across the state of Michigan from Saugatuck to Detroit on his piano-on-a-bike to raise money for local arts and athletic programs.

At TEDxDUCTAC, Erika Ilves and Annie McQuade of Project Planet, Inc., firm believers in the Human Project, give a talk that reminds us, as good TED talks sometimes do (see the Steve Jobs’ talk), that we’re going to die. After realizing they were going to die, McQuade and Ilves asked themselves, “What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?” This led to greater questions about what “we, as a human race, need to accomplish in the 21st century.” Apparently, McQuade and Ilves found something approaching an answer. “Tune into the most ambitious project in the history of Team Humans: Ken Wilber’s integral map of the human experience…. Our starting capital was ‘a map of everything.'”

TEDxZurich, October 2010, gives us Robin Cornelius, whose passion is to make clothes traceable. His presentation defies further explanation, though it makes us question what is or is not an idea worth spreading.

At TEDxAlsace, Jean-Georges Perrin (Fondateur de GreenIvory) reminds us in his talk “Les Hommes et Les Machines (Men and Machines)” that in some parts of the world “man” is still a synecdoche for all of humanity.

At TEDxOilSpill, Lisa Margonelli gave an affecting and “tough love” talk called “The Political Chemistry of Oil.” Her talk is satisfactorily polished, intelligent and informative, so much so that it made it onto the TED site proper. While moratoriums on drilling and ousting executives make us feel like we’re doing something, if we actually want to have an impact, we need to stop consuming so much oil. And check out Margonelli’s subtle asides. People wanting to make change, or at least voice disapproval, should learn to subvert from within.

At TEDxPalermo, sommelier Vera Bonanno gives a stirring presentation “Drink the Truth” from an original stage — a kind of control tower or watchtower on a beach. While the most unique venue we’ve seen, whatever it is, it fails all of TED’s suggestions for choosing a venue except “avoid ballrooms.” While her presentation will probably not be a big hit with the TED crowd, Madame Chevalier du Coteaux de Champagne’s vivacity and wisdom make her a guaranteed hit with wine talent spotters and wine tasters the world over.

The same watchtower at night. “Laboratorio Saccardi,” a group of unpleasant and uncivilized artists whose performances aim at the enhancement of uselessness spread some of their uselessness to curious onlookers.

You may have seen the TED talk given by Tony Robbins, the world’s “top authority in personal & corporate change work.” But did you know that one of his own presentations was held on 9/11? At TEDxKarachi, in his presentation “Motivating People into Action,” Asad Rezzvi, a protege of Robbins who was at Robbins’ 9/11 presentation, talks about his experience at that conference, at which 50 to 60 people in the audience had lost friends/relatives/co-workers. Rezzvi is an authority in the field of Peak Performance Psychology with a degree from the University of California at Berkeley and has trained with Tony Robbins. Whether this is an idea worth spreading is up to you to decide, though we think this talk may make audience members a tad too uncomfortable for TED’s taste. (See the Sarah Silverman debacle.)

And one of the TEDx talks that, like the best of TED talks, inspires the childlike wonder in us all: At TEDxGalway, astrophysicist Mike Redfern gives an ode to one of our favorite lullabies “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in a suitably wondrous and fanciful outfit.

Maybe most useful of TED’s contributions is that it sometimes manages to find people who’ve made strong headway in decoding the meaning of life. But TED is generally tactful about the potent discoveries it unearths and couches its discoveries in less certain terms than Mikael Strandberg does at TEDxMalaren. In his presentation “NORMALNA, The Siberian Way to Understanding the Meaning of Life,” Strandberg talks about a 2004 expedition in which he explored Siberia by canoe and skis for over 3500 km at -58 degrees — an expedition which is globally hailed as “one of the coldest ever in the history of exploration.” We’re thankful that Strandberg went to such unnecessary extremes and survived with this information so that he could share it with us. And if you don’t have time for this video, or you’re desperately avoiding ever having to contemplate life’s meaning, here’s a key concept you would take away from it: “You almost have to lose your life before understanding it.”