Thursday, October 8, 2015

An Open Letter to the Organizers of the TEDxLincoln Event

Dear Mr. Bretz and Ms. Vanneman,

I’m writing in regards to the TEDxLincoln event you hosted last week at UNL’s Kimball Hall.  It was my first time attending a TED event in Lincoln or anywhere else, though I’ve been a fan of TED talks for several years and have found them both a stimulating source of ideas and a medium perfectly suited for conveying these ideas in the internet age.  It was thus that I was quite excited for last Thursday’s event.

I enjoyed your selection of speakers very much, particularly Justin Lepard’s talk on eliminating boundaries in creativity and Rob McEntarffer’s discussion of education’s focus on superficial rewards.  I also applaud your decision to conclude with Abeny Kucha’s “Only Hope” talk recounting her struggles as a refugee, which ended the day on a moving, heartfelt, and brutally honest note.

However—and this is the reason I’m writing to you today—I sincerely felt that the power and value of these ideas was cheapened and debased by your framing of this event, in particular through the tone set by your emcee Susan Stibal.  Each time she came onstage I felt patronized by her artificial cheerfulness and insincere manner of uplifting the crowd, a manner of excessive smiles, lame jokes, and constant attempts to instill vapid positivity rather than mature thought.  Simply put, Ms. Stibal’s manner served not to enhance the ideas we were hearing onstage, but to distract us from them, giving her interludes the stilted air of small talk shared with a dental hygienist before an exam.  So committed did Ms. Stibald seem to her mission of condescension that she cut short the well-deserved standing ovation to Ms. Kucha’s talk by retaking the stage far too soon, and her childish humor reached its peak earlier in the program when she clutched her hip onstage in mock pain as an exaggerated (and arguably nonsensical) play off of the word “hiatus.”

My other main complaint involves the way you handled sponsors and advertising.  As a former marketing representative for a nonprofit, I know how important sponsorship is for events like TEDxLincoln, and also know that having company names prominently displayed serves as a powerful motivator when encouraging sponsors to donate.  However, the overt manner in which you drove the audience’s attention to these sponsors ranks among the most shameless I’ve ever seen.  Not only did the sponsorship slide serve as a focal centerpiece multiple times during the event (rather than having these logos placed more tastefully in the background), but Ms. Stibald actually encouraged us to tweet these sponsors our thanks using the TED hashtag, thus treating the audience more like word-of-mouth-advertisers than free-thinking individuals.

The ineffective nature of this ploy can be confirmed by a glance at the #TEDxLincoln Twitter feed, where none of the sponsors are actually thanked in this way.  When audiences feel that they’re being coerced into sharing their thoughts on social media, they’re less likely to share those thoughts at all; such statements feel most genuine when they emerge organically, creating an atmosphere of open, unadulterated discussion. The numerous points at which participants were encouraged to tweet, use hashtags, mention specific sponsors, and download the Whova app (e-mails for which overcrowded my inbox in the days preceding the event) only served as a turn-off—the reasons for their frequency were too obvious.  At least when the magician Chase Hasty tricked the crowd into pulling up his Instagram as part of a card trick, he did so by clearly (and humorously) drawing attention to the cheap nature of the tactic.  Such honesty goes a long way toward building trust.

TED is a forum for thoughtful, provoking ideas worthy of our consideration—so act like it!  When an organization resorts to cheap jokes, exaggerated cheer, overemphasis on decorum, and overt advertising, it forces audiences to take the presenters less seriously—as if the talks existed in an idealistic fantasy world, while back in the real world sustained by the emcees, mature adults adhere to the same middle-class standards of polite behavior that TED is supposed to be challenging.  This is not how you change the world—this is how you isolate ideas into small chunks without allowing viewers to follow-up, take action, or ruminate on what they’ve heard.

This is of course not to say that a TED event should be completely solemn or joke-free; rather, it’s possible to adopt a more mature approach that’s still personable and even funny.  Instead of ensuring that audience members all have a super-dooper fun time, perhaps next year’s emcees could follow each speaker with a thoughtful comment, some off-the-cuff discussion, or some way of relating the talks to the greater world.  Humor in these situations can be an effective and warming part of a presentation (look at the popularity of David Sedaris, for example), as long as the emcee’s approach assumes a certain level of intelligence from the audience.  No one likes to be talked down to, after all.

To close: your event motto is Re:Think, and I highly suggest you apply it to the way you present these talks.  Because, frankly, it sucks.


Ian Rogers