October 27, 2012


TEDxToronto 2012: AlchemyThere are plenty of speaker events but TEDxToronto is called the city’s premier speaker series (The Globe and Mail). If you’re not familiar with the world of TED and TEDx, here’s a primer.

The TED tagline is Ideas Worth Spreading but only the chosen get to attend TEDxToronto. The rest get free live streaming or watch later when the talks get posted on YouTube.

I apply every year. I've only been accepted in 2010 and now in 2012. The world has changed in-between. I have too.


In 2010, TEDxToronto was small and intimate (see highlights).
  • limited attendance: the Glenn Gould Studio — one of my favourite venues — seated 341
  • a crunchy lobby: you’d see speakers, organizers, volunteers and other delegates during breaks. That helped make connections. (The SMB Exchange achieved a similar result earlier this month.)
  • long breaks: the gaps were designed to encourage discussions, which made the day much more valuable than a conventional speaker event
The overall experience was excellent.

Looking back, I especially liked the videos by BizMedia, a finalist for a 2012 Business Excellence Award from the Toronto Board of Trade (I was a 2011 nominee and am now on the organizing committee). The well-crafted videos blended music and visuals in a way that helped me see that I live in a special place.


This year’s event took place yesterday at the Sony Centre For The Performing Arts. Attendance was 1,200 or 1,300. That's a huge increase. I'm glad that more attended but missed the intimacy.

I didn't talk to a single speaker because I didn't see a single speaker off-stage. We didn’t get contact their contact information either. The conversations stop before they even start. In contrast, TEDxIBYork 2011 put speakers in different rooms during breaks, which was ideal. 

Tall Tales?

The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed — it is a process of elimination.
Elbert Hubbard
I joined Goodyear Toastmasters to hone my speaking skill. I've learned how speeches get created. The content isn't quite true. The speakers make changes to increase their impact and meet the time constraints. A typical speech in Toastmasters runs 5-7 minutes. That's much more restrictive than the 18 minutes in TED.

Meeting the time constraints requires extreme editing, which in turn leads to unintended or unavoidable distortions. As with a sculptor, there’s skill in removing what doesn’t belong. There are consequences.

The New E

We’re in a world of low trust and keep seeing bad examples (see @trustandyou). This year, the likes of Jonah Lehrer and Lance Armstrong got nabbed for dishonesty. Besides, we don’t have perfect memories. In this environment, how much can you believe a speaker?

TED is an acronym for Technology Entertainment Design. For me, E meant Education. Now it's Entertainment because it's difficult to tell what's really true. I'm paying more attention to what the speakers left out and the implications. For example, a speaker touted the merits of flax seeds as a replacement for oil. Interesting but what about the downsides?

The Curse Of Practice

Speakers practice and practice and then practice more. The speaker is an actor. The challenge is to look like you're not acting. That helps the audience believe you mean what you're saying at the moment. Think of movies. You know Brad Pitt is acting but if he's good, you suspend your disbelief.

The deep challenge comes when the speaker is telling the tale of something deeply personal --- especially when the event occurred years ago. They may have told that same story to many other audiences. I now wish they'd just put their story on YouTube and move on. Tell us something new.


I've heard it all before, you're saying nothing new.
— Supertramp, Child Of Vision

Since so many TED Talks are online, the formulas emerge. There are the TED Commandments and even Sebastian Wernick’s talk on creating the perfect talk:

The TED/TEDx world, includes repetition. There’s sometimes a feeling that what you're hearing you’ve heard before and told better.

Where's The Alchemy?

When I think of alchemy — this year’s theme — I think of the melding of words and music. Maybe that’s because of Live Alchemy from Dire Straits (Wikipedia) or Orson Welles reading Edgar Allan Poe (YouTube) over the music of Alan Parsons:
"Since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception, music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry. Music without the idea is simply music. Without music or an intriguing idea, colour becomes pallor, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are but for a moment motionless."
— Edgar Allan Poe
The day’s highlight was musician Steve Page. He decomposed a song he performed for us, The Chorus Girl. The tune wouldn't leave my head. Here’s a live recording from the 2009 Vancouver Folk Festival.

Maybe alchemy is about Music Worth Humming.

I’m glad that TEDxToronto is flourishing. I’m finding that I prefer smaller events with easy access to the speakers. I will still apply to attend in 2013 and hope to get accepted.


Podcast 192

direct download | Internet Archive page | iTunes

PS If you want more great ideas, read Wired

October 20, 2012


Our Lady Peace: 4 AM live (The Fillmore, Detroit, Mar 18, 2010)
Have you noticed how the music business has changed since the 1980s (assuming you’re old enough)? The life insurance industry has followed a similar path.

Coalition Music manages performers like Our Lady Peace, Finger  Eleven and Simple Plan. Eric Lawrence and Rob Lanni explained the evolution from when they started to today. They spoke at the Small Business Forum 2012 from Enterprise Toronto this week.


“Tell him this is last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance
Because a record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance.”
— Bruce Springsteen, Rosalita
In the 1980s, record labels invested heavily in promising performers. They gave them large advances — even hundreds of thousands of dollars — to record albums and cover living expenses. The money would be recovered from future record sales.

In those days, many advisors worked directly for the insurers (“captive agents”). The companies invested heavily in promising advisors. They gave them free training and money for living expenses. The money would be recovered from future product sales.

There used to be many record labels and insurers. There was an established way of doing business.


These days, there’s less need to buy music. Besides YouTube, there are subscription streaming services like Grooveshark, Rdio and Spotify. Why buy music when you’ve got instant access to millions of tracks on demand for free or a monthly fee?

The big investments on promising performers are gone. Labels want proven successes. Luckily for performers, it's easy and cheap to record music now. Software compensates for mistakes and low skill. With the gatekeepers gone, there’s much more music than ever. The performers are responsible for standing out.

Few insurers invest in training advisors these days. They want the proven successes too. Luckily for potential advisors, getting a license to sell insurance just requires passing a multiple choice exam. Software helps compensate for low skill by doing the calculations and creating nice spelling-checked presentations. The advisors are responsible for standing out.

Standing Out

We like winners. Standing out means having an audience. We can easily spot performers who do by looking at their views on YouTube, Twitter Followers and Facebook Fans. We can also sample the music for free and read the lyrics. We can read and write comments.

Here’s the difference with the financial sector. The social era has not been embraced in the same way.

Advisors rarely have a visible audience. Try finding advisors anywhere they can be ranked objectively against other advisors. Try finding free samples of their work. Try finding anything written by their fans (clients).


In the “old days”, financial backing gave performers advantages but success was never guaranteed. Factors like radio airplay and fan tastes could not be assured. Now unlimited airplay is free. The gatekeepers are gone. Entry is cheap and easy. There are more  challenges but in many ways there are more opportunities.

Advisors now face the challenge of getting found and appreciated. They have influence over getting found part.

We can't explain our musical preferences but listening to a song won't cause much harm. The wrong advisor can and switching isn't as easy as jumping to the next track. Maybe you’re better off with an advisor who — like today’s musicians — has a visible audience.

Podcast 191

direct download | Internet Archive page | iTunes


PS Where do you find your music these days?

October 13, 2012


Rolls Royce Phantom Coupe Aviator bonnetWall Street is the only place that people ride to in a Rolls Royce to get advice from those who take the subway. — Warren Buffett

The investment advisor wore sunglasses and drove a BMW M6 convertible with the top down. The insurance advisor had a big black Mercedes. The client had pricey cars too and a gated house that reminded me of a prison. I felt out of place.

In his Financial Post column, fee-only financial planner Jason Heath (LinkedIn) advises us to think again before buying a luxury car. We may be further ahead saving for retirement. Boring but practical.

Advisors tend to have nice cars because that looks like a sign of success. Don’t you want to hire a winner?


When we bought our current house in the 1990s, we considered two real estate agents. One had a Lincoln Town Car. He looked successful but maybe he had a side job as a limo driver. The other one had a Dodge Intrepid with broken air conditioning. He joked that someday he'd have a car that worked. He looked like a loser but maybe he was a better negotiator.

We picked Mr. Lincoln. 


I've seen advisors who put their keys (and smartphone) on the table during meetings. Look at me! Look at me! They had pockets, purses or bags but were showing off.

The car keys were often for a BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-class. Entry level, but they felt special and thought clients would be impressed.


Successful advisors might care less about what they drive. Maybe they had their dream cars and got comfortable enough to take them for granted. One advisor switched from a BMW 7-series to a Hyundai Genesis, which he claimed was better. Maybe this ad swayed him? Maybe he could no longer afford more.

Warren Buffett drives a Cadillac DTS. No chauffeur-driven Rolls for him. He doesn’t get his advice from Wall Street or Bay Street either. An advisor driving an M6 might not impress him.


We can (and do) judge a book by the cover. The risk is low. We can (and do) judge advisors by their cars and other props like clothing. That’s riskier.

Successful advisors have the ability to sell. That doesn't mean they have skill or interest in doing the actual work. What drives them matters more than what they drive. That we can’t easily see.


Podcast 190

direct download | Internet Archive page | iTunes

PS If your advisor takes the bus, get off at the next stop.

October 6, 2012


Joe Barbieri and Promod Sharma on air
You probably know more about investments than insurance. What if two insiders compared and contrasted for you? That’s what happened on Qb, a talk show about money.

You’re sold nothing except the merits of fee-only advice.


Joe Barbieri and Promod Sharma pre-interviewThe host, Joe Barbieri, has insider knowledge of the investment world. His LinkedIn profile shows where he’s worked. Recognize any of the companies? Joe now does true fee-only financial planning as Joe The Investor. “True” means he sells no products.

I designed life & health insurance products and helped advisors sell them  (see LinkedIn for the companies). Now I perform fee-only Actuarial Insurance Reviews. You can take the prescription to your old advisor, find a new one or use the Taxevity pharmacy.

The Interview

Joe Barbieri and Promod Sharma chuckleIn the wide-ranging 45 minute interview, Joe asked a series of well-considered questions. He also shares his perspectives from the investment world. 
We covered topics like


You've got your choice of video or podcast. Since there's nothing to see besides two people talking, you won't miss much by listening. For the podcast, I reduced the background noise, adjusted the volume and did some editing.

Joe Barbieri and Promod Sharma - the technology
I’ve only been interviewed on camera once before. I still don’t know where to put my   hands. That’s partially because I didn’t know what would show in the recording.

What other questions do you have?

Podcast 189

direct download | Internet Archive page | iTunes


PS Who wants to interview me next?