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


Simon Lloyd said...

Great post Promod! I attended TEDxMilton last month, it was excellent and matched your 'wish list' of small crowd, intimate lobby and lots of social time; we had several opportunities to chat and mingle with the (amazing) speakers and organizers. It was the first TEDx talk I have attended and certainly won't be the last. From your description of TEDxToronto, I'm glad I attended a smaller event like Milton first, it really compounded my love for TED talks. In fact, it inspired me to set the goal of organizing a TEDx talk in my area!

Promod Sharma said...

Thanks for your comments, Simon. I'm glad you were able to attend a TEDx event. Organizing your own is a bold move. Best wishes with that!