On Monday afternoon, I walked into the TED offices in lower Manhattan just as Zak Ebrahim was starting his practice talk, a powerful story about being raised by a father who subscribed to an extreme form of Islam and eventually assassinated a rabbi and took part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And I said “What the hell am I doing here?” My science-is-awesome shtick seemed pretty weak tea compared to that.
I managed to get past that pretty quickly, without anyone noticing, but the first hour or so I was there was another Impostor Syndrome: Activate! moment. It was a pretty amazing group of people, many of whom have done way more than I have to make the world a better place. And the first few speakers to run through their talks were extremely good and polished.
After that, though, things got better. The next couple of people were visibly nervous, and the TED folks did a great job of providing calm encouragement to keep everyone grounded. My one remaining major concern was the time limit– they emphasized over and over the need to come in at or under the six-minute limit, and a lot of my practice talks (using the text I posted yesterday) were just over that. I dropped a couple of phrases here and there, though, and came in comfortably under time. And the feedback I got was basically “Right, so you’ve got the content down. Try to, you know, make eye contact with the audience, and that kind of thing.” Which was an enormous ego boost.
The TED people were awesome, on the whole. I managed to get over the worst of my nerves before I had to get up and do my practice talk, but a few others were really nervous, and the staff were incredibly supportive and encouraging. The pointers they gave people on how to fix problems with presentations were excellent advice, and they caught little details of the presentations that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me– a slight jumpiness in an embedded video, or a spot where there ought to be a blank slide to avoid a jarring transition. They were really committed to helping everyone do their best possible presentation.
After the rehearsal, I went out for beers with some friends from Williams, who happen to be musicians. They asked where the TED thing was happening, and I said “Some place down by NYU. Joe’s Pub?” They got really excited: “Joe’s Pub! That place is awesome!”
It is, indeed, a pretty neat space, a sort of multi-tiered nightclub with a small stage at the front and a bunch of tables. It’s all very close together, which made navigating pretty difficult, especially during the early stages of the run-through Tuesday afternoon when they were still sorting out what went where. This was also the stage where I realized that this was, fundamentally, a theater production, and thus, as the Shakespeare in Love line goes, it always looks like it’s about to fall apart. The sound checks featured a bunch of glitches and errors, none of which made it into the main show. And even though people were still scrambling around moving chairs and tables ten minutes before the doors were due to open, the show went off on time.
The speaker prep talks all emphasized that it would be a warm and enthusiastic crowd, and it certainly was that. I don’t think I’ve ever given a talk before to an audience that would whoop and stomp their feet– at physics meetings, you tend to get a polite golf clap followed by an aggressive question. This wasn’t that– everyone got a great round of applause at the end.
The talks covered an amazing range of stuff, as you can see from the official TED recap of the evening. There were about three talks that I really didn’t hear at all, two because I was backstage getting fitted with the headset microphone and fretting about my talk, and the third because I had just finished and was trying to locate my jacket, which had my wallet and keys in the pocket…
As is often the case, I was incredibly nervous about two minutes before the talk started, but once I got on stage, that passed really quickly. There was one split-second where I lost track of my place, but I suspect Kate was the only other one who would’ve noticed it. It was an odd point, not somewhere I expected to get stuck, and I half thought “I can’t believe I’m screwing this up here” before I got the next line.
It was, indeed, a great crowd– people laughed at the places they were supposed to laugh (even the joke that didn’t go over at all in the practice talk), and made appreciative noises when I did the final reveal on the crossword puzzle graphic. I gave the talk about as well as I was going to give it, though despite all the talk about timing, I don’t actually know how much of my six minutes I used– the last time I glanced at the clock I had about 20 seconds remaining heading into the final paragraph, so I’m pretty sure I was under by a few. At the rehearsal, though, I had flubbed the timing on the reveal a little, so I was so focused on making sure I got that that I didn’t catch the time. And then everyone was applauding, so I didn’t care about anything else.
I was near the end of the first session of talks. During the break a few people came up to me and told me how much they had enjoyed the talk, which was awesome. I got a couple of business cards that might prove useful in the future, too. The second session kicked off with CDZA, who were amazing by the way, and seemed a little stronger than the first. That could either be a sensible decision on the part of the producers to back-load the program for what was, after all, a rather long show, or just the massive endorphin release of being done with my talk. Also, good beer on the TED tab. Which was used to toast other massively relieved speakers– it really was a huge kick.
They passed out speaker lists that doubled as rating cards– everybody’s listing included five outlines of stars next to a headshot, and the audience was regularly reminded to fill in stars to rate the speakers, add any written comments about the talks, and drop the lists in a box on the way out. They say that they will collect all the ratings and read any comments added; I’m not sure how much of a role it plays in determining what happens next, or if they pass that on to the speakers in any way. Or if I want to hear that, to be honest, being regularly subjected to rating on a five-point scale in the form of student course evaluations. I snagged a speaker guide as a souvenir, but I always turn into the Chris Klein character from Election when given the chance to vote for myself, so I passed on the opportunity to rate other speakers.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience. The talks were really cool, the other speakers were all really interesting people, the TED staff and the audience were terrific. It’s an impressive organization– the backstage control center looked like a Star Trek set, and they really put together a great show.
My mantra going into this was “Playing with house money.” I honestly did not expect that the one-minute video I shot with my webcam was going to be accepted, so just getting to go to New York to speak was an unexpected honor, and having the talk go smoothly was incredibly awesome. Anything at all beyond that is gravy.
(Really, just the one-minute application video has already been a great benefit– I sent it to my editor for the book-in-progress, who said it’s been a huge help in explaining the book in-house.)
They have promised that professional photos of the event will be available next week, and if nothing else, I have the above cell phone shot (which Roman Baca was nice enough to take for me) of myself on a TED stage. (Which I quickly made my social media profile shot for the next week or so, because come on, wouldn’t you?) We’re supposed to get video copies of our talks within the next few weeks, and some unspecified number of talks will be highlighted on the TED web site. Last year’s talent search talks all went up on a sub-site in a slightly less polished form; I hope they’ll do the same this year with talks that don’t make the front page, but don’t really know. Whenever I have video that I can share, though, you can be sure that it will get posted here.
And that’s the story of my big TED@NYC adventure.