Saturday, May 19, 2012

TEDx EAST Report: The Good, the Bad and the Missing


To those of you who wondered, we apologize for any misunderstanding. What took place is an interesting tale of kool-aid and competition.
  

The organizers, who have done a great job building TEDx East over the past few years arranged to do this event at Alice Tulley Hall at Lincoln Center - the pinnacle of NY venues. 

Given the proliferation of TEDx's like TEDx Gotham, TEDx Manhattan, and TEDx Wall Street this might have been a kind of non-profit's end run.

Nevertheless, with 1100 seats to fill, this was a tall and very expensive order. So, we were approached to help promote it return for the usual - guest seats and promotional consideration.
   
They also wanted help selling sponsorships, which seemed very attractive except for the $25,000 price tag - in this economy! More significantly, not all sponsors will take the kool-aid - explaining the audience demographics or content can be a challenge. It is not a parade of Nobel laureates, it doesn’t reflect NY’s entrepreneurial culture and it offers no stars with current marquee value. It is just TEDx East and to many sponsors that can look like a dilettante’s ball.
  
Nevertheless, we gamely promoted it to our community and to our amazement, after sending out over 20,000 emails and Social Media messages, we began getting notices that it was sold out.
  
Good for them!
  
We probably should have called to high-five, but our work seemed done and whatever advice we'd had about price points and demographics seemed irrelevant. Unbeknownst to us, TEDx East hadn’t achieved anything like their numbers and so they had quietly switched venues without telling anyone except the people whose registrations they had accepted (you don’t just buy a ticket, they have to approve you!). There wasn’t even a notice on their website about the new venue, the more modest, NY Times auditorium.
  
The net result is late registrants (including us) were sent to the original Alice Tulley Hall where no one had a clue. The only way they got oriented was by viewing the Twitter feed for the occasional mention of the NY Times venue.
  
Once these bedraggled latecomers appeared, they were met with a vastly reduced version of TEDx - and they had to wait for the good stuff to reappear. As for the sponsors, none of the originally announced ones were in evidence except for a “globo” sign from the History Channel and a selection of new energy bars. They were ironically useful since latecomers arrived for the dance and music performances which were hardly ideas worth sharing. I have nothing against the performing arts, in fact I have helped present several off-Broadway shows including one now at the Little Schubert Theater called “Potted Potter.” But the theme was “The View From in Here.” So, was that a visionary gathering or just a view from the ivory tower and inviting whoever is playing in the courtyard. As for the History Channel - don't they look backward?
  
Assuming they are trying to make the point that we are producing today’s history then, from the performing arts we learn the following: you can be a fantastic dancer at 80 if you don’t mind prattling about creation myths, opera singers can be skinny and still have great voices and classical music continues to have a vibrant new generation of practitioners. The kids from PS22 sing pretty well and their tiny soloists have definitely mastered the art of swagger.
  
As for the “ideas worth sharing” there were some wonderful presentations that genuinely reflected the TED zeitgeist: John Marks, “you are not an Ape” (whew!), Maya Lin’s topographical architectural visualizations, Helen Fisher’s Biology of Mind was a fascinating journey into the 4 key brain chemicals that define personality types. Antonio Bolfo, the policeman turned photographer, had an interesting perspective on the stories that pictures tell (context is everything) which was an ironic contrapuntal to Sam Gregory’s “Visual Anonymity in a Surveillance Age.” To keep away from the policeman’s eyeball, you need face paint or some other way to fool their facial recognition systems. Think capcha for faces.
  
Entrepreneurship was represented in the form of the 13 year old Cassandra Lin who’s story of turning old cooking oil into a home heating oil and helping around a 100 needy families in Rhode Island was inspiring. Entitled, “Be Your Own Superman” it was, understandably, the day’s sole hyperbole since it represents a extraordinary achievement brilliantly told by this teen. It was also strangely misleading because it encouraged you think she had invented a new way to turn cooking oil into energy. That would be superhero stuff, all right. In fact, she was a precociously grounded young businesswoman for the public good who knew how to tap the local recycling and political system. She steered old cooking oil to the local biodiesel refiner who was able to deliver some amount refined product to the poor for free and still make a profit. The lesson here is not go invent, young person or even think kind or be supercreative - it is get business and politicking savvy. A great lesson, but subtly different from the one advertised.
  
The event ended with a ponderous lesson from a Finnish educator who flew in to tell us what we can learn from Finland’s stellar school system. Maybe he knew that he had nothing but bad news for us or perhaps it was just cultural, but these are not answers we want to hear: don’t change so much, you could be wrong and unlike us, Finnish culture cherishes teachers. They may not do it for the money but everyone wants to marry a teacher. So, lesson one: don’t raise the budget just hand out free match.com subscriptions and somehow boost their profiles. Lesson 2: everyone learns differently so cut back on those standardized tests and teaching. Bottom line - the slow food movement will give way to the slow teaching movement - plus extra love.
  
We can’t end without noting David Pizarro’s “How Disgust Shapes our Thoughts on Moral Wrong and the Political Right.” Aside from beginning his talk with the disgusting image of putrid flesh, his message was that people will almost never agree with you if you start out by disgusting them - unless you want them to be just as disgusted by the political opposition as you are. The obverse of this - which retailers long ago figured out - is that you can just as easily charm customers into agreeing with you (i.e. buying stuff) with great smell. Hence the olfactory stimulation at the mall.
  
If only entrepreneurs knew how create the smell of money, investors would be more willing to write checks! 

Maybe Supergirl will figure this one out.
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