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Sure, it was interesting, but what was the point? FWR finds out

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


It’s probably a partial testament to the power of branding that a couple hundred people were willing and eager to buy a ticket and spend an entire day at a conference where the speakers weren’t announced, the topics were vague, and the overall theme — Commerce, Community and Wellness — could apply to just about anything.

And once inside, the program provided a list of the speakers, but didn’t offer up anything in the way of bios or credentials — in other words, who exactly are these people, and why should we listen to them.

But for those who showed up at the Andorfer Commons at Indiana Tech on Saturday, April 27 for this year’s TEDxFortWayne, the TED name was assurance enough.

For the uninitiated, TED is an organization with the tagline “Ideas Worth Spreading.” It originally started as a conference in 1984, lay dormant for a few years when the inaugural event proved too cost prohibitive, was revived in 1990, and has been held annually since then. The acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, but since its revival has gradually grown to include figures from a wide range of different fields.

It’s also grown in prestige. The flagship event, still held in California every year, commands a high ticket price, but it also attracts an impressive roster of speakers, like Bill Clinton and Bill Gates. It’s drawn charges of elitism, and even been the subject of a conspiracy theory or two (a sure sign of cultural cachet), but the hoi polloi can easily access TED talks via the web. And many do. Late last year, TED announced that its online archive of TED talks at ted.com had hit its one billionth view.

Many of these talks are very interesting. The “rules” limit the length of presentations to just under 20 minutes, and speakers include Nobel Prize Winners, world leaders, and innovators across a wide range of disciplines.

Over the last several years, the TED organization has branched out into other media, and franchised in 2009, granting licenses to third parties to organize independent TED-like events.

If TED is a brand, then the TEDxFortWayne event has, by many accounts, proven worthy of the name. Craig Crook, the lead organizer and curator of TEDxFortWayne, is an avid TED enthusiast, and saw an exciting opportunity to give the TED experience a local slant. The event last month was Crook’s third TEDxFortWayne event in as many years. “The tagline for TED is ‘Ideas Worth Spreading,’ and we definitely try to emphasize action locally,” says Crook, who for his day job runs Rethink, his consulting and professional development company. “If an idea they hear at TEDx resonates with people, we try to encourage people to get connected with that idea.”

“At TED, the emphasis is on the ideas, not the speakers,” he continues, explaining the TED policy (or maybe it’s more like a guideline) of not announcing presenters ahead of time. “The relevant piece is the idea, and that’s definitely where we’re trying to focus our attention.”
Full confession time: after hearing good things about the first two TEDxFortWayne events, I went there looking for stories. And certainly I found them.

The event started off with Donny Manco, tattoo artist and founder of New Republic Tattoos, talking about The Framework, an organization he helped form to tackle problems in the community. Manco, who does a lot of volunteer work, explained that while over 25% of Indiana residents volunteer regularly, most charity work is “emergency style,” focused on the short term. With The Framework, Manco hopes to change that dynamic, addressing the problems that might cause that emergency, building community from the inside out and stressing self-reliance and empowerment.

Manco came with a concrete example — New Republic Skate, an indoor facility for skateboarders. When Manco’s son developed an interest in skateboarding, Manco spent time at Lawton Park and helped the skaters there organize to create an indoor facility.

Surgeon Dr Bill Argus talked about creating a healthy balance of what are considered masculine and feminine traits, saying that, in medicine and many other fields, we’ve traded “connection” for “hyper-rationality.”

Connie Haas Zuber offered a survey of some of the big, exciting community development ideas currently floating around Fort Wayne, and reminded us that it’s important not to take sides just yet.

Matt Jones, Water Resource Education Specialist for the Allen County Partnership for Water Quality, gave us a brief history of the three rivers in our community, and a timely reminder that we should reconsider this incredible resource we have here.

Professor Patrick Ashton from IPFW talked about conflict resolution and community mediation. Writer and novelist Augusto Pinaud talked about the power of “No,” how saying “no” to ourselves in the appropriate circumstances can help us be more productive and improve our health.

Ethan (Six 8) Birch, a rapper and motivational speaker, talked about how life is full of opportunities to learn, and it is our choice of how we respond to the hardships life throws at us. Birch’s talk touched on some serious subject — Birch himself is undergoing treatment for cancer for the second time, and two of his children both got cancer when they were very young — but Birch’s positive energy and his personality (not to mention the fact that he was pretty darn funny) earned him a standing ovation.

The presentations wrapped up with Emily Osbun Bermes, president of Solstice Coaching & Consulting, who talked about harnessing your fears to make them work for you and help you grow.

Obviously, I’m paraphrasing and being very general here — as of this writing, videos of the presentations will soon be available online at tedxfortwayne.com.

Presenters were interspersed with recent videos from the main TED conference — entrepreneur and author Dan Pallotta on rethinking our approach to charities and nonprofits; musician Amanda Palmer on “letting people” pay for music; and attorney and academic Lawrence Lessig on money in politics. “All three speaker had a relevant message that reinforced the point of some of our own presenters,” Crook says.

But while many of the presentations by the featured speakers at TEDxFortWayne were interesting and even inspiring, some aspects of the event left me puzzled. I wasn’t sure what the “take away” was supposed to be, and very few of them had a “call to action.” I couldn’t help but compare the presentations at the Fort Wayne event with some of the short videos from other TED conferences. Granted, it’s not an entirely fair comparison — Dan Pallotta, Palmer, and Lawrence Lessig are all public figures with a long, long history of addressing large groups of people. But it’s not the presentations I’m talking about; despite a few avowals of nervousness, most of the speakers at TEDx Fort Wayne delivered their presentations like pros, and seemed perfectly comfortable on stage.

The speakers in the videos did not specifically tell the audience “go out and do this,” but there was a very heavily implied call to action in all their presentations — here is an issue; here is my experience dealing with this issue; here is how I changed my thinking about this issue, and how you can, too. Of the Fort Wayne speakers, perhaps only Donny Manco’s talk had that heavily implied call to action.

Then again, maybe I’m missing the point. “I don’t think anyone walks away with the same takeaway,” Crook says. “I think it’s going to be very individual, very personal as to what each person is going to walk away with.”

So… yeah, I was missing the point, according to a lot of people I talked to. It’s the connections that happen after the talks or during lunch or between sessions that is the real point. The ideas stay alive and keep bubbling away rather than dissipate after the event is over. Maybe that does result in direct action based on one of the talks — maybe a few people come up with a great idea to utilize the rivers for recreation, say — or maybe it results in something else entirely. The point is, I was told, is that something got started that wasn’t there before. “The first two years, many people who met at the event found they enjoyed talking, and that they could do something together,” says Crook.

Maybe the message could be summed up in the presentation given by writer Candace Schuler. In a reversal of the usual paradigm, Schuler does technical and grant writing projects to support her regular day job — she’s a romance novelist with 26 books in print. Schuler talked about writing grants, stressing that while the facts and figures are important, what really inspires people to give are stories. Stories, she said, establish connections; they make people care and move them into action.

And maybe by telling these stories — about the rivers; about overcoming hardship; about how learning to tell ourselves “No” can makes us healthier and more productive — the third edition of TEDxFortWayne hopes to do the same thing.

Crook says the conversation will continue. “Definitely the intent is to do (TEDxFortWayne) again,” he says. “We want to be strategic. This is a non-profit, all volunteer effort, so we want to spare our resources and not spread anyone too thin, myself included. I think easy answer is we want to continue, we want to up our game.”

For more, go to tedxfortwayne.com

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