One of the tricks to putting a talk like this together is making it seem like it’s off the cuff, minimizing the work involved. But in reality, it was a lot of work. I began meeting with my three-person TEDxMinneapolis team back in May, for hour-long sessions where we’d go over ideas, I’d give draft versions, get feedback, and we’d discuss ways to change it. Admittedly, there’s kind of a “formula” for TED talks — personal story, big problem, a-ha moment, pivot to change narrative, maybe some jokes — but it’s a broad formula, kind of like the scientific method meets a thirty-minute sitcom. TED talks can be done well or poorly, and can head in lots of different directions.
When I was researching my talk, and refining the topic, I googled around to find and, to be honest, didn’t find all that much. There’s a good one from Regina, Saskatchewan about kids walking to school, another about having “walking meetings” at work, and there’s a kid from Colorado describing a thousand-mile walking journey. But nothing out there really focuses on the material role that urban design plays in making walking possible, nothing really got at the role of sidewalks and cities in shaping our more personal behavior.
|[One of the only two "selfies" I've ever taken.]|
Getting that balance right is difficult, and it's something the TED people think about carefully. Nobody wants to be lectured about how irresponsible or horrible the world is. People don't respond well to facts and charts lacking personal narratives, or the classic lectures parodied in (the horrible propaganda film) Ferris Bueller.
With lots of help from my consulting team, the talk tries to be carefully balanced between negative and positive tone, personal stories and abstract information, points about the magnitude of the problem balanced with achievable "call to action"-type aims and ends. That's something all of us should think about, and this was a great experience in creating an effective narrative.
Thinking About Audience
The other big thing you realize when doing a TED-type talk is the importance of thinking past your usual audiences. When you start becoming obsessed with a subject, no matter what it is, you can easily become swallowed up bye by the depth of your passion, becoming more narrowly focused on finely-honed concepts or language. As you do this, your audience inevitably both contracts and intensifies, and that's part of the fun of both academia and the internet.
But that kind of distillation of conversation can quickly become an echo chamber with less and less political efficacy. Thinking through a TED-type lens forces you to think about new audiences, people who might have never thought much about sidewalks, urban design, or walking in the first place. That's a very useful exercise for anyone who wants to translate ideas into action, and also a great exercise, in general, for getting out of personal or theoretical ruts.
It's also just kinda fun to memorize a twenty-minute speech, prepare in a "green room" and perform before a large audience who laughs at your jokes. So thanks again to my excellent TEDxMinneapolis team, especially Jasmine, Dustin, and Megan, all the people who came to my practice talk and gave me feedback, and my friends and family to attended the big show.