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The Trouble With Tedx

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What's it like to be a TedX speaker?

Last year I was invited to be a TedX speaker at Drexel University. I had never heard of TedX when I got the invitation, so I had a lot of homework to do. The theme of last year's event -- "Where are we going and what will be the next revolution?" -- gave speakers the opportunity to explore future developments or trends in society or in their chosen professions. Some friends of mine said that the invite was major and a very big deal indeed, while some had never heard of TedX. "What's that?" they asked. "Is it related to the trucking industry?"

The over-the-top reaction of friends in the know, however, made me a little nervous. It didn't help when one of the 2013 TedX organizers informed me that TedX speaking engagements can change lives -- and fortunes.

"People have gone on to make fortunes just from one 18-minute speech," they stated. "Who knows... Your photo could wind up in Time magazine." Apparently, there was no limit to what could happen. The Pope could request an audience with you. President Obama would invite you to a White House dinner. Mayor Nutter would hire you as one of his entourage suit people. In other words: Your life will change, baby!

While I tend to be one of those people who cut hype in half and then divide that result by two, I couldn't totally discount what I was hearing, because obviously there were enough people who believed that these 18-minute (or less) talks have a huge impact on the culture. When I did a background check on TedX programs around the country, I found that the events drew sold-out audiences. And since every TedX speech was filmed and then released as an online video for the world to see, each talk was enshrined "forever"-- for better or worse, of course.

Since I was going to be a TedX speaker, I had to read the speaker guidelines, or the TedX Ten Commandments. This list of Do's and Don'ts includes two major commandments: "Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech" and "Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee." The 18-minute capstone seemed fair enough, but the first rule frightened me somewhat. While I have no fear of public speaking, having a script under my nose has always given me a sense of security. It's an insurance against forgetting an important part of your talk, especially when it comes to names and dates. The TedX Commandments made it clear to each speaker that all notes related to your talk had to be placed on a side table set on the edge of the stage, and that they could only be briefly referred to, but never read.

Public speaking is one thing, but mastering and memorizing a long monologue (without a script), quite another. At one point I asked the organizers if it was permissible to hold my notes in my hand so that I could refer to them (briefly) that way, rather then having to walk to the table at the edge of the stage. This tactic, I was told, came too close to breaking the Ten Commandments, so it was strongly suggested that I place my notes on the table when I walked on stage.

It was important to follow protocol, so I resolved to memorize my presentation as best I could and make do with an occasional table reference, if need be. I wrote a piece about human communication in an age of high technology, and how technology sometimes creates divisions between people and among neighborhood communities.

I practiced my talk at home until I had it down pat and could say the entire thing without referring to a script. Although constant practice was a confidence booster, I knew that the addition of a live audience would automatically lend a layer of stress, which would have been no big deal with a script, but without a script, well...I just didn't like having to walk to that little table for cues.

As the event grew closer, TedX organizers sent me many emails. "Five days to go! Are you prepared? Are you prepared for a life changing experience?"

In anticipation for my TedX debut, I bought a new sports jacket and went over my talk my talk when riding the subway or walking around town.

When the big day came at last, I arrived at Drexel early in the morning and helped myself to a wonderful TedX breakfast buffet set up for participants and ticketed audience members. After breakfast would come a substantial catered lunch, and then a hugely substantial catered dinner and finally a closing reception. Elaborate cameras and sound systems filled up a section of the room. I felt wired for my presentation, though I wasn't sure how I felt about being the first speaker to go on.

When I was informed that I would be the first speaker, I said good-bye to the idea of picking up pointers from speakers who preceded me. I did not want to be first, even though by being first there'd be less time to worry about what might go wrong. I knew I was a good public speaker, but the 'no script' rule continued to bug me.

With the time drawing near, I was assigned a guide who walked me to the backstage area. When he gave the signal, I was to walk up the ten or so steps that led to the stage. I would appear onstage from behind a curtain, a set up that reminded me of Roman gladiatorial movies, when Caesar enters the massive Coliseum through a private portico. With my chosen slide show presentation on the big screen above my head, I also had to remember to click on the appropriate photos as I presented my monologue.

My talk was fair. I made eye contact with the audience and walked about the stage, and only once referred to my notes. My talk came out at 14 minutes, much shorter than the average TedX presentation although there have been winning talks that have lasted only five minutes.

I felt I'd been given at least a "passing grade" because one of the organizers sat with me at lunch and wanted to hear more of my ideas.

But listening to the other TedX talks was a revelation.

One woman held her notes -- something I was told not to do -- referring to them randomly, just as I had wanted to do. Another woman walked the stage like a stand up comedian, gesturing, flipping her long curly hair while turning her body this way and that so that people had a good view of her stilettos, and especially her tight dress. In some ways her presentation was like an audition. She really wanted that White House dinner with President Obama, that photo op in Time magazine, and that audience with Pope Francis. She talked non-stop, barely stopping to catch her breath. The minutes sped by until she was way past the 18-minute limit. "She should be stopping any moment now," I told myself, checking my watch -- which I think put her at twenty one minutes--but I was wrong.

Her breaking the rules just a little bit stretched into a total disregard for the time Commandment. She would not stop talking. It was as if she was possessed by a fever -- or a demon. Thirty minutes. Forty minutes. Forty-five minutes, and her stilettos were still clicking. I expected one of those old vaudeville hooks to reach out to her and pull her off stage, but nothing happened.

Finally, clocking in at almost fifty minutes, she called it quits. I checked to see if I could "read" the faces of the organizers (for disapproving frowns) but their faces were neutral.

"She's just broken the Commandments," I said to the person sitting next to me. He laughed, checked his watch. "I guess it's whatever you can get away with," he quipped.

Then a male grad student type walked on stage with a full script in hand, and rather than refer to the script randomly, read from it word for word, painfully, methodically, and in a drab monotone of a city official reading instructions to a potential jury. Reading your TedX speech from start to finish was breaking the most important Commandment, on a par, perhaps, with disobeying that other first Commandment; Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

I looked at the organizers' faces for signs of displeasure but noticed that they didn't seem to care.

In the eating area after the grad student's talk I said to a staff member, "I thought reading your talk was forbidden?" She admitted the speaker had broken the rules, but seemed to shrug it off with a "That's just one of those things" attitude.

Two months later, when the 2013 Drexel TedX videos appeared online, I was surprised to see that the over-18-minute talks had been not been edited down.

Several weeks ago, I received promotional emails about a new 2014 TedX event to be held at Temple University. This was followed by a Philly.com feature on the event with a full reprint of the TedX Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments, not to be taken seriously, of course...