Giving TEDx a New Look

Last weekend, the student organization TEDxUCSD held its annual public speaking event online. Despite major hurdles, the team was able to design a very different type of TEDx event.

Last weekend, many students joined a Zoom call and found themselves wiggling their hands and feet in a game called “The Shake Down” as part of a warm-up and ice breaker. Only a few hours later, they found themselves discussing nuanced topics like identity, self-acceptance, and systemic oppression. This interesting combo was part of TEDxUCSD’s new event, one that was designed for an online audience. 

Technology, Education, Design Conferences LLC is a massive media organization that is most known for producing inspirational and informational talks that have been seen by millions in its large live conferences and popular YouTube channels. 

Serving as an extension of TED, TEDx is a program affiliated with the greater TED organization that allows universities, cities, and communities to host their own independent “TED-like” events. The “x” in TEDx is intended to represent the idea that the event is “independently organized” and the idea that it is making the TED experience more accessible. These smaller, independent events must follow a number of guidelines to be officially granted the TEDx title. 

TEDxUCSD is a student organization that hosts these TEDx events for UC San Diego students, usually organizing one major speaking event annually. Past themes have included “A Space in the Spectrum” and “When Bubbles Burst.”

This year’s theme was “Rebooted,” representing a reset and fresh start. The theme is intended to inspire people who are not currently satisfied with themselves and offer encouragement for reflection and change. This theme brought speakers such as writer and artist Elizabeth Salaam, who talked about rebooting an authentic vision of oneself, and Amin Shaykho, founder of numerous startups such as Kadama, who talked about rebooting his approach to hard work.

Due to the unique circumstances currently presented by COVID-19, TEDxUCSD decided to host the event online for the first time. The finalized logistics differed from the standard template TEDx event. TEDx speakers pre-recorded their own talks, which were then posted on YouTube the week before the event. This was a big departure from the usual structure of delivering the TEDx talks live in person and later posting them online.

The “live” component of this year’s event was primarily a collection of Q&A sessions during which participants could directly ask each speaker questions about the thoughts presented in their talk. 

The event was spread across two days and structured with an opening ceremony hosted by Gary Ware, founder of professional coaching and consulting company Breakthrough Play; Q&A sessions for each speaker that were hosted on Zoom, and a closing ceremony with a performance by the singer Cedrice, known for appearing on the popular singing competition show “The Voice.” In addition, a Facebook group titled the “Interactive Space” was created so that participants could continue the conversations started by the speakers’ talks.

Even before the pandemic, the organization had to address a myriad of tasks, such as scouting the speakers and marketing the event. The TEDxUCSD team had actually begun the early stages of preparation as early as last summer. Unfortunately, despite all of this work happening behind the scenes, when the university’s online shift happened, many of its pre-established plans had to be dramatically changed or dropped if it wanted to continue through with the event. 

“Things started ramping up in terms of intensity towards the end of winter quarter,” Serene Issa, one of the TEDxUCSD co-directors, said. “We had everything really set up coming into spring quarter. Ideally, we would have had the venue; we had the speakers lined up. So when we heard that everything was going to be online and that most people went home, we realized this was [no longer possible].”

With much of their progress suddenly scrapped, the team heavily considered pushing back the event to next Fall Quarter. However, according to both of the event’s co-directors, it was the TEDx team’s passion and desire to bring the project to life that allowed the spring iteration of the event to survive. 

And so, ironically, the project was also “rebooted,” and the logistics had to be completely reworked to fit an online paradigm. The online switch proved to be difficult not only because of the small time frame, but also because, unlike a typical TEDx event, there was no clear model to base the event off of. There was no clear precedent for what an online TEDx event should have been like. In response, the team had to make many of the creative decisions on their own, essentially designing the format of a public speaking event from scratch.

Along with the team, the speakers also had to make quick adjustments to accommodate for the change in logistics. Speakers ended up with only two weeks to refine and pre-record their talks, a change that would ultimately cause some speakers to leave the project.

When the logistics were finally settled on and the speaker lineup was prepared, the new online TEDxUCSD event was almost born. However, with the massive changes, viewer turnout and participation became a concern looming over the minds of some team members.

“I think up until the last minute we didn’t know if anybody was going to show up,” Annika Olives, the other TEDx co-director, said. “Clicking on a zoom call, for some reason, can be a larger commitment, especially if they’re not familiar with the org or you haven’t been to any prior events. It can be a lot to be in a virtual space with people you don’t know and with no idea what to expect.”

Despite these concerns, the turnout for the event ended up being quite solid, and the engagement was strong. According to the TEDxUCSD Facebook page, 244 people responded to the event, with 72 people marking that they went and 144 people marking that they were interested. Both Issa and Olives were pleased with the turnout.

Because the event was online, the event also became accessible to those who are not UCSD students. A quick perusal through the Interactive Space Facebook group reveals a portion of the attendees do not attend UCSD, with students ranging from UC Riverside, UC Irvine, California State University Polytechnic Pomona, and Princeton University. A great number of the Facebook members even seemed to be college graduates, including Donia Amer, a York University graduate that discovered the event through Facebook.

According to Amer, there were a number of things about the event that stood out to her.

“I think the way the TEDxUCSD team decided to structure the conference was very creative.” Amer said. “Staggering the release of the TED talks leading up to the Q&A sessions kept viewers excited while allowing them time to participate in activities and think of questions.”

In addition to the structure, the Q&A sessions themselves seemed to be well received by staff members and participants alike. Issa cited that it was one of her favorite parts of the event, and that “it was awesome to see that these audience members actually care about what we’re talking about and that we don’t have to force them to [participate].” 

Many seemed to also appreciate that the sessions encouraged participation between the speaker and the audience, creating a direct connection that typical TEDx events don’t have.

“I found that the event was actually more intimate than other TED talks I’ve attended,” Carissa Cesena, a John Muir College senior, said. “We were having a real conversation instead of just listening to a rehearsed talk.”

Fascinatingly, despite the massive distance between participants, many seemed to feel even closer together through conversation. The engagement is highlighted by the aforementioned Interactive Space Facebook group. Each speaker was given a discussion board, and many are filled with insightful comments and very personal stories. 

For example, Victor Ochoa’s talk about his Chicano heritage spurred a discussion that prompted many participants to share and discuss their own ethnic identities. The Facebook group also contained some conversations not directly affiliated with a particular speaker, such as the “Behind the Name” activity, where the participants were encouraged to talk about the meaning of their name. These activities were well received by every participant I interviewed.

The creative decisions like the inclusion of the aforementioned Q&A sessions and Interactive Space were designed with engagement in mind, and these decisions reflect how the co-directors’ goals for the event changed after the online shift.

“I think, before everything happened, we wanted to sell out a huge venue,” Issa said. “But I think after things shifted our goals kind of went towards wanting more people to be engaged and wanting people to actually participate within either the live Q&As or activities.” 

With the loss of the big stage, the team turned away from the massive, bustling audience to create something more personal and tailored. In order to effectively adapt to the pandemic’s current circumstances, the TEDx team also adapted their strategies for reaching and inspiring people. However, while making these changes, the team made sure not to lose sight of their ultimate objective.

“Something I’ve said from the beginning is that as long as we impact one person in the audience, then we’re successful and we’ve achieved whatever we can,” Olives said. “I feel like TED is such a space where you want the audience to walk away, having felt something. I think that’s the goal, not just for us, but for TEDx everywhere. [This is the goal] no matter what the event looks like, whether it’s physical or virtual.”

Art by Anthony Tran for The UCSD Guardian.

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