“I’m still not sure how you pulled that off.”
Those were the words of my wife Sheryl a few hours after TEDxLFHS was officially in the books. The giant red letters were packed, the carpet was rolled, and the photo booth was folded back into the box – all that was left was reflection and getting our heads back on straight, because they were still spinning wildly. In a good way, of course.
TEDxLFHS was our gigantic, end of the year, TEDx youth event blowout. Over 300 people converged on the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest, Illinois – and the moving pieces were aplenty. 81 student volunteers, 15 faculty volunteers, 13 Innovation Lab Stations, 9 student speakers, 8 Community Lab Activities, 6 adult speakers, and 1 on-stage paper airplane challenge. This was all over the course of a five-hour event: factor in food, entertainment (we had a student cover While My Guitar Gently Weeps on a ukulele – a ukulele!), lighting, music, technology and a 1080p live-stream….and I totally realize why Sheryl couldn’t believe we actually pulled it off.
For context, TEDxLFHS was from 12:00-5:00 on May 16th. Two 90 minute-sessions of speakers and entertainment sandwiched a 2-hour “Innovation & Community Lab Experience” where attendees demoed new technologies, interacted with fellow attendees and engaged in a variety of hands-on activities from “Learn Programming with Raspberry Pi” to “Write Poetry with Rhino” (an event poetry contest!). Here’s a full list of all of the lab activities, if you’re curious – and the more I look at it, the more I wonder: how did we pull this off?
I’ll break this down – here’s how to pull off an awesome TEDx Youth event in five, easy steps:
1. Dream big, pull it back, then dream bigger. Really, all you need for a TEDxYouth event is amazing student speakers and an enthusiastic audience. Sure, the letters and red dot are helpful…but those are just extras. So, start small – what’s your goal? Our goal was pretty simple: to amplify student voice and support student passions on a TEDx stage. Did we need an on-stage paper airplane challenge and a Google Cardboard VR station during the break? Nah. But we were dreaming big the whole time – if we thought something had the possibility of spectacularly blowing up in our faces, we probably wouldn’t have done it (actually – the more I think about it, a LOT of things could have blown up in our faces. But we did them anyway!). We ran a successful, smaller event last year: 100 attendees, great talks, good vibes. We wanted to flip that on its head a bit – my constant mantra when talking about this year’s TEDxLFHS was: casual, fun, loose and quirky. Last year, we didn’t know what we were doing. Sure, we’d seen hundreds of TED Talks online and had access to the organizer’s manual and TEDx Community Hub – but really, until you’ve attended a TED or TEDx event, you’re really kind of guessing what it’s supposed to feel like. I was lucky enough to attend TEDYouth in NYC and TEDGlobal>Geneva in Switzerland, and what I found is that TED events are all about celebration. They are joyous and filled with opportunities for engagement, networking and interactivity – so when I say dream big, it wasn’t just our desire to have a multitude of things going on. We wanted the attendees to have that wow factor where they’d walk away dreaming big themselves.
2. Avengers, assemble! Organize a team – a passionate, dedicated, hard-working team that shares a collective vision. Outside of applying for your TEDx license and finding speakers, this is by far the most important piece of the TEDx puzzle. You’ll only go as far as your organizing team. The TEDxLFHS team is this crazy mix of individuals with such unique talents. I like to think that if one of us was removed it’d be like a house of cards tumbling to the ground. We all pitched in everywhere, but without Corey Holmer working every aspect of the technology, Laura Grigg organizing our massive volunteer schedule, and Joe De Rosa assembling our community lab and discovering new partnerships for TEDxLFHS, the event wouldn’t have worked. It certainly wouldn’t have been as smooth as it was – and I haven’t even yet mentioned our cadre of student volunteers, faculty speaker coaches and event chaperones, or Steve Douglass coordinating the filming and editing of our TEDxLFHS videos (coming in June!). If you’re going to do this, find people that you trust, hone in on your strengths, and go to work. You’ll need every ounce of diverse talent.
3. Find passionate and diverse ideas and put them on stage. A TEDx event is only as powerful as your speakers on the red dot. It’s true. You can throw the smallest event imaginable – it could be under a bridge! – and it will be a wild success if you curate some amazing ideas. There’s many ways to find speakers, here’s what we did:
a. For students, we had an open application process. They had pretty broad instructions for their talk submissions – in a short video they had to answer two questions: who are you, and what’s your big idea? Video submissions ranged from 2-5 minutes. We then had a student speaker selection committee (consisting of student volunteers) evaluate the videos, and we had a 3-hour meeting to choose our speakers. A lot of factors were in play – strength of idea, speaking poise, credibility – but in the end, we always came back to idea and diversity. Part of what made our first event so successful was the diversity of ideas, and we wanted to capture that again (you don’t want five talks about how we are all drowning in social media). Speakers can be coached, but it always comes back to the idea – if it comes down to idea vs. smooth delivery in the application stage, go with the idea. We chose nine students, and away we went – each student was required to have a faculty speaker coach, we checked in weekly with the students, and we required a draft a few weeks before the event. Our students were prepared, and on the day of the event, they crushed it.
b. For adult speakers…there’s many ways to do this. We went off of recommendations, met some cool people, and if they were a fit we invited them to speak. We didn’t do an adult application process (maybe in the future?), but we knew we only needed a few, so we felt safe going off of recommendations. As above, my same advice applies: value the idea first, and aim for diversity. Our adult talks ranged from technology and civics, to art and social perceptions, to the future of medicine – an awesome array. There was really something for everyone. Also, try your best to set deadlines and keep them with the adult speakers, too. It’s far easier with the students (they are in the building, and maybe your classroom!) – but set deadline schedules for drafts, slides, meetings, and good things will happen.
4. Rehearsal! Our ace in the hole was a rehearsal five days before the event. Our student speakers (and one adult speaker) came together to deliver their in-progress talks. This is IMMENSELY helpful, not just for you, the organizer, but for each and every one of your speakers, too. They get peer feedback and get to see other speaking strategies and methods. I hate to call it a “competition,” but it’s pretty close – no one wants to be the weakest link, and the feedback was super valuable. They say a good TED Talk should be rehearsed 50-100 times, and this rehearsal will help iron out any issues so the intense practicing and memorizing can commence.
5. Try to enjoy it, and remember, it’s all about the students. The day of the event is crazy…just nuts. You’ll probably be doing a ton of things – directing speakers to a green room, double and triple checking that live-stream, giving last second instructions to your emcees, making sure the volunteers running the interactive tables know exactly what they’re doing- but try and take some time to absorb the different moments. There were so many powerful ones at TEDxLFHS – whether it was Bailey Lawrence’s talk arguing for project based learning and her innovative use of video, or Miles Payton’s ukulele performance, or Tom McAfee’s ideas about the future of medicine, or the cool way Tommy Block categorizes movies – and I haven’t even mentioned the buzz of having Oculus Rift in the house! There were too many moments to count – enjoy them, capture them, and remember that it’s all about the students. Keep their interests in the forefront, and your TEDxYouth event will be a success.