Review of TEDx Paris

It’s now been two weeks since I attended TEDx Paris, and it’s a good time to write a review.  Why two weeks later?  Because the fourth key of communication is to be remembered, and it’s an instructive test to see what (if anything) I remember after a certain period of time.

First, a short introduction to TEDx for those of you who have never heard of it.  TED is an increasingly famous conference which brings together famous and/or brilliant people to speak for up to 18 minutes about an ‘idea worth spreading’.  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design which was the original remit of the conference, but over the years it has expanded its scope to cover a wide range of topics.  Essentially it’s a collection of remarkable presentations from remarkable speakers, and all the ‘talks’ are later made available for free viewing on the web site http://www.ted.com.

So what is TEDx?  The ‘x’ appears to mean ‘external’ and this denotes a conference organized by a third party but which has the same aims and which conforms to the same philanthropic ideals.  The recent TEDx conference in Paris (in French) was one such event.

So what do I remember two weeks on (without cheating and reviewing the talks on the TEDx Paris web site, naturally!), and what are the key learnings from the event regarding communication skills?  I will structure this with a series of awards, not all of which are particularly desirable, but I’ll start with the ones worth winning…

Most Memorable Talk

There were a few excellent talks which stay in the memory.  The best was from a raconteur and radio broadcaster, Soro Solo, who demonstrated the potency of a powerful deep voice combined with a well-constructed story and a healthy dose of humour.  The overall message was one of mutual understanding, with the key takeaway preaching tolerance and mutual understanding: “Your truth and my truth help us both get closer to the truth”.  I can remember practically every detail of his story, and how much I enjoyed listening to it.

Why was it so memorable?  It wasn’t the slides – because he didn’t use any.  He didn’t need any.  It was largely because it was a story, and moreover a personal story, and because he was so entertaining in the way he told it.  Stories are so important because humans are storytelling animals, and stories are like hooks on which we hang our memories.  It’s so much easier for us to remember stories than simple theory.

Best Show Moment

Another talk which was memorable for its personal story was Sarah Kaminsky, who told us about her father’s life as an ethical forger, using his talents to help those deserving and in need of false papers.  This talk also benefited from the revelation at the end that her father Adolfo was in fact in the front row, and joined her on stage to a standing ovation.  Steve Jobs always tries to incorporate a memorable moment – I call these “show moments” – in his presentations, and this was a great example.  Furthermore, Sarah was a very comfortable and talented communicator, and the story was well told and worth hearing.

Best Visuals

A presentation remarkable for its visuals was an explanation of black holes which used good clear slides with videos to illustrate the science.  This went down very well.  Sadly it was the only set of stunning visuals on show.  More on that later.

Most Uplifting Endings

I appreciated Gildas Bonnel’s talk about ethical communication and advertising.  This was well delivered and enjoyable, and ended with a message of hope and motivation which was uplifting and inspiring.  I also very much enjoyed the closing speech by “Vinvin” (Cyrille de Lasteyrie) which was amusing and well-crafted, and a well-chosen way to end the conference.

Most Awakening Moment

A real highlight was an American performer called Sly Johnson who woke us up after the break with a breathtaking song using a special repeater mixing box which allowed him to record bars of music and then play them back while he sang and recorded something new.  I first saw a performer do this as the warm-up act at a Cure concert some years back, and it’s still just as entertaining.  Sly was exceptional.  And very well done to the organizers for choosing to put him on just after the break.

What Was The Point? Awards

These awards go to presenters I remembered (which is already a start), but either I can’t remember what they said, or I haven’t worked out why they were there.

There was an architect who told us about her quest to adopt a Brazilian child and help the favela-dwellers, which was certainly personal but not really an ‘idea worth spreading’.  There was an entrepreneur who told us about his different businesses, which was not especially memorable and I can’t remember the point of his talk.  François Taddeï had ideas about education, which were probably quite good, although I really can’t remember what they were.  And there was an Argentinian who spoke for quite some time, in an extremely entertaining and enjoyable way, but I have no recollection at all of what he was saying or why.

Worst Audio Blunders

On the negative side, there were a few could-do-better moments.  For example, if you’re going to use a lot of microphones, make sure the ones backstage are switched off during the talks.  Equally, make sure they are properly installed: one presenter had his mike too close to his cheek, and it kept scraping against it which made an awful noise. (Oddly that talk isn’t yet online – I wonder if it will make it…)

Most Painful Slides

In terms of visuals, there were some pretty awful examples.  There should be a UN resolution banning the use of Comic Sans in any serious event, and it was particularly galling for a slide guru like me to see both the dreaded Comic Sans and the avoidable Times New Roman on the same slide… two cardinal sins, and the mixture made three.  It hurt.  I won’t name and shame online, especially since the lady in question is apparently doing fantastic things in medicine and deserves credit for that, but sadly I was so distracted by the ugly slides that I had trouble listening and don’t quite know what fantastic things she’s doing.  Simple lesson: it doesn’t matter how good a speaker you are or how good your speech is – if you put some awful-looking slides on the wall behind you, you lose respect, credibility and attention.

Conclusion

Overall, there were a few great presentations, some OK ones, and some less good ones.  If I use the analogy of a music album, TED is the equivalent of a compilation of chart-toppers, whereas TEDx Paris was more of a studio album – some potential singles, and a lot of filler tracks.  It was also a complete mixture of genres, without any noticeable theme, which was probably the intention but which still seemed odd to me.

If I were to give some advice to the organisers for next time, it would be as follows:

  • pay more attention to switching off backstage microphones
  • be more selective regarding the choice of presenters and subjects
  • get an expert to prepare all the visuals and ideally to assist the presenters to make their talks memorable
  • allow some more time for networking

Equally, particularly considering that this was organized by volunteers, it would be unfair to be too harsh: they got most things right, handled the logistics impeccably, and it was a worthwhile event, so thanks and well done to Michel and the team.

If you speak French, you can view many of the talks at the TEDx Paris web site.  If you were there, or you’ve seen the videos, what was your impression?  Your comments are very welcome.  Thanks for reading.

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2 Responses to Review of TEDx Paris

  1. François Deffarges says:

    Hi, Phil,
    Nice of you to take some time sharing how you felt about the various presentations. Enjoyed reading.
    Isn’t humour also an fundamental skill for efficient communication ? Vinvin’s presentation is the one I would rank #1 (for both “what” and “how”).
    Very best,
    François

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Hi François,

      Thanks for your comments. Humour is an important point and I’ll address that in a new post rather than have it ‘hidden’ in the comments.

      From my point of view, Vinvin’s speech was an excellent way to end the day, and I give him all the more credit since he clearly wrote a good part of it during the afternoon – writing ‘live’ like that is tough, I know that first-hand since I also do it from time to time, and Vinvin made a great job of it.

      I wouldn’t want to compare it with the other talks since it wasn’t like the other talks – the closing speeches at TED never are. It wouldn’t be a fair comparison. It’s certainly one of the 2-3 videos I would recommend anyone to watch online.

      I would add that I can’t remember very much of what Vinvin actually said. I just recall that it was extremely funny, well written and expertly delivered. For many presentations, if the audience remembers the speaker in such a positive light yet without remembering what he/she said, that’s good enough. For a TED ‘talk’, it’s not. But for a wrap-up, it is – and I am sure Vinvin’s performance will do no harm to his inexorable rise to stardom.

      Thanks for participating and I look forward to future comments!

      Phil

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