Review of TEDx Paris Universités 2010

Not all of France’s students were demonstrating against the planned raising of the retirement age this Saturday. While thousands were in the streets of Paris fighting like Canute against a tide which is going to come in sooner or later, others were in the nearby Cité des Sciences at the first (and likely not the last) TEDx Paris Universités event.

A small reminder for those who haven’t yet been bitten by the TED bug: TED is the world’s leading conference featuring great presentations by leading stars, scientists and thinkers about practically anything interesting – any ‘idea worth spreading’. No speaker, no matter how important, has more than 18 minutes. The format is so successful that there are now many independently organised events called TEDx events, run under the TED umbrella and following the same format.

This one was organised by a group of students from various Paris universities (hence the name), but it was the first TEDx event anywhere to feature a mix of student speakers and ‘professional’ presenters.

I was there not only as a spectator, but also as a sponsor, since Ideas on Stage lent its support to the event to help prepare the presenters and fine-tune some of the slides. It was a wonderful experience to see such enthusiasm from the organisers, the volunteer helpers and the six student presenters.

There are some great photos of the event on Flickr.

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There were a number of very interesting talks, but the most interesting thing to come out of the day from a presentation perspective was this very simple fact on which my business partner Pierre Morsa and I agreed wholeheartedly:

There are two categories of presenters: those who prepare, and those who suck.

Luckily, most of the presenters prepared very well, and none better than the six students who took the stage, each for 9 minutes. Their stories and visuals were well-prepared and they knew them perfectly, and they worked hard at their delivery. They had also worked hard to make the talks interesting and in some cases amusing.

One of the ‘professional’ presenters, Romain Lacombe, worked very hard at his talk and rewrote it at least twice (to my knowledge) after trying it out and receiving feedback. The end result was a great improvement, and showed the value of hard work and careful preparation.

Some other ‘pro’ presenters were also very good. I think in particular of Dominique Sciamma, who prepared well and asked for feedback, and who had created a very interesting talk. Michel Puech also gave a good talk at the end, although it was just as well Pierre Morsa had a chance to rework his slides, which in the end looked as good as text-based slides can. And a special word for Charles Mollet, the ringmaster, who spoke engagingly and convincingly, and is clearly at home on the stage.

Most of the other talks were good without being amazing, but there was one which almost sent me to sleep. This was the presenter who refused to rehearse, who refused to share his slides in advance, and who refused even to share the content of his talk beyond the title. It was hard to watch someone so brilliant deliver such a mind-numbing talk which might have worked in a lab but not at TED. Worse still, he set the bar very high with a title which was all about making science sexy. Yeah, right. I’ve seen sexier snails.

This amazingly talented scientist demonstrated how not to speak engagingly, how not to adapt to your audience, how not to use visual aids, and how not to construct a storyline. It’s quite remarkable that he managed to fit so many lessons into only 16 minutes. Pity they weren’t the ones he wanted to give. Yet he wasn’t a below-average speaker. Most talks are this boring and badly-constructed, and often with even worse slides. But not at TED.

So here’s my advice to event organisers everywhere: if a speaker refuses to rehearse with you, kick him or her out. Quickly. Nobody is too good to rehearse. Steve Jobs rehearses for weeks before one of his big events. TED is a big event. People expect fantastic presentations. And very often, even at the main TED conference, the best talks don’t come from the biggest names.

This event was no exception. The student speakers did the best job – all six of them. We had good PowerPoint slides, better Keynote slides, and two excellent Prezi visuals, all supporting well-constructed talks. In some cases, they could still have benefited from speaking more slowly, but that will come with age and experience.

The best thing though was that they had such passion, and none more so than Halim Madi who deservedly won the contest as best student presenter. His prize: a trip to Palm Springs for the 2011 TED Active event, and a chance to bring his talk to California – and personal coaching from Ideas on Stage to help him translate his talk into English and (of course) rehearse.

As the news coverage of the ongoing pension protests shows, French youth is not short of passion. It was extremely encouraging to see these students put so much of theirs into making this event such a great success. Congratulations and well done to them all: Alexandre Koenig, Elise Melon, Bruno de Saint Ange, Pénélope Liot, Sophie Charlotte Chenard, Victor de Noailly, Edouard Jacquet, Anatole Douaud, Quentin Blanchard, Nicolas Vergnet and all the many many others who were involved, plus the student speakers Alexis Bergès, Arthur Bodolec, Cécilia Durieu, Clément Cazalot, Victor de Noailly and of course the winner Halim Madi. You should all be proud of yourselves.

Now roll on TEDx Paris in January 2011… the bar is set high.

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