TEDx Silicon Valley

Directions to TEDx Silicon Valley 2011

On Saturday May 14 2011 TEDx Silicon Valley gathered some of the world’s leading thinkers and doers at Stanford’s new Knight Management Center to discuss social innovation and explore the emerging concept of Living by Numbers.

The event was one of the most successful TEDx events ever. Over 800 people came together for the event at Stanford, and over 330,000 people from over 50 countries around the world tuned in online to watch our livestream.

From the quality of speakers, performers and artists, to the vibrant discussions in the community during the breaks and online, TEDx Silicon Valley was an incredibly thought-provoking, inspiring and impactful event.

TEDxSV is an annual, invitation only. We welcome your application to join a diverse, yet curated mix of thought leaders from the Silicon Valley area and beyond next year for a stimulating day of presentations, discussions, entertainment and art that will spark new ideas and opportunities for all.

We hope you will join us to continue the conversation in 2012.

Living by numbers

We’ll discuss new things people can measure and never thought could be measured. We’ll talk about the power of crowd sourcing and the collective power of small coordinated actions. We’ll try and understand the sheer scale of the world population and the danger of large scale poverty. We’ll explore the importance of the right data for nonprofit program evaluation. We’ll walk the fine line of analysis paralysis versus risk taking. We’ll feature artists who are working with data to communicate new ideas to the general public, and much much more.

TEDxSV is by invitation only. We welcome your application to join a diverse yet curated mix of thought leaders from the Silicon Valley area and beyond for a stimulating day of presentations, discussions, entertainment and art that will spark new ideas and opportunities for all.

In 2010, with 26 speakers and performers, 300 participants, and more than 100,000 individuals and groups from 45 countries on live stream, we shared ideas and inspired innovation for social change.

It’s all about the people!


Last Saturday, in an older but charming recital hall at Stanford University, TEDx Silicon Valley was born… and not without hours and hours of labor… It all started with a fabulous idea from the TED Conference leadership (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and the annual TED conference is one of the world’s leading gatherings of global thought leaders) to share the ‘ideas worth spreading’ in local communities by granting a limited number of licenses to TEDsters around the world to create local independent TED events in the spirit of TED.

I had the privilege of receiving one of the first licenses granted, and one that came with a special responsibility because of its location — Silicon Valley. I was now a curator looking for the best human “art” spirit and inspiration to share with the world. In the process of putting together the amazing team that created TEDxSV, and later when the team worked together to shape and bring to life our chosen theme of ‘Innovation for Social Change’, I realized that TEDxSV evolved into a microcosm of the most important ingredients that make Silicon Valley such a unique place — its people, groups and networks.

Like in any other good open source project, my job as a curator mostly focused on how to “work myself out of the job” (quoting Prof. Clayborne Carson from his talk about Martin Luther King on grassroots community leadership). I put together a team of “self-reliant local leaders,” who took responsibility for various parts of the complex production and quickly learned on the fly how to execute like pros (Rocky Mullin, our amazing stage manager volunteer, was the only real conference/showbiz pro in our team). My job was to provide the ‘glue’ by designing a framework for working together, creating and communicating a clear vision for the conference and the team, and ensuring that folks were excited about the mission of sharing ideas worth spreading and our vision of innovation for social change.

We were the “search engines to our own solutions” as the four super talented kids from YouthSpeaks wrote in the poem that opened TEDx Silicon Valley after an upbeat video they created and aptly named:”Believe”Just like many other very successful Silicon Valley startups, we had a ton of fun working with one another, and although we didn’t know much about putting together complex productions, we really Believed in our mission, and we were determined to make our vision an inspiring reality.

And as Reid Hoffman mentioned in his opening talk about iMovements, “the future was much sooner and stranger” than what we had predicted it would be when we first started planning TEDxSV (aiming at 10 speakers, a 4-hour event, and perhaps a sandwich and coffee for lunch to keep the brain cells going…).

We started small, but very quickly, we built a closely knit, fast-moving “microgroup”, and much like Reid mentioned later in his talk, we used the power of the web to connect with millions in a very scalable way, and on a shoestring budget. We did not even imagine that in just a few short weeks we would be able to bring together 26 top speakers and performers, host 300 participants and thought leaders at Stanford for a whole day event, have more than 100,000 people from more than 45 countries tune in to watch our real-time livestream, and engage millions of people around the world in a very vibrant conversation (our social media team estimated close to 12 million social media impressions during and around the event!).

One of the most fascinating aspects of curating a TED event was interviewing potential speakers. Everyone knows that Silicon Valley is chock full of fabulous people who ‘do good while doing well’. What I didn’t expect was how much their personal stories, which are rarely told in the media, in the blogosphere or in conferences, would stir and inspire us.

In the first session of the day, called “Social,” Leila Jana, the CEO of Samasource, shared with us personal stories from her experiences in Africa while introducing us to a pragmatic, refreshing approach to reducing poverty. In my own travels to the poorest parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, India, and South America, I was always struck by the contrast between the deep poverty young people lived in, and their raw intelligence, ambition and clear potential.

Armed with increased access to computers, the ubiquity of the Internet, expanded bandwidth and easy, inexpensive access to cellular phones, ‘contractors’ in developing countries can make a living by working with employers remotely, even on the other side of the planet. It was once again about the people. It’s still the AAi (Artificial artificial-intelligence) that can bridge the computational/observational/artistic gaps that computers are not capable of solving alone (yet).

And not only can Internet connectivity bridge the divide among people, but as we’ve learned from Drue Kataoka (herself a member of the TEDxSV team) art can be a bridge too. A bridge between “us” and “them”, “you” and “me” as well as within ourselves. In what seemed a bit counterintuitive at first, Drue told us about the power of negative space and how filling the gaps between the artists’ brush strokes with our imagination can empower us to think differently and innovate.

And it was there, between the inspiring powerful brush strokes of Drue’s portrait of Martin Luther King where Clayborne Carson helped us discover Bob Moses and his soft spoken humility. Clay, himself one of the most fascinating scholars and professors at Stanford, took us through his personal life journey to help us understand the essence of the civil rights movement in the US through the lens of two of these very different leaders.

And when Clay concluded his talk with the powerful ending of King’s “I have a dream” speech, we were ready to let our voices rise up. This was a perfect moment to introduce Eoin Harrington — our resident musician for the day. In one of our chats before the event, I told Eoin about the TED conference and how Jill Sobule writes beautiful songs for TED. He got fired up about the idea, and offered to write a song especially for TEDxSV…and he surprised me with a love song for TED … a love song between the speakers and the audience: “you see what other’s miss…let me speak your love…heart…mind.”

Together with Eoin, who is originally from Ireland, we had a very cosmopolitan lineup of speakers from the UK, Germany, Venezuela, Israel and India… And despite that, we never really paused to think about it, but it’s interesting how naturally they all spoke perfect English… Jay Walker, a long time TEDster, shared with us in a classic Long Beach TED talk, his view on an evolving global “mania” for learning and speaking English…and yes, according to Jay, next year China will become the largest English speaking county in the world… Innovation for Social Change…

And just as language helps us bridge the gaps between people from difference cultures and continents, so does art, especially digital and social art. By visualizing virtual human connections, interactions, and creation, art can help us make sense of tremendous amounts of information and data. Josette Melchor and Peter Hirshberg from the Gray Area Foundation for the arts introduced us to new collaborative efforts and to an open source-like approach in the art community that opens new frontiers and possibilities for artists and art lovers. Not only did we discover in the data-visualization art that Peter and Josette introduced that “junkies don’t like hills,” (visualized data can tell many unexpected stories…), but we also realized that data, visualized artistically, can be beautiful and useful at the same time.

To connect between the main theme of our first part of TEDxSV (Social), and the spotlight of the second part (Change) — we played a video exemplifying the power of social play in motivating people to live a healthier happier lives. In the video, Jane McGonigal from the Institute for the Future, and Kristy Miller from American Heart Association, offered us a real path to change and a fresh perspective on how to engage people in healthy living. In their real world, multi-participant experiment, Jane and Kristi were able to demonstrate how an online/social/real life game — CryptoZoo, can make health fun, and highly engaging.

And fun was indeed the fuel that kept us going in the weeks before TEDx Silicon Valley, when we worked nights and weekends to bring our multi-faceted production together. We also experienced first hand, as Nancy Lublin stated in her talk later, that “great movements are led from the middle by great people.” These inspiring wonderful hard working people take on themselves the hardest of tasks, and execute on the vision — but get very little recognition for it. So we’re joining Nancy by recognizing the TEDxSV fabulous team and by shouting: Viva la Doer!

But in order to get from vision to execution, we needed a road map. As we learned from Di Ann Eisner in the second part of TEDxSV — “we shape our maps and then our maps shape us…” So together we embarked on a social quest to let our participants draw their own maps… But wait a moment… Is it possible that by drawing the maps we actually risk creating the walls that then could separate us? Could this be the main reason that (according to Di Ann) “only 10% of people in the world actually crossed ANY boarder?” Could this have been a possible explanation on why people fear the “different” and the “other,” and perhaps even embark on deadly wars?

Or perhaps we should leave room to a more radical view that the instinct of killing and getting killed in fights and wars is actually innate in us or too frequently taught to our children at a very young age? Yvonne Lee Schultz shocked us and the audience by sharing a difficult, yet fascinating video she created that filmed children spontaneously playing with chocolate guns she sculpted… Her video made us laugh in embarrassment and cry in shame simultaneously. It was thought provoking and uncomfortable — but perhaps that was the whole point…

And if that was not enough to invoke real fear in most of us, then Alberto Vollmer took the stage to tell us about life in Venezuela, his home country. According to Alberto, Venezuela has been cursed with the world’s highest rate of homicide. With Di Ann’s borders and Yvonne’s guns still fresh in our minds, we dove into a fascinating, yet scary story of a young visionary businessman, who decided that tomorrow is not yesterday and that: “hope” is much stronger than fear.” Armed with a Powerpoint presentation and a portable projector, he went into one of the most dangerous slums in Venezuela to convince the local gangs to put down their arms and start building together a better future. By offering them to engage in productive work and fun play rather than kill one another, Alberto was able to portray a clear inspiring path for a tangible, better and brighter future.

Alberto was successful in convincing the most dangerous gangsters from the most difficult slums, where even the local police did not dare entering, that they were not a perpetual “problem” (like many in the past told them they were) but rather that they have an opportunity to become “the solution”. He encouraged them to dream… dream big and dream small about a better future. On the one hand, Alberto chose to interact with the older leaders of the gangs, giving them hope for a better future for their people. But on the other hand, he also challenged the younger more assertive members of the gangs by teasing them and saying: “It’s clear that you are courageous enough to kill…but are you courageous enough to make peace?”

And now we all needed to breathe in and breathe out for a moment… Eoin Harrington was the right person with the right soul at the right time to help us do it. Eoin helped us relax, just a bit and, and reduce some tension that had built up after the great block of real stories on much needed “change.” But Eoin and all of us were still hungry for a bit more human energy. He made us enthusiastically sing along: “Take us to the limit one more time”… Everyone loved his singing and participated enthusiastically and creatively by turning on their iPhones, and waving them to the music to what became the “Silicon Valley iCandle.” Innovation for Social Change

As we progressed through the TED day, it became clearer and clearer that it’s all about the people. “It is our humanity and all the potential within us that makes us beautiful” said Amy Mullins in a classic talk she gave at TED “University” on Long Beach and we aired at TEDxSV just before we started discussing the notion of Dis/Abilities. Amy is SO beautiful in so many ways! Amy, a friend I met at TEDMED and a truly amazing woman who was able to build an unbelievable career as an actress, model and an athlete despite not having legs, inspired us in her TED U talk. Once again, it was all about the people… and about “how the heck we allowed ourselves to call her “disabled” when “Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than Amy does… but nobody calls Pamela disabled.”

Victor Tsaran, who followed Aimee on stage, was definitely “super-abled”! A blind-born, warm and bright guy, Victor inspired us with his remarkable achievements. A talented musician, a brilliant computer scientist, and UX expert, he offered us a very different definition of Dis/Ablity. Victor also told us that Brail was invented by the French Army in order to communicate in the dark. He used this example and how profound its impact was on the lives of blind people to inspire the Silicon Valley community. He made us all think outside of the box about useful technologies that can be as disruptive and life changing for not only the “rest of us” but also to 650 million now abled people around the world.

To conclude the “change” session of TEDxSV, James Kass, the founder of YouthSpeaks who recently took his youth poets to perform to the President at the White House, opened by saying that the voices of young people truly matter. “When talking about the future” said Kass, “we really need to have young people in the conversation.” Marc Bamouthi Joseph, James’ fellow educator at YouthSpeaks, joined him and urged us to allow not only children, but adults too, to freely tell their own personal stories, and listen to what they say carefully…which we did,.. And learned… a lot…”Voice = Empowerment = Change.”

If the first two parts of the day concentrated on the past and the present, the third and last session of TEDxSV was all about the future and innovation. The discussion started in a big (somehow worrisome) question: “Would children and adults in the future control their lives and their world, or would computers take over in a doomsday Singularity? I invited Peter Thiel to open the final session of TEDxSV on Innovation to raise the question and offer his view.

Peter was pretty concerned, and he was not alone; many in the audience were concerned too. Surprisingly, he was not that concerned about possible Singularity (the fear that soon enough computers smarter than we are will take over and eliminate us). Rather, Peter was quite worried about the possibility that singularity will occur much slower than we think — or perhaps even not occur at all. The projected exponential compounded growth that many of us enjoy so much to hear about from Ray Kurtzweil and other optimistic futurists, depends in Peter’s view on our ability to escalate our current rate of technology innovation. “We don’t innovate fast enough and it’s dangerous!” said Thiel. “Of the 538 people in the House + Senate, 11 have engineering and/or science degrees.” Are science and technology innovation being marginalized as the driving forces of growth? Are we taking for granted that innovation, which is much needed for growth, will continue and accelerate even if we don’t make sure we catalyze it appropriately? Can we do something before it’s too late?

It seems that we need to change our collective behavior and take a top-down approach to promoting more innovation so we can become financially healthier, and at the same time, we need to change our collective view of healthcare and bring change by taking a bottom-up approach to become physically healthier…At least according to Thomas Goetz.

Thomas, the executive editor of Wired Magazine, has been a real trend-spotter. He has served for more than 15 years as a chronicler of the disruptive technologies that have become part of our lives. In his personal research in the field of public health, Thomas found that if we can engage and have more control over our health, we can significantly improve our lives.

On the TEDxSV stage, Thomas proposed a new strategy for making better health decisions. He shared with us powerful insights that can be borrowed form the Hawthorne Effect, quoted the Whitehall Street studies, and brought evidence from Framingham longitudinal studies (that followed people for over three generations to show that we still have hope to become healthier, happier individuals). In an age of proliferating medical information, direct-to-consumer genomics, health-focused social networks, and an abundance of personal data collection tools, Thomas showed how a strategy for making better choices — a Decision Tree — that can give individuals control over their health, and can significantly improve their lives.

But is it only our healthcare system that is really sick? David de Rothschild suggested that our environment — or rather how we see it and treat it — is not that well either… In his talk, he tried to determine which of our current conditions is worse: “Nature Deficiency Disorder” or “Nature Defiancy Disorder?” David asked us how come we pay hundreds of dollars more for a hotel room with ocean views, but most of us don’t even take a few minutes to just step outside and swim in the ocean… How come we build resource depleting ocean-like artificial pools (like the one in Japan that David showed a picture of) only a few hundred feet from the real ocean?

We should all be “out there”, David suggested, “Follow our curiosity and fight the urge to take the path of least resistance.” And perhaps we should just use the simple-to-remember easy-to-use formula he suggested: D+A^S = I. {D=Dream, A=Adventure, S=Stories, I=Inspiration.}

And, maybe, just maybe we will then be able to create REAL change that will make the old existing model on how we treat our environment completely obsolete.

Perhaps what we really need is a real paradigm shift. Perhaps we need to leap forward in our thinking and execution, like Andrew Hessel suggested we do… In his TEDxSV talk, Andrew showed how our current drug creation systems and methods have significantly slowed down in the past few years, and explained that they’re fading out as viable feasible ways to beat cancer, or any other major disease.

As a possible alternative, Andrew passionately explained how human cells can be thought of as ‘mini computers,’ and how DNA can be thought of as “the software operating systems and applications that run these ‘mini computers’.” He challenged us to ask whether we could start using this tested framework and collaboratively focus on creating “therapies of one.” In other words, Andrew suggested creating a tailored personalized medication for every individual in need. In a completely innovative way of thinking, Andrew offered to inspire scientists to work very closely with terminal patients who approve it (after all other well known meds and treatments fail). He also suggested to use reprogrammable viruses, to engineer for these patients personalized therapeutics of one. And in the spirit of innovation for social change – Andrew chose to establish a non-profit cooperative (i.e., the ‘business model’) called Pink Army, with which he hopes to make his vision a reality.

Innovation + Social + Change was not only Andrew’s recipe… For “desert” we had Sekou Andrews preparing for us a trilogy that summarized an unforgettable day of talks, music art and… more than anything else… people.

In his poetry jam, Sekou reminded us that if we really want to bring about change in the world, we must create change within ourselves first.

To do so, Sekou took us on a fascinating journey from “business as usual” to “business as mutual” so we can reexamine how we live our lives in the digital age. His poetry drew a picture of the day-to-day reality familiar to many of us in Silicon Valley: “You probably know my email by heart — but you forgot my name…but that’s fine — because I’ve probably done the same”… “We Twit news-online, we Skype calls-online, we Paypal foreign aid-online, and we fight for human rights-online… we order global access like Pizza … so how come we’re still alone??

Sekou provoked us to think how we can move away from “Here’s my need, here’s your role, here’s my card… call me” to “Let’s listen, let’s rediscover each other, let’s work together… call me.”

And thinking about Sekou’s poetry, what if we really took a second to look closer and find what we share and who we are… What if we shared what we really care about rather than what we want…

“Because the challenge is not to win — but rather WIN WIN.”

And, because (as Eoin said) “the greatest wisdom not applied to actions or behaviors is worthless data”… it’s now time to take what we learned, spice it with the inspiration we got… and embark on a new journey to change the world

Ron Gutman
TEDx Silicon Valley Curator

Leila Chirayath Janah to Speak on “Ending Poverty in the Digital Age” at TEDx Silicon Valley

The aid industry, ranging from multilateral banks and financial institutions to large NGOs, has come under fire for pumping billions into fragile economies in poor countries with few results. Despite this surge in aid, many of the world’s poor are worse off than they were 20 years ago. 1.4 billion people get by on less than $1 a day in income. At the same time, human capacity is expanding dramatically — the world has seen a surge in literacy and public schooling, and a reduction in infant mortality and premature death.

In this context, the world’s poorest people don’t need our good intentions — they need new ways to earn money.

TEDxSV speaker Leila Chirayath Janah will describe her experiences becoming a social entrepreneur and her vision of changing the world with greater access to dignified work. She will present research and stories on how the aid industry has created a culture of handouts, and how the Internet can help end poverty by expanding economic opportunity.

Janah followed an unusual path; at age 16, she used a scholarship from the Lorillard Tobacco Company to move to Ghana and teach English in a rural school.

After 10 years navigating the development industry as a consultant to NGOs and at the World Bank, Janah founded Samasource, a nonprofit that connects women, youth, and refugees to digital work. Samasource began with an initial investment of $35K, a couple of sympathetic friends with couches, and heaps of “Jugaad” (a Hindi term for doing more with less, MacGyver-style).

In just over a year, Samasource has provided work benefiting over 550 people through innovative uses of technology. The company’s “Give Work” iPhone application, launched in partnership with CrowdFlower, was hailed as “one of the best and most useful iPhone applications around today” by Mashable.

Here how Leila Chirayath Janah became interested in socially responsible outsourcing and why she set up shop in the Bay Area

TEDx Silcion Vallety Annouces Robert Strong the Magician to Perform at TEDxSV!

TEDx Silicon Valley’s last and final announcement is very special guest and magician Robert Strong who will be doing a special performance for TEDxSV!

Robert has been crisscrossing the world since 1985 entertaining audiences large and small, young and old, formal and casual, and everything in between! Recently voted “San Francisco’s Funniest Prop Comedian,” “The Bay Area’s Best Performer,” and “San Francisco’s Best Comedian,” Robert has appeared on CBS This Morning, performed for the United States Congress, and taken his act to more than 30 different countries. Although Robert specializes as a corporate entertainer, he regularly appears at a broad range of events: Corporate trainings, business retreats, trade shows, conventions, conferences, product launches, sales seminars, awards ceremonies, banquets & galas, cruise ships, colleges & universities, comedy clubs, festivals, theaters, private parties, political events, non-profit organizations, and much more.

No two Robert Strong shows are ever the same! He believes in creating a unique theatrical experience for each audience that is both interactive and simply magical. Robert’s contagious enthusiasm and engaging charisma invariably leave audiences buzzing with excitement and with memories that will last a lifetime!

Sekou Andrews to Preform at TEDx Silicon Valley

Motivational Poet & Strategic Presenter Sekou Andrews is inspiring the business world one poem at a time with The Sekou Effect. As an award-winning and internationally acclaimed spoken word artist, playwright, actor and musician, Sekou has mastered the art and business of creating original, custom-written spoken word pieces that electrify the messages and accelerate the missions of corporations and non-profits worldwide. Sekou does not inspire you with his story, he inspires you with your story.

An ex-elementary schoolteacher turned national poetry slam champion, any given day may now find Sekou presenting an original piece for European marketing executives, giving a keynote speech at a healthcare conference, or presenting passionate poems for Barack Obama at a party in Oprah’s backyard. His work has been featured on such diverse media outlets as ABC, MSNBC, HBO, Showtime, MTV and BET, and he has performed privately for such prominent individuals as Quincy Jones, Maya Angelou, Norman Lear, Hillary Clinton, P-Diddy, and Coretta Scott King and family. Companies that have experienced “The Sekou Effect” include Kraft Foods, Kaiser Permanente, Nike, Time Warner, eBay, Microsoft, ACLU, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, Wieden-Kennedy, NBA, Eliza Corp, Global Green, NCAA, and Ferrazzi Greenlight to name but a few.

With inspired audiences from the HBO US Comedy Arts to The Pasadena Pops Orchestra under his belt, Sekou is now emerging as a powerful voice for healthcare, routinely evoking tears, cheers, and standing ovations at multiple cutting edge conferences, including TEDMED, IHI Forum, Big Task Weekend, and Health 2.0. With impressive versatility, and inspiring insightfulness, Sekou Andrews is a powerful storyteller telling your powerful your stories.

Victor Tsaran to Speak at TEDx Silicon Valley

TEDxSV is excited to announce  Victor Tsaran to preform and speak at TEDx Silicon Valley!

Victor will be speaking about his journey from making brushes to making music and playing with computers. Oftentimes, when we talk about innovation and social change, we rarely include or consider the needs of certain large segments of the society, e.g. people with disabilities, of whom there are approximately 650 millions around the world. While we do believe in numbers and readily trust statistics to justify our business decisions, we just as readily close our eyes to the opportunities presented by this unexplored audience of contemporary and demanding consumers.

Victor is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. He grew up in a Ukrainian orphanage and is now a talented computer engineer in the U.S. He’s an accomplished musician and songwriter. And he also happens to be blind. Victor runs Yahoo!’s accessibility program and he made it his mission to educate our designers and engineers, helping change their assumptions that accessibility somehow requires sacrifice or compromise.

How to Deliver the Talk of Your Life

Ed: A few weeks ago, Becky Blanton wrote to me saying: “I used your site to help me prepare for my TEDGLOBAL 2009 talk! It was a godsend literally. […] I would love to ‘give back’ by writing about what I learned from other TED talkers and my TED experience.” This is Becky’s educational and inspirational story.

s a speaker, one major milestone you face is your first highly public speech. Most of you won’t have to give that first talk at a TED conference as I did. However, if you do, it helps to remember that the things which make TED talks great can make all talks great.

TED speakers are asked to do six things in their talk:

  1. Distill your life’s work or experience into a 3, 6, 9 or 18 minute talk
  2. Be authentic/vulnerable
  3. Convey one strong idea
  4. Tell a story that hasn’t been told before
  5. Tell and not sell
  6. Absolutely and positively stick to the time limit

Do those things and you too can give “the talk of your life.”

How I Came to Speak at TED

“I had become invisible, one of the 3.5 million working homeless in America.”— Becky Blanton

In 2006 I was living in a Chevy van with my Rottweiler and cat in a Wal-Mart shopping lot in Denver, Colorado. A “grand adventure” had gone awry and left me more homeless than free spirit. My father had recently died. I’d quit a good paying job to escape the stress and grief of his death and recent life changes, and dug my hole of depression deeper. I had become invisible, one of the 3.5 million working homeless in America.

Yet three years later the lowest point of my life was suddenly fodder for a TED talk. I’d just won an all-expenses-paid trip to TED Global 2009, courtesy of Daniel Pink, best-selling author, former speech writer for Al Gore and a professional speaker himself. As an attendee, I was eligible to compete for a chance to talk at TED.

Coincidently, TED Global 2009’s theme was “The essence of things not seen.” It summed up my year of being invisible as a homeless woman. But now that year or more of being invisible to society had the potential to educate and inspire society.

All I had to do was give the “talk of my life.”

How to Write the Talk of Your Life in Six Minutes

Easy? Not really. Not only was I not a speaker, I’d never given a formal, prepared talk to a large group before. This would not only be the first professional speech of my life, it would be about the most emotional and trying year of my life.  I had less than two months to prepare. It was a challenge.

I turned to a variety of sources, including Six Minutes, for help. Here’s what I learned:

1. Distill Your Life’s Work or Experience into a 3, 6, 9 or 18 minute talk

Any of us could fill books with the story of our lives. But how do you narrow your focus and distill a life to mere minutes? Determine your message – is it to educate? Motivate? Persuade? Entertain? Or inspire? I wanted to do all those things.

I had lived in my van for a year with a dog and house cat while working a full-time job.  I was dealing with heat, depression, hassles from police and security guards whose job it was to make sure I didn’t sleep in my van on their property. There was the day-to-day struggle to eat, sleep, work, shower and survive on the streets. There was the struggle to remain true to the vision I had of being a free spirit on an adventure while fighting clinical depression. As I prepared for the talk, I was living in an apartment, and couldn’t decide what part of the van-dwelling experience I wanted to convey.

2. Be Authentic

I kept asking myself, what was my message? Where did I focus? It wasn’t easy to decide. I finally climbed back into my van, closed my eyes and asked myself, “What will the audience want to know? What would I want to know if I heard a similar story?” Simple. I’d want to know how I escaped. What got me out of the van and homelessness and back into an apartment? That was the message, the quality, the focus. From there it just got easier.

“What will the audience want to know? What would I want to know if I heard a similar story? Simple. I’d want to know how I escaped.”— Becky Blanton

3. Convey one strong idea

The theme for TED Global was, “The essence of things not seen.” My talk was about being one of the invisible working homeless – the essence of things not seen. But it was also about the essence of things – like perspectives and judgments, that influence our lives. In this context, my message was clear: “People are not where they live, where they sleep, what they are doing at any given moment. People are their dreams and visions.”

Tip: Take time to focus each idea you want to express, then pick the most compelling, the strongest idea.

4. Tell a story that hasn’t been told before

As a journalist I had an advantage. I’m a professional storyteller. Yet I still had to find a new story, a story about being homeless that hadn’t been told before. So I told my story. It’s easy to hide behind talking about other people in similar situations, with similar issues, but the powerful story, the one people want to hear, is your story.

Once I believed that, I could start looking at how my experience, my journey through homelessness, while the same on many levels, was also new and untold in many other ways. I also noticed that with many stories about the homeless, it’s easy to resort to playing on the audience’s heart strings and going for the pity pull. I didn’t want that. I wanted my audience to be with me emotionally, but to identify with me, not to feel sorry for me. I wanted to come across as authentic, not as a victim.

To do that I focused on the facts, not on the trauma of the pain or the emotion. Own the situation, don’t blame the situation.  Tell the story and let the reader or listener make their own choice about the outcome.

5. Tell and not sell

“People are not where they live, where they sleep, what they are doing at any given moment. People are their dreams and visions.”— Becky Blanton

One of the strongest “rules” that TED organizers establish is to not “sell” anything, or use your time to pitch your book, organization, or business. It’s great advice.

Tell the audience something, don’t sell them something. They want solutions. If you can provide that, the rest will come. I had nothing to sell, so abiding by that rule was easy! If you have a great message, a fabulous idea, or an amazing story or product – people will want to buy. You don’t have to sell them. Focus on being remarkable, not profitable.

6. Stick to the time limit

TED organizers don’t budge on this one. I watched several people interrupted when they breached their time limit. The same holds true for any venue where you talk. Even if you go over your limit, the audience is watching the clock. Their timers will go off and you’ll lose them if you talk too long. Set your own limit and keep it.

Practical Speaking Tips

I also learned numerous practical speaking lessons along the way. In terms of preparation and practice, here’s my advice to you:

  • Memorize your talk where possible and refer back to notes or prompters
  • Get 8-hours sleep after practicing. This helps your brain commit, process, and store the speech, allowing you to remember what you’ve crammed for.
  • Give the speech to a small audience the day before
  • Give the speech to yourself an hour before your actual speech
  • Practice in the venue where you’ll be talking – get on the stage if possible beforehand.

Learn From the Best You Can Access

I also got fantastic advice from some of the best speakers at TED.

From Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO and founder of the Accumen Foundation:(Novogratz is not only a seasoned TED speaker, she’s married to Chris Anderson, moderator for TED.)

  • Give your speech (no matter how often you’ve given it before) to a close friend, or out loud to yourself before you actually get on stage for your real talk.

From Daniel Pink, professional speaker, best-selling author, former speech writer for Al Gore, and TED talker:

  • Remember your audience wants you to succeed
  • Relax and enjoy your time on stage

From June Cohen, TED University Moderator,

  • Stand, move, and walk around on stage, but don’t stand and sway or shuffle
  • Smile
  • Don’t block the TED logo
  • Don’t walk out of the camera range
  • Don’t worry about looking perfect. We edit out all the mistakes and the parts where you forget your place. The video makes you look perfect, but no one gives an error free presentation.

From the guys who ran the sound checks…
From Bruno Giussani (European Director of TED Global Conferences)…
From Sam Martin, TED Magazine editor…
And from all the TED Global Fellows:

  • Breathe
  • The louder your voice, the more you’ll naturally gesticulate
  • Enjoy the ride
  • Be authentic
  • It’s not a competition

The advice I would give now?

“… the powerful story, the one people want to hear, is your story.”— Becky Blanton

Practice, practice, practice – in front of mirrors, in front of friends, in front of small audiences before you make your debut in your final venue. And then relax and enjoy it. You’ll be fine. You may not be perfect, but you’ll be fine.

Honestly? I don’t remember the six minutes at all. It was the longest and the shortest six minutes of my life. But for the rest of the week at TED, I was gratified to find those who heard the talk come up to me to thank me for speaking. I swallowed my tendency to protest (“It was no big deal”) and to just say “Thank you,” and take it all in. I resisted the temptation to compare myself to any other speaker. It would have been counterproductive.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that the best talks of our lives are the ones that focus on describing the journey more than the outcome.

Style Guideline for New Translators

It’s important for translations on TED to be extremely accurate, and also to reflect the spirit and flow of the speaker’s style. Different languages pose specific challenges, but we offer here some general rules of thumb for approaching translation on TED.com.

Assess your own fluency

TED doesn’t require translators to have any formal training, but we do ask that you be fluently bilingual, and that you take seriously the role of translating another person’s ideas.

A few questions to ask yourself: How often do you speak, read and write the language in question? Can you have a philosophical conversation? Watch a documentary? Read a novel? A quick test: Try translating “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have baked a cake.” The switching verb tenses make it a strong bellwether for language agility. (Bonus points for translating into an equivalent idiom.)

If you find your skills are a bit rusty, you don’t necessarily have to disqualify yourself. But you should commit to the research and time it will take to achieve an accurate translation. (It helps to have a pool of fluent friends and family on-hand.) Also consider carefully which talks you choose to translate. It’s common to be more fluent in some domains than others. TED speakers are all at the edge of their fields, and therefore the edge of language. So being current, as well as fluent, is key.

If you’re working on a talk outside your area of expertise, be sure to research terminology or ask advice of others in the field. If you’re struggling with a particular phrase or term, ask advice of other TED translators or contact our subtitling team.

TED Style

TED presenters are drawn from a wide range of disciplines, and represent the world’s leading thinkers and doers. Though the talks are wildly diverse, there are commonalities that can be identified, to inform all translators’ work.

TED style is:

Informal over formal. The talks given at TED are geared toward an intelligent, general audience. So informal, colloquial terms should be chosen over those that are more formal or academic.

Modern over traditional. TED speakers are each at the forefront of their respective fields, and often at the forefront of language. For this reason, modern terms and phrases should be chosen over the traditional, and translators should strive to be up-to-date in the topics covered.

Personal over generic. Translators should strive to match the tone and flow of the speaker’s original talk as closely as possible. Rather than produce a hyper-formal, word-for-word translation, translators should aim to find the color, energy and “poetry” in the speaker’s organic style and to emulate it in the target language, using words and phrases that match the gist of the speaker’s points.

Global over regional. The global nature of TED’s audience has implications for translation. Within each individual language, idioms, slang and technical terms all vary place-to-place. TED style emphasizes words and phrases that can be most universally understood among all dialects.

Guidelines for Technical Style

TED uses the AP Style Guide. Translators should use this (or the closest equivalent) for all questions relating to the text’s technical form. For any specific questions, or in cases where the source text appears to divert from this established style, consult the TED editorial staff directly using our contact form. (Exceptions may have been taken in certain cases where readability may actually have been enhanced by breaking a rule.)

Specific Guidelines

Idioms: In most cases, idioms (such as puns, culture-specific phrasing, metaphorical expressions) should not be translated word for word. Rather, an equivalent or similar expression should be found and used as a substitution. If no such equivalent can be found, translators should opt for the translation that readers will find the least confusing, even if it is less colorful than the original.

TED’s branded terms: TED is always written as “TED” — and the terms “TED Prize” and “TEDTalks” should not be translated.

Titles of works: For books, movies, magazines, poems: Do your best to determine whether the work has been translated into your language; if it has, then use the translated title in the talk. If no official translation can be found, translate the title in a way that’s as close to the original meaning as possible.

Proper nouns: For people’s names: never translate or transliterate people’s names. Leaving names as they are will optimize search results.

For places: use the name of the place that is in most common usage in your language. If the name is not found in your lexicon, transliterate.

Punctuation: Punctuation should work in service to the speaker’s speaking style — not an enemy of it, and especially not a victim of it. Try to find the punctuation that best enhances readability while keeping as close to the original flow and direction as possible.

Always use the target language’s native punctuation.

Character sets: Please use standard unicode characters and avoid those that are platform-specific. A unicode character can be represented as a multi-digit number wrapped between “&” and “#” (ampersand and pound sign) and followed by “;” (semi-colon). For example, “裡” renders in Chinese (Traditional) as “裡.”

Units of measurement: You may convert units of measurement to make them more understandable to speakers of your language. We recommend the Google unit conversion tool.

Working with other Translators

Collaboration is key to the success of any open-source project, and the TED Open Translation Project is no different. We recognize, however, that different translators — and different language communities — have very different work styles. They work alone, in pairs and in groups; online and off-line; at different speeds and at different times of day.

Because of this, we’ve intentionally taken a light-handed approach when it comes to how language communities can organize and operate themselves. We want to give you the freedom to figure out what works best for you — which isn’t to say we won’t be here to help!

When you sign up to translate, we’ll try to connect you with others who are also translating in your language. In some cases, self-organized communities have already emerged to support each other and ensure quality. You can find other translators in your language by visiting the Our languages page and clicking on your language in the list. All translators who have completed a talk will be listed. You can also find other translators by joining our Facebook group.

Reviewers and translators

To ensure quality, we require a second pair of eyes on all translations. So after a talk is translated, it’s assigned for review. The translator and reviewer are expected to connect individually to confer and collaborate. You can find each other on the “Translations” page of your TED member profile, and contact each other through the built-in email system. (This system cloaks your actual email address, to protect your privacy.)

The purpose of the review process is to catch any errors in a translation, and also to provide a sounding board for improving style or interpretation. If you’re reviewing someone’s work, you should look for typos, punctuation errors and mistranslations. You can also provide input on style, or on the translation of jargon, slang or industry-specific terms.

Reviewers are expected to contact the translator and confer over any changes made. For a successful collaboration, we recommend that you:

  • Be clear in your direction and feedback.
  • Tread lightly; don’t make changes just for the sake of making changes.
  • Be courteous and gentle with your suggestions. Remember that everyone working on the Open Translation Project is a volunteer, who has invested considerable time and energy in their translations. Always direct your critiques at the work, and not the person.
  • Remember that languages differ widely around the world. Idioms, slang and technical terms can vary place-to-place. You may be accustomed to different phrasing than your translation partner; your goal as a team is to choose words and phrases that can be most universally understood among all dialects of your language.
  • Be cooperative, and find a way to resolve disputes. Some disagreement is inevitable and healthy in the editing/reviewing process. But we expect that you’ll be able to resolve disagreements among yourselves. If you absolutely cannot resolve a dispute, please contact us

In rare cases, you may need to alert us to a real problem. If you notice that:

  • A translator lacks the skills to fluently translate a TEDTalk
  • A translator is purposely abusing their role to misrepresent a speaker’s ideas

… please contact us immediately with the word “ALERT” in the Subject line.

Translations and the TEDx program

In 2009, we launched a program allowing people around the world to host their own TED-inspired events. The program is called TEDx, where x = independently organized events. Many of the TEDx organizers also participate in the Open Translation Project, creating subtitles for the talks they plan to show at their event

x= independently organized Ted Event Living by numbers