Lessons from TED 2018 — making up for missing my own class

Photo Credit: Dian Lofton, TED.

TED 2018 provided a pretty good excuse for me to miss class with my own students on Friday. When I know a student will miss a crucial class for a bonafide reason I’ve been known to ask them to write up a summary of what they were doing (jury duty, speaking at a conference, witnessing the birth of their child) and how it applies to our studies. Well, in an effort to “take my own medicine” I’m going to use this post to capture just a few of the lessons I gleaned while watching 48 talks across the first eight . While my primary audience are the students in GSBGEN315 and 317 back at Stanford, the rest of you are welcome to read along…

Over 500 of us in Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse viewing a slightly delayed broadcast of TED from Vancouver

(Full disclosure on a few points: 1.) I was not in Vancouver for the talks, but in Brooklyn with others who organize the regional TEDx events around the globe. Perched in a remarkable converted warehouse space in the shadows of two iconic bridges was fantastic and . 2.) To be present for a family gathering I had to duck out after the eighth session missing the last few sessions, but, what I viewed provided me with more than enough fuel for a dozen blogs, tonight I’ll limit it to just this one.)

So, as one speaker urged, let me make my main point first (in case you read no further)I took away three overarching communication lessons:

1.) Allow your Ideas to overshadow delivery skills

2.) Embrace the power of Dialogue

3.) Rely on your Authenticity to move others

Permit me to now expand on these three lessons. At this writing only a few of this year’s TED talks are online, but each day that number will climb. I’ll try to go back and revise this blog periodically with hyperlinks to the talks.

Lesson 1: Allow your Ideas to overshadow delivery skills

In the first three talks of session one I knew this was a TED like no other. I was initially a bit surprised to see Trace Ellis Ross lead off reading from note cards, then stunned to watch Diane Wolk-Rogers (a history teacher who survived the Parkland shooting) read from a full manuscript, and finally speechless (pun fully intended) when noted scientist Jaron Lanier sat for his entire talk. But then, like a ton of bricks it hit me: TED’s about the IDEAS, not the polished presentation skills. It felt to me as if the curators were sending a clear message by the opening of TED2018, don’t judge the speakers on their dynamic delivery, listen to the strength of their ideas. So I did. I set aside my typical plus/delta critiques that I provide my own communication students and let the compelling content wash over me, inspire me, touch me, alarm me, delight me. By talk four, with newly calibrated expectations I was freed up to be with the content regardless of the delivery.

Don’t get me wrong, some delivery skills were indeed stellar: I could not ignore some amazing storytelling with data examples (Kate Raworth, Adam Grant, Steven Pinker) and some remarkable imagery (Rajiv Laroia, and Ian Firth) and gripping stories (Simone Giertz, Robin Steinberg, and Alex Honnold). Yet, I could also empathize with the speaker who lost her place and had to restart or others who experienced tech failure (yes even at TED). My strategic communication students who delivered their first graded talks while I was at TED may be the greatest beneficiaries of this insight for me.

Lesson 2: Embrace the Power of Dialogue…especially when you disagree

Zachary Wood in the first session and Dylan Marron in my final session served as complementary, yet different, bookends for this lesson. Wood, a college senior at Williams, brings controversial figures to his campus through a program he founded called Uncomfortable Conversations. His administration rescinded invitations of some polarizing figures and critics argued that he was providing a platform for people whose beliefs were not just provocative but outright wrong. Yet Wood was compelling and convincing as he argued that “tuning out opposing viewpoints don’t make them go away.” His serious demeanor brought gravity and conviction to the stage in his highly structured argument.

Gently borrowed from Dylan’s Facebook page.

Using a radically different style writer had me laughing hysterically at his podcast antics. Openly gay and simply brilliant he shared how much hatred he received online for his pro-gay, pro-trans, views. Initially he responded to critics somewhat viciously, poking fun at spelling or grammar errors, fighting words with fighting words. But slowly he realized that nothing would change if he didn’t first change. He began to reach out directly to his fierce critics and invite them to engage in dialogue. He even played for us a few sound clips of interviews featured in his podcast: . His gift to engage in dialogue inspired me. He emphasized that “empathy is not endorsement” but it can open doors.

Lesson 3: Rely on your Authenticity to move others

Snapped with my iPhone; wanted to capture the chalkboard.

Directly after Dylan came my colleague from . We’ve met and chatted on a few occasions, but this was my first experience of her presentation skills. She’s masterful. She shared her journey for about nine months as SVP of Leadership and Strategy at Uber. She consciously took on the opportunity to go to a “place on fire.” With professorial precision she wrote on a blackboard with chalk (novel for the TED crowd) outlining the three aspects of restoring trust: empathy, logic, and authenticity. (My Reputation management class will see this talk on Monday!) She articulated that if any one of these three “wobbles”, it threatens the whole promise of trust. At Uber she and her team were able to build empathy by eliminating smart phones in meetings and have people connect directly with each other. They improved logical reasoning through massive education efforts, guiding people to communicate their “point first” rather then meandering to a final conclusion. But ultimately she found that authenticity is the most vexing of the qualities. It is so much easier to coach people to fit in, rather than create ways for people to become their best selves.

There’s so much I’m not sharing with you but at its core, for me, TED2018 came down to engaging with ideas, embracing dialogue, and cultivating authenticity. That synthesizes the primary lessons I can grasp tonight from the remarkable week of TED. More will continue to be revealed as I watch and re-watch talks from this year’s conference. Like great cooking these ideas (and scores more)need to marinate to reach their full impact.

Author, Keynote Speaker, Communication Coach, Educator, Mentor, and Proud Gay Dad