Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.
A carefully curated collection of young, hip, and technologically inclined Torontonians gathered yesterday at the Glenn Gould Studio for TEDxTO, our local, indie satellite version of the wildly popular TED talks. TED started twenty-five years ago as a four day conference and has since blossomed into an international live and online public speaking phenomenon. In recent years, TED has brought the ideas of speakers like Richard Dawkins, Steve Jobs, Jane Goodall, and Al Gore to millions of viewers around the world.
Thursday’s Toronto event featured twelve speakers, multiple video talks from previous conferences, live musical performances, and a dazzling 3-D mapping display that played on stage left for the entire day.
And while the digital prowess of the event organizers was undeniably impressive, at times the prevalence of social media felt a little forced. Co-hosts Johnny Hockin of MTV and Sarah Taylor of MuchMusic announced the event’s trending status on Twitter at nearly every available interval, and the entire theatre seemed to radiate an otherworldly glow that can only be created by several hundred iPhones simultaneously tweeting “#TEDxTO rules!” Also, the iPad case in the gift bag felt a little presumptuous.
But TED is about more than technology: it’s about social innovation, sharing problems and solutions, making connections, and inspiring individuals to act. “A Call to Action” was the theme of this, the second Toronto TED event, and the long list of impressive local speakers did not disappoint.
Poet and performer Boonaa Mohammed kicked things off and set the tone for the day with a reading that was both impassioned and hilarious—a poem about the nature of tolerance and his own decision to meet racism and ignorance with compassion and understanding. Mohammed invited the audience to join him in his “jihad of love” and reminded viewers that “fundamentalism still begins with fun,” which if you think about it is true, and pretty much brought down the house.
trey anthony got the first standing ovation of the day for her electric talk about “getting out of the box.” anthony is a producer, writer, actor, and activist, and is perhaps best known for “Da Kink in my Hair,” a hugely popular Fringe play that was later turned into a television show. trey implored the audience to defy the narrow categorization the world imposes upon each of us. “I’m advocating that you quit that job you hate! Quit it! Tell them trey told you to,” instructed anthony. Coming from such an inspired woman, it felt like pretty sound advice. anthony finished her talk with the story of her grandmother, who in her early eighties decided that she wanted to become a rapper—and did it. “Grandma cut an album,” shouted anthony, “and at the end, she said to me, ‘trey, I’ve done everything I wanted to do.’ How many of us will be able to say that?”
Toronto-based artist and organizer Dave Meslin was also a hit, and nailed down some very specific problems and solutions relating to political and creative engagement in Toronto. Meslin highlighted, with great wit and some pretty hilarious graphics, City Hall’s inability to engage the public in the political process. He also called on the media to include contact information and calls to action in political writing, so that those who are moved to act can do so.
A common mistake in public speaking is to focus on the “Big Idea” at the cost of personal narrative. Every speaker at yesterday’s event had a message to deliver, but the most powerful speakers delivered that message through the detailed stories of their own lives.
Author Neil Pasricha began his talk with a grainy 1970s photo of his immigrant parents standing happily on Canadian soil for the first time. He described his contented childhood, his relatively normal adolescence, and his eventual marriage. And then things shifted: Pasricha’s marriage began to decay, until one day his wife looked him the eyes and told him she no longer loved him. Then, a week later, his best friend committed suicide. As things fell apart, Pasricha sat down at his computer and began to write about the little things that got him through the day; things like “bakery air,” the cool side of the pillow, warm underwear fresh out of the dryer, and intergenerational dancing. Those little pleasures seeded a blog, that blog became The Book of Awesome, and that book became an international bestseller. Pasricha’s talk felt more like a story than a lecture, yet somehow his words expressed most urgently the need for immediate action. “You’ll never be as young as you are right now,” said Pasricha, terrifying the primarily twenty-something audience. “We’ve only got one hundred years to enjoy this.”
It was a long, emotional, and inspiring day, fuelled by youthful enthusiasm and a bounty of complimentary caffeine and vitaminwater. Here’s to hoping that those who were lucky enough to attend will heed the many calls to action, and, as so many of the day’s speakers implored, “be the change you want to see in the world.”
The next TED event in Ontario will be the TEDxIBYork conference on November 11 at the Ontario Science Centre. For more information visit their website