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Interview: TEDxPerth Organisers Joel Miller and Linh Le

This week, The Fetch Perth’s Curator, Justin Strharsky spoke with Joel Miller and Linh Le, the Director and Producer behind TEDxPerth.

Joel Miller (Left) and Linh Le, organisers of TEDxPerth

Joel Miller (Left) and Linh Le, organisers of TEDxPerth

First off, congratulations on putting together a very successful TEDx Perth event. The event in December sold out early and was very well received.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in coordinating the event?

LL: In short, managing a lot of uncertainty over the support for we wanted to do. 2012 saw a complete reboot of TEDxPerth, with a brand new creative team. Before this, TEDxPerth was a free, monthly, small-scale, 3-hour evening event at Scitech that attracted a heavy uni-student demographic.

We shifted the event to a more typical TED/TEDx format: a large-scale annual event with full-day programme of live speakers (with some TEDTalk videos shown). An event in this format on this scale was a first for Perth and necessitated a number of other ‘firsts’: including the first time we would be seeking some serious sponsorship and the first time people would be charged for tickets to attend TEDx event in Perth.

While it might seem silly in hindsight (we sold out the Octagon Theatre, with a capacity of over 600 in less than a week with little information on our speakers released), we weren’t sure how much interest and support there would be – we would have been ecstatic to get 250 people along. It was also hard going at first to attract the interest of prospective partners and speakers, starting from a clean sheet – but the interest of partners and speakers really snowballed late into the organisation of the event as we brought on some high profile partners (including iiNet and 720 ABC Perth) and speakers, which gave confidence to people that this was going to be a credible, well-polished and amazing experience.

How much of the content was from WA?

JM: All the live talks were homegrown! There are great stories coming out of Perth – and our job at TEDxPerth is to find them and to provide a platform, a megaphone and a space to discuss some of these great ideas and initiatives. All the speakers at TEDxPerth 2012, bar one, were Perth-based. The exception was Andrew Jaspan of The Conversation, but he grew up in Perth anyway.

TEDxPerth declares boldly that great things are happening here in Perth – and that living in Perth is not an excuse for not doing great things. It’s a powerful message, and we think this is an important function of TEDxPerth. The most powerful way to state this message is through example: with local speakers telling great stories and sharing great ideas.

And as a side benefit, having local speakers allows us to work more closely with them and hone the presentations.

Will you continue to have a local focus in future events?

LL: I think TEDxPerth will continue to be heavily focussed on the amazing and interesting people, projects and ideas that are coming out of the Perth community and, more broadly, WA. A shared belief that Joel and I and the rest of our team hold, is that there are a lot of interesting people and communities in Perth working on amazing projects and ideas that are having or will have an impact on the world – and that it’s possible to do amazing and interesting things here in Perth. All of this, in spite of what I call the ‘inferiority complex’ that Perth can tend to have about itself from time to time. We think that TEDxPerth 2012 helped towards challenging this belief and we think we’ve really only scratched the surface of all of the interesting people, projects and ideas in Perth.

Having said that, this local focus would not be to the exclusion of those that are outside of Perth or WA. Connectedness to the world-at-large as part of the global TED movement is important to us and, after all, Perth and WA doesn’t operate in a bubble unto itself. We’re an actor in myriad of regional and global issues that we affect and that affect us. With this in mind, I think an aspiration for us would be to be amongst the preeminent TEDx events in this region.

Did you notice any recurring themes in the presentations?

JM: Part of what makes a TEDx event really worth going to is that many topics are brought together in one time and place. With all these seemingly discrete ideas swirling around, you can’t help but find new connections between them. It leads to new respect, new understandings and new collaborations that would not have been possible without getting a diversity of ideas and people together for the day. So, unlike most conferences, it’s best if the talks do not all fit a single and narrow theme.

This is not to say that certain topics can’t receive special attention. At TEDxPerth 2012, mental health, media and public art were particular highlights. I hope this focus encouraged people to think carefully about the media we consume and about mental health – and consider both the importance of monitoring one’s own mental health and of responding appropriately to the needs of others. The focus on public art might seem trivial by comparison, but I hope there is benefit in helping people discovering an appreciation of what is too often disregarded, unnoticed or reflexively disliked – maybe somebody smiled the next time they saw Ascalon or got their curiosity spiked by the Perth Pineapple.

Something else worth noting about what it’s like to go to a TED-style event: the talks do not stand alone as they do in the TEDtalks videos. Each talk exists in the context of the talks that were on earlier. So recurring themes, cross-referencing and the order of talks are all critical to the audience’s experience. One small, but powerful – and totally unexpected – parallel between talks was that both Steven Tingay and Carmen Lawrence referred to a feature in Indigenous Australian astronomical mythology – the “emu in the sky”. Away from the city and in the dark of night, the dark patches of the Milky Way galaxy appear to be an emu. It really does! Both speakers drew upon this and it formed a beautiful “full circle” moment.

What role do you think TEDx plays in the Perth community? What’s its purpose?

LL: I think a key part is simply being a beacon for all that is amazing, remarkable and interesting in Perth and to be able to share this with the broader community.

We think there’s a real void that’s being filled by TEDxPerth in this regard: there are few opportunities or avenues for the interesting ideas and people to reach the public-at-large, at least in a relatively accessible manner and format. And, in doing so, we think we’re inspiring and educating the people that come to a TEDx event around a range of thought-provoking issues that are both localised to Perth (e.g. the role of public art in WA) and globally relevant (e.g. the future of journalism. (87% that came to TEDxPerth last year said they came “to be inspired”, 80% came “to learn”).

The TEDx/TED format (we abide to a set of rules and guidelines as part of getting a licence to run TEDxPerth from “Big TED” in the US) has its strengths and weaknesses. I think TEDx does an exceptional job in accessibly connecting the public with some important and inspiring ideas and energising its audience around these ideas. On the other hand, action and deeper debate/discussion around these ideas is left to other individuals, groups and institutions after a TEDx event has come and gone – TED/TEDx doesn’t (nor should it) try and “do it all”.

JM: TEDxPerth is one part catalyst and one part celebration. We think TEDxPerth has an important role to play in encouraging a culture of innovation, collaboration and positive change here in Perth.

The TEDxPerth community shares the view that ideas have the power to change attitudes and lives. It also understands that ideas are more powerful when they are shared. So the primary function of TEDxPerth is to be a mechanism for sharing ideas. However, as Linh suggests, we are keen to stress that TEDxPerth is not the end – rather it is a beginning, an entry point for many to engage with new ideas and to share with others. We want people to take the ideas shared at TEDxPerth and to build upon them.

TEDxPerth is also a forum for imaginative and curious people to find each other. We are really excited to see the increasing popularity of initiatives that bring people together in Perth, including co-working spaces and publications like The Fetch. In 2013, we will be looking to enhance the community aspect of TEDxPerth so it is not a singular discrete event, but rather it encourages an ongoing dialogue and provides further opportunities for collaboration.

TEDx has received some bad press because of unscientific presentations from some of its speakers. TED has even taken the step of removing one from its YouTube channel. Do you have a process for vetting the speakers at your events?

JM: There are thousands of TEDx events worldwide, but what is often misunderstood is that none of them are run by TED. TED simply donates elements of the brand and social media assets to independent licenced organisers and provides guidelines and rules. These organisers choose speakers and organise the TEDx event independently of TED. For the most part however, the quality of TEDx events and TEDxTalks is excellent.

Of course, when a poor quality talk, particularly one containing misleading information or pseudoscience, is presented it damages the TED and TEDx brands. What it comes down to is this: it’s not the job of the audience to decide whether or not a talk is misleading or contains pseudoscience. It’s the job of the TEDx curators to make sure that this type of content never makes it to the red carpet circle. To help prevent bad TEDx talks from occurring, there are very strong TED guidelines on topics to help weed out anything that looks like science, but isn’t. With regard to the Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake’s TEDxWhitechapel talks that you mention, TED is currently deliberating on whether these should be included as TEDxTalks on their social media platforms. It’s contentious and it will be interesting to see what guidance TED provides.

For TEDxPerth 2012, we tended to favour well-established speakers – which made the vetting process less hazardous. But we have – and we don’t apologise for it – been fairly tough on cutting talks that we didn’t think were up to standard. Our primary obligation is to the TEDxPerth audience, and we take that responsibility seriously. When we don’t have the expertise within our group to judge the merits of a proposed talk or the standing of a speaker, we venture outward to seek advice from trusted sources. Universities are great places for this.

When is the next event?

LL: The next big TEDxPerth event will most likely be in early fourth quarter 2013. Once we’ve locked in the venue and the date, we’ll be letting everyone know through Facebook and Twitter.

In the interim, we are eyeing off hosting another “TEDxPerthLive”, where we will be hosting a simulcast of one day from the four-day TEDGlobal 2013 conference in Edinburgh on June 12. It’ll be in similar fashion to what we did at the Northbridge Piazza at the end of February, where we hosted a (time-shifted) simulcast of the second day of TED2013 from Long Beach, California, and we were rapt to see over 500 people drop into the Piazza to check it out.

TEDxPerth is completely run by volunteers. Do you need any assistance with the next event? How can people help?

LL: The organising crew is a team of young (or young at heart!) professionals with each person contributing their specific set of skills for a couple of hours a week to help pull the event together. We’re currently mobilising the crew together for TEDxPerth 2013 and assessing our needs for the 2013 but, at first blush, we could use some help from people with skills and experience in business development, stage production, web & mobile app development and community development & management.

In addition, we also rely on a small army of enthusiastic volunteers on the day of the event itself to help set up and pack down the event – we typically reach out for volunteers in the weeks leading up to the event.

To help pull off a great TEDxPerth 2013, we’ll also need some help from sponsors and our curation team always welcomes suggestions for interesting thinkers and doers with an ‘idea worth spreading’ that would make a great speaker (or performer).

Generally speaking, we’ll be letting people know of any specific help that’s needed as it arises through @TEDxPerth, TEDxPerth.com and TEDxPerth on Facebook.

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