Ideas Worth Spreading. This is the mantra of TED—an interface of technology, entertainment, and design that rooted nearly 30 years ago in California with top minds presenting big ideas. TEDx stands for independent TED events that have cropped up in cities around the world. And (BTW) TEDxGreenville has a lot to say.
Perry Tuttle, the former NFL football player and only Clemson University athlete to ever make the cover of Sports Illustrated, doesn’t keep the relic of his game-winning touchdown catch during Clemson’s Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska in 1982 framed on the wall for all to see. Instead, it’s hidden away, out of sight, from the eyes of his six children.
For Perry, it’s a matter of strategy—hardly surprising, as it is strategy that helps you, as Perry describes it, to “finish well”—on or off a football field, and finishing well is what Perry Tuttle intends to do—in life, and especially in his role as a father. He wants his children to plot their own paths, and he feels they don’t need a constant reminder of what they think they should live up to. Now, at 53, his engagements these days include a crunch time of a different sort—not of the gridiron clashing of competitors, but of turning his insights into inspiration. His challenge, however, when he presents at the fourth-annual TEDxGreenville 2013 event on March 22, will be to finish quickly—he’ll have about 15 minutes, if that, to share his idea with the audience.
But sharing “Ideas Worth Spreading” is precisely the mission of TED and the TEDx events, which are independent offshoots of the main TED event, which began in 1984 as a nonprofit in Monterey, California, intended as a one-time event of uniting luminaries in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design (the t-e-d in TED) to enlighten, enliven, and ultimately change lives. TED has since grown into a global network of conferences, including the main four-day-long TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs, California, in the spring (past presenters have included Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, and Richard Branson), the TEDGlobal event in the summer in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, the TED Talks video streams (which is the way most people have been first “TED-ed”), the TED prize, and the community-organized TEDx, a smaller scale, local TED-like experience. TEDx events, which kicked off four years ago, take place in 47 countries around the world: from Singapore to Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia—to Asheville, Charlotte, and Atlanta, and here, in Greenville, the first one in South Carolina.
Russell Stall, of Greenville Forward,
is TEDxGreenville’s organizer and holds the license of this year’s event to be held at the KROC Center, as the strict TED guidelines dictate that a corporation cannot be a license holder. The pairing of Greenville Forward with TEDx was a seamless one, taking over the license from Brenda Laasko, vice-president of entrepreneurialship of the Chamber of Commerce of Greenville. “When I look at TEDx and especially Greenville Forward,” says Stall from a room within the Chamber’s building, “we attempt to be over-the-top inclusive, where everybody feels there’s a place for them and we’re not excluding anyone. Being inclusive means you have big open arms for all people regardless of what they look like, where they come from, or who they love, so that’s important for TED, too, in making people feel welcome. Some of the best ideas we see come from very unexpected places and unexpected people. And that’s one of the elements of the day, the element of surprise where you never know when you’ll get hit with an epiphany during the day.”
Stall’s enthusiasm seems to be in the event’s DNA, as it were—starting with the group of co-founders who first brought TEDx to Greenville, including Aaron and Susan von Frank, Peter Waldschmidt, and Marc Bolick, who didn’t know that the idea of organizing a local TEDx event was being batted around by the others. “Two different groups were planning a TEDxGreenville event at the same time,” explains Aaron von Frank, “and we had no idea the other group even existed, so we ended up merging efforts eventually and out of that came TEDxGreenville.” This will be the first year that Aaron and his wife, Susan, who own and run bitTyrant, a boutique creative agency, will be attending as audience members, unlike the previous three years where they, with the rest of their collaborators, were part of everything from the marketing and public relations of the event to de facto stagehands. “Marc, Aaron, and Susan led TEDxGreenville through the first three programs, and Marc [who acted as curator the first three years] has continued to be an active and integral part of our planning team,” says Despina Yeargin, this year’s curator. “He still serves on my team, helping to research nominees, and selects the final presenters and supports the Salons team.” Presenters are nominated and then go through an extensive, committee-led vetting process.
The Salons are another arm in the TEDx reach,
held monthly at various venues around town, which are a kind of litmus test of the growing expanse of the goings-on and happenings in the community and include a variety of performers and speakers under themes such as Aging & Identity, Art & Africa, or Passion, Risk and Reward, for example. The final salon of the 2012–2013 season took place in February (entitled “Luv Schmuv,” which included musings and interpretations on love). The TED community, thankfully (should you think it all high-brow, white-tower academia led by stiff upper lips, with even stiffer starched collars) likes nothing more than—to evoke that oft-used phrase—“to keep it real.” There’s an edge, or almost irreverent, non-elitist tone, instead. It’s one way their reach is more “soft, down comforter” than “hot, fire poker” to your synapses. TEDx wants you to think, just not hurt yourself doing so, or feel talked down to. The feeling, then, is about being part of something, rather than a sideline player.
The TEDx conference, which is also themed (Greenville’s, this year, is “By Design”) is an all-day affair from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (tickets are available at tedxgreenville.com for $55), with usually 18 to 20 presenters (who are typically local) from a vast range and breadth of life, and have anywhere from 3 to 18 minutes for their talks. Performances (fire eaters, juggling acts, Bollywood dancers, and musicians) are in between, and a minimum of two pre-recorded talks from the popular TEDTalks video series (part of the guidelines) are shown. Speakers cannot go beyond the 18 minutes, are not paid, and the organizers do not make a profit from the event. The presentations can be many things: interactive, an evocative personal narrative, but one thing it definitely cannot be is a sales pitch or plug for a business or product.
What it can be used for (again rather succinctly) is to spark discourse in the community. “One of my favorite talks was Baxter Wynn,” recalls Stall. “Baxter is minister at First Baptist and he spoke about his uncle, Lester Maddox [the late governor of Georgia]—a racist governor—and how Baxter reconciles with having that person in his family. Someone that he loves deeply but doesn’t necessarily agree with. So he talks about that tension. A talk like that, I hope, gets the community talking a little bit.”
Wynn’s talk, “Leadership Wrecked” from TEDx 2010, was based on a speech he had given called the “Two Sons of Atlanta” (about his uncle and Martin Luther King Jr.) that he boiled down to 15 minutes. “For a wordy, verbose Baptist minister, that was quite a challenge,” laughs Wynn.
Wynn, 60, also liked walking into a room where the vibrancy was palpable. “I found that exhilarating. I found that encouraging and hopeful for our community that there were all of these folks willing to give time and money and energy and were part of this movement of what can we be doing? How can we be open to fresh ideas? And fresh perspectives? If there was ever a group that was open to out-of-the-box thinking and a rejection of ‘well, we’ve never done that before…,’ it was this group of young, energetic, intuitive, creative, passionate people. It was tremendously hopeful to me.”
Indeed a hallmark of the event is its unique combo of disparate elements. “You look out in the audience and you see people that have a big smile on their face, or you see a 60-year-old guy sitting next to an 18-year-old kid,” says von Frank. “It’s a really wide range of a very diverse audience, and really the only medium that exposes people to this range of ideas and range of diversity under a single roof.”
Like a bygone variety show come to life, there are also what might be best described as vignettes in between the talks—of music, dance, comedy, poetry, and more. Local troubadour Niel Brooks participated in 2011. “The event was amazing. I had been a fan of the TEDx events/TED talks for a while, and when I was invited to play, it was a true honor,” he says. “I think the event is one of the most important of the year. It’s a celebration, really, of different thought processes, concepts, ideas, and expressions that ultimately help our community, and the world, be a better place.”
It’s not just another “gig” to these performers, either, ostensibly because of the unique blueprint—and energy—of the day. “At first, I thought the performance aspect of the event would be a sort-of “break” from different presentations; a time for the attendees to relax,” Brooks explains. “It was much more than that. The performances tended to tie the event together in an artistic way, and at the same time allowed many artists and musicians to share our work with an audience that for some reason didn’t always have time to get out to concerts or listen to regional music. It was absolutely brilliant, and I loved every second of it.”
Another presenter this year, David Shaner, 58, is the Herring Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Asian Studies at Furman University, newly retired from Furman last December. He’s also been studying and teaching the martial art of Aikido for more than 40 years. He is an author, as well as a consultant for such bold-face-name corporations like Duracell and Frito Lay in helping turn failing businesses around. “I’m the philosopher martial artist applying it to corporate change,” explains Shaner, who, Stall jokes, is like being around “a sensei—with a great head of hair.”
So who better to spread the idea of change and transition than someone who practices it in various facets of his life and will speak to that point in his talk called “Un-Stuck,” the thesis of which, Shaner describes, is learning how to unify your mind and body to “give people a taste of how they can truly be the best they can without living with their emergency brake on,” he says. “There’s a 70–80 percent failure rate when companies try to ‘change’ the culture,” he says, “and if you think about it, it makes sense. Everyone has difficulty with change. Addicts aren’t the only people addicted. We’re all addicted to the way in which we’ve always done things.”
One thing the professor will have to change himself is to get his point across in mere minutes and not the two-hour lectures he’s used to giving. Fellow presenter, Lisa Worsham, 29, on the other hand, is happy she’ll have only a breakneck three minutes to give her talk about the power of one, based on her experience of traveling to India for Water of Life, a nonprofit based in Greenville which brings water wells and clean water to Africa and India. “Change in the world can seem so impossible that we end up sitting idle and helping nobody at all, but if we take a different look, we’ll see the value of the power of one and how that can change a person’s life,” says Worsham.
Which leads us back to Perry Tuttle. And the power of one in his own life. There was the one person who Tuttle was dating when he was a big deal in the NFL who returned a love letter he had written her—returned with red ink correcting all of his spelling and grammatical errors. This one person later told Tuttle he should practice saying “that” instead of “dat” by standing in front of a mirror trying to enunciate to get the sound of “th.” “You know,” he says, still sounding a little surprised, “I’m three years into the NFL, and my biggest dream was to play in the NFL, and certainly when you come to a level of the NFL, and celebrity status . . . I don’t know why I didn’t run away from her, because typically, I’m full of me, you know? I like me,” he says. “I was really embarrassed, and she took a huge chance on me saying to her, ‘forget about you,’ but I am so grateful that she was at least willing to take a chance,” says the inspirational speaker and author who has been married to the lady with the red pen, his wife Loretta, for 25 years. “It’s just ironic that now I’m working on my fourth or fifth book, when I thought the only thing I was probably born to do was play football, and that’s just not true.”
That’s the thing about ideas. You never know where they might take you. And that may be the idea worth spreading to us all.