Speaking at my first TEDx conference was a challenge. It was not just because it was a great platform for ideas, but because of the timing, design, and execution needed to pull off four interactive talks in one day.
The theme for TEDxNewHaven was The Art and Science of Happiness. My goal for the talks was two-fold: to engage the audience in something interactive in the course of the day, and to enable them to view their senses as tools by which to achieve happiness. To achieve these, I had to produce 200 “sense kits” that contained physical, non-digital formats of my projects: HugPrints, Rorsketch, Smellbound, and EatPoetry.
First Talk: Touch
My first talk was about using our sense of touch. I presented HugPrints, my project where I am attempting to hug everyone in the world and getting visual feedback through a specially designed thermochromic vest. I asked volunteers to come up the stage to hug me.
Afterwards, I asked the rest of the audience to pull out the HugPrints cards in their sense kits, which contained hugging instructions so they can hug each other (if they wished).
Second Talk: Sight
For the second talk, I explained Rorsketch and first engaged the audience in a guessing game of what clouds looked like and then revealed what drawings I made. After doing this project for a while, I wasn’t surprised about how some people were calling out the same things, while other clouds had very different interpretations.
I then asked the audience to pull out the blue Rorsketch cards and the Sharpies in their kits, and they drew their own interpretations on the clouds printed on their cards. To encourage them to draw, I did a live drawing session on a big cloud on stage.
One of my fellow speakers, Nima Tshering, sent me his cloud drawing. (Thanks, Nima!)
Third Talk: Smell, Hearing and Taste
I explained two projects for this post-lunch session: Smellbound and EatPoetry. First, I explained the connection between smell and memory and had the audience remove the Smellbound postcard which contained a printed smell. I showed them the book I made, An Olfactory Memoir of Three Cities. Afterwards, I read them After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost while they ate the apple lollipop inside their kits.
Fourth Talk: Happiness and the Senses
For my fourth talk at the end of the conference, I summarized how we can use our senses to be happy. The key points were that we are all equipped with these tools; i.e. we all had the capacity to hug our loved ones, to interpret a cloud, to smell a memory, and to connect poetry with food, and that if we paid more attention to the world around us, it would promote our feelings of well-being and optimism. I also explained my own explorations with happiness by showing submissions from DrawHappy, as well as what I’ve learned from the project so far.
What Worked, and What I Would Do Differently Next Time
All the sleepless nights making sure all 200 kits had the right contents were definitely called for. So much craft and attention were given to every single detail—each postcard had to be sealed in an envelope so people can only view them as instructed, the envelopes had to match the main color of each project’s logo for easy recall, each postcard had to be branded and oriented in a specific direction, each kit had to contain envelopes in a particular order and needed both a Sharpie and a lollipop. Anything less would have taken away from the experience or would have confused people. Doing something onstage so that people can mirror my actions was also important, and getting all the props together also was something I had to keep in mind in addition to the actual slides.
I’ve also been onstage on different occasions and it was interesting to feel these variegations of audience contact. When performing for the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona, I had to inhabit a certain character and, depending on the piece we were doing, had to maintain a certain mystique. When doing poetry readings just as myself, there was a bit of conversation with the audience when I talk about the process of writing, but during the reading of the actual poem, it was just myself and the text. I felt this while reading the Frost poem to the TEDx crowd—the entire hall was dead silent in contrast to all the other times I was up there. (That was quite fun, actually.) But doing a talk that involved not just a Keynote presentation but an actual creative activity was another world altogether—it’s difficult to assess if everyone was enjoying the activity, although what was great about having a particularly open audience such as this one was that they weren’t afraid of trying new things.
For the next time I do something of this nature, I would have a card that had explicit instructions not to use the objects inside the kit unless asked. Although I anticipated this by making sure the envelopes were sealed, I did catch at least one person eating their candy before lunch. (We were running a bit late, and I suppose he was hungry.) One thing about having a sealed and long candy stick was that it affords a long eating session; they wouldn’t have finished it to begin with and they could just put the candy back in the plastic and in the kit. Hard candy was definitely the way to go.
Also, I would have split the third talk (Smellbound and EatPoetry) into two and let each project have its own 10 minutes. Thus, I would have placed EatPoetry for the fourth talk and followed it with a short summary of the senses. When I went up for the last talk and said that “Ok, I’m not going to make you do anything now,” I could swear I felt the disappointment of some people. If the schedule allowed it, giving each project its own time in the spotlight would have allowed the audience to absorb the concept more fully, instead of rushing to the next project right away. I can’t wait until I develop these projects more and more, and see what I will ask people to do the next time.
I have to say, I love this format of getting the audience to actually do something creative in a talk, instead of me just standing there telling them about myself. Thanks again to the audience for being open to these ideas, my friends and colleagues for helping me pull this off, and to the wonderful team at TEDxNewHaven who worked tireless to make it all happen!
Thanks to Kate Russell and Liz Danzico, my plus two!