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My talks from TEDxNewHaven last year are up online. A big thank you again to Sunnie and Mario and the rest of their team!

TEDxNewHaven, April 2012, The Art and Science of Happiness

1. Start a Hugging Revolution

2. The Sky as a Canvas for Creativity

3. The Memory of Smell

4. Happiness and the Senses

Blog posts about the production process
* Sense kit production process here
* My thoughts on the event here

Past and future talks will be archived on the Talks page from the menu.

What graduate school, TEDx, and speaking up have taught me about creativity, empathy, and the ego

Lessons on Creativity from TEDx and Grad School, page G4, Learning section, Philippine Daily Inquirer.

There are many types of makers, but alas, I am a reclusive one. My dream house will likely resemble the Bat Cave, with wifi and a martial arts room. I can work in yoga or taekwondo pants the whole week. I have gone for days without speaking to a soul.

The agony of the Powerpoint

In the School of Visual Arts, where I attended graduate school, I was notorious for taking over the back room, where I would spend hours working on projects. Occasionally, I would come out, corner one of my colleagues, and squeal, “Guess what I made?” One of them said I was like a crazy scientist.

I grew up loathing Powerpoint presentations. And so it wasn’t without biblical agony that we had to keep giving them in all my classes at SVA.

In the beginning, my slides were admittedly very simple. Coming from a very scientific upbringing, I grew up thinking that presentation was secondary.

Slides as currency

But like it or not, slides and videos are the currency of today’s digital world. It is, according to a friend of mine, a way to figure out what is going through my head, so that one does not exist in a vacuum.

Graduate school is an exercise in, among other things, humility. And so I sucked it up and improved myself, one Powerpoint presentation at a time. I concentrated on making my images pretty and my fonts well thought out. One time, my classmate Benjamin sat me down and made me redo all my slides for a final project in class. It was late in the evening, but I gritted my teeth, silently wished him evil thoughts, and worked on the feedback that he gave.

Taking feedback

Speaking in public was also an ordeal I learned to get over. Graduate school critiques tend to be overly, well, critical and skeptical, as they are supposed to. It’s easy to be wounded by comments from your professors and classmates who just want your projects to reach their full potential. I learned to take feedback with a grain of salt, listening politely and acting on the things I agreed with and ignoring those I didn’t.

Pay-offs

Towards the end of the two years, I realized something. I actually like giving talks. Because my work tends to be interactive, each presentation I give leads to the audience doing something. I have hugged people, drawn on clouds, recited poetry, and fed people candy on many different occasions. It’s quite fun.

I also learned to be able to do these talks under extreme stress. Right after my thesis defense, I had to hop on a train to Connecticut to speak at TEDxNewHaven the very next day. It was a test of not passing out and still looking alive and peppy, since I had four talks to give throughout the day. One of my fellow speakers told me that she thought I was very brave, “having four interactive talks while I have one memorized talk.” “Oh sweetie, if you only knew I was dying inside,” I said silently through my frozen smile.

Presos as performance

A slide presentation is just like theater. The audience matters just as much as your talk. The times when I felt most alive while clicking through a Powerpoint were when the audience was warm and receptive. I would feel joyous when I saw that my work, which I did primarily out of curiosity, actually touched another human being. I learned that I didn’t have to talk as though I were on a home TV shopping channel, and that I can engage the audience in an actual meaningful conversation. Slowly, I finally got out of my hermetic shell.

Finally, it is important to involve your friends. I think that 80% of the work should be done before you even go onstage, and my friends have always been silently in the background. Thankfully, I have friends who know more about styling one’s hair and clothes than I do, and this will likely be something I will always entrust to them.

I suppose my department at SVA was relieved when I finally switched fully to a Mac, using Keynote instead of Powerpoint. (Actually, I am, too!)

But I still hate using flashy animations.

For everyone who has helped, listened, and critiqued. 

An edited version of this essay appeared as “Lessons in Creativity from TEDx, grad school,” on page G4 of the Learning section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 3 September 2012. It also appears in its online edition on 2 September 2012 here

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.

TEDxNewHaven: The Art and Science of Happiness. Photo by Chris Randall

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.

Round One. Photo by Liz Danzico

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.

Hugging on stage. Don’t you just love it? Photo by Chris Randall

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).

Are you getting enough hugs a day? Photo by Chris Randall

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.

You know what my favorite Pixar movie is! Photo by Ruoxi Yu.

Yes, it’s a dragon! Photo by Chris Randall

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.

Drawing on a cloud. The cloud I sketched on was taken by Nikki Sylianteng. Photo by Liz Danzico

One of my fellow speakers, Nima Tshering, sent me his cloud drawing. (Thanks, Nima!)

A fairy grandma with a baby by Nima Tshering

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.

“Now please remove another envelope from your kits…” Photo by Chris Randall

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.

Photo by Liz Danzico

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.

Finally

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!

Last Saturday, I gave four talks at TEDxNewHaven: The Art and Science of Happiness, where I engaged the audience in my different interactive projects. The first goal was to get them to play throughout the day and the higher goal was to show them how paying more attention to the world promotes happiness. With the help of friends, I designed and produced 200 sense kits that contained objects that they interacted with at my instructions at different points of the conference.

The kit came in the form of a red box that matched the TEDx logo.

Each kit contained sealed envelopes with postcards containing postcards representing each project — HugPrints (a set of hugging instructions), Rorsketch (a cloud that can be drawn on), Smellbound (a piece of printed smell), and EatPoetry (text from Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking), together with a mini-Sharpie (for Rorsketch) and a sealed kosher apple-flavored lollipop (for EatPoetry).

HugPrints cards, front and back:

Rorsketch cards, front and back:

Smellbound cards, front and back:

EatPoetry cards, front and back:

Here are all 200 of the kits (Two hundred! Madre mia. The TEDxNewHaven team were nice enough to have picked them up from the studio instead of me lugging all 200 to Connecticut.)

I would never have pulled this off without the help of these amazing people:

For graphic design guidance
Christine Aaron

For kit assembly
Kate Russell
Dan Fan
Desiree Go
Annika Yi-Wang

More about the actual conference and experience design in the next post.