TEDx files

The university's recent lecture event sold out in three hours

Elizabeth Smart speaking at UNR’s recent TEDx event.

Elizabeth Smart speaking at UNR’s recent TEDx event.

For more information, visit www.tedxuniversityofnevada.org.

You know the old adage about wanting to write a shorter letter, but not having the time? Same goes for speeches.

“It’s much easier to fill an hour than it is to fill a tight, 12-minute talk,” said Bret Simmons, a UNR management professor who launched the school’s instantly popular TEDx program last year. “There’s no waste of words. You have to grab [listeners] in the first 60 seconds, or they’ll really check out.”

A word about grabbing: If a love of TED talks—the internationally renowned Technology, Entertainment and Design series—is what brought your attention to this story, we’re not on the same page. Not exactly, anyway.

TED has regularly inspired heady discussions since 1990, and plenty of buzz surrounded the second annual TEDxUniversityofNevada, which sold out in less than three hours, and ran on Jan. 24.

But a TEDx event isn’t a TED event, per se. While it shares certain branding and ideology with its famous parent, the “x” means a given program is independently organized, locally focused, and—per the official website—“TED-like.”

Hell, Reno alone is home to three. Apart from UNR’s, there’s TEDxReno coming in June, and a new one in the works from the Davidson Academy of Nevada. (The latter event’s founder, a high school senior, “is hoping to expose his fellow students to new perspectives, different ideas, and people that they may not be familiar with or have access to,” said academy spokeswoman Melissa Lance.)

Attendees hopefully are made aware of the whole TED/TEDx distinction from the get-go. Many TEDx websites include a polite disclaimer, for instance, asking that journalists “be respectful of the difference between the TED and TEDx brands,” as “any headline or text which implies ’TED’ is coming … is misleading.”

No doubt this helped at a recent TEDx conference in San Diego, where college professor Benjamin Bratton took the mic and slammed TED events as being “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.” Ouch.

The roughly 7-foot-tall, bright red “X” at the corner of the stage at UNR’s Joe Crowley Student Union helped clarify things locally, as did the day’s $100 price tag—a sliver of the bill to attend this year’s TED extravaganza in Vancouver (think $3,750 for a basic, annual membership that requires an application. A five-year “patron” membership sets you back a cool $125,000).

Simmons said, “I’m pretty certain they know what they’re getting.”

He capped his volunteer-run show at fewer than 200 people, in light of seating limitations. Many were friends and family of local speakers, or connected to the school in other ways.

“They set their alarm clocks,” Simmons added with a chuckle. “We were sold out by 9 a.m.”

Speakers of the house

In a nod to the organizers' connection to UNR's business program, the 21-speaker lineup was well stacked with folks from the corporate world. Other guests' talks were full of variety, such as that of boisterous South African sailor Neal Petersen, or Elizabeth Smart, the unwittingly famous Salt Lake City girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom in 2002. Smart is a poised young woman now, one who hopes other sexual abuse victims will tell their own stories.

“When you are faced with a trial, don’t give up,” Smart said. “Don’t surrender. Move forward, because you never know what you’ll be able to do with it. You never know the lives you’ll be able to touch.”

Texas native Jamie Amelio’s tale about starting a school system in Cambodia inspired its own form of gooseflesh and resolve.

“Being bothered” by one issue or another “isn’t even the hard part,” Amelio repeated. “It’s staying bothered.” Find your cause, in other words, and stay mad enough to be productive.

Bridget Park, a Bishop Manogue senior and author of a young-adult book about grief, recalled her brother’s suicide, and the fact that empty words of sympathy stung more than silence. Another young guest, UNR sophomore and Rubik’s Cube stud Tim Grunert, spoke of social networking’s social consequences.

“It’s like our lives have almost become devoted to fishing for ’likes’ and reposts,” he said, working the plastic puzzle in his hands. Soon the cube was a visual metronome, its walls of color setting the beat as Grunert drove each point home.

“It’s the Rubik’s cube that shows us that progress couldn’t be made without twisting the gears,” the teen said, finally tossing his finished product into the air and catching it.

The crowd went insane.

Then there was Channel 2 anchor Wendy Damonte, whose raw, tear-jerking account of losing her mother to breast cancer was wrought with caution—dense breast tissue, which obstructs standard mammograms and hides tumors, occurs in around 40 percent of women. Doctors tend to leave it unmentioned, but the cancer often isn’t a death sentence for patients who ask for the right tests. If only her mother had known.

Painful subject matter aside, Damonte’s speech began with levity.

“In the United States,” she chirped, “there [are] 157 million pairs of … these.”

She gestured to her chest as onlookers chuckled incredulously.

“Boobs!” Damonte exclaimed.

The floor was hers.

Meanwhile, corporate lawyer Andrew Sherman applied principles of conservation and recycling—figuratively speaking—to the business world.

“We need to think [of] ourselves as entrepreneurial environmentalists and intellectual-capital agrarians,” he explained, using donut holes as an easy recycling example.

“The thing already exists! The fruit is on the vine, ready to pick!”

And it’s OK if you’re not the one who planted its proverbial seed. Take Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

“You think Howard invented coffee?” Sherman asked an increasingly rapt crowd. “Nooo, he did not. What he did do is make us all want to drink more of it, and feel good about walking around with a $6 cup of latte, and feel smart about it.”

Sherman jostled his heavyset frame as he held an imaginary cup of java, prompting giggles from the crowd.

“Now, I could do that again,” he deadpanned, “but that would be twerking. And I promised my family I wouldn’t do that today.”

He did deliver a fine speech, though, as did his fellow guests. But the school didn’t turn a profit. TEDx hosts aren’t allowed to.

In fact, Simmons said, cheerfully enough, “We didn’t break even.”

Speakers incur travel costs, attendees must be fed, and videography—a signature component of any TED or TEDx event—doesn’t come cheaply. “If the College of Business didn’t put money forward, we couldn’t put on the event we put on,” Simmons said.

Someday, he’d like to bring in “a Medal of Honor wearer,” he said, sounding giddy at the prospect. Or a Hall of Famer. Or “someone sitting in a pinnacle of power, like Condoleezza Rice. My motto is ’swing for the fences’ because all they can say is no.”

That said, the prep work is no small task.

“I was surprised, once I got into it, by what it was going to take,” admitted speaker Trish Shaffer, a Washoe County School District coordinator who made a solid case for social and emotional learning (“SEL”) methods in the classroom.

“If anyone wants to challenge themselves as an individual,” she added good-naturedly, “do a TED talk.”


Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

“The premise is exactly the same,” said graduate student Aaron Smith. “It’s the exact same idea [as a TED conference], just maybe on a different scale.”