TEDx conference review

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Let me begin by saying, I did not think I would be surprised. The TEDx committee had released the final list of speakers well before the date of the event, allowing attendees to do research and judge the presenters as they wished. Ostensibly, there would be no surprise – I would go down to the Bute Medical Building, listen to the ideas of a few innovators in my time, hopefully internalize a few salient life lessons and then leave. Simple.

But I was wrong. From the moment I walked into the foyer of the Medical Building, to see an array of tables laden with a variety of books, chocolates, games – befitting the event’s theme, the ‘Power of Play,’ – and hand-crafted Bolivian and Guatemalan products, the event had already exceeded my expectations. Mercifully, there was a table distributing free coffee – it was 10 am – and I quickly scurried to it, enjoying the lively buzz of conversation. Walking in, I had received a goodie bag, filled with healthy nibbles, an umbrella, and – a staple for any journalist – a notepad and a pen.

I made good use of the latter during the seven-hour event. There were so many nuggets of wisdom nestled in the rhetoric of each speaker, I could hardly listen and write at the same time. It is difficult to choose speakers that will be able to engage notoriously inattentive young adults – as one speaker said, we are the generation with the shortest attention spans – for five hours; however, for the most part, the TEDx team managed to locate and attract both prolific figures in the field of science and bold entrepreneurs eager to impart their success story.

The best speakers were those that truly fit the preconceived ‘Power of Play’ theme. The presenter, Gavin Oattes, was fantastic and hilarious, expertly mixing professionalism with a cheeky lightheartedness that served to lubricate the event and keep it running promptly and smoothly. After a few barbs about the elitist nature of St Andrews – “As I drove into St Andrews, I could feel myself rising up a few classes” – Oattes called up the first speaker, Cristina Luminea, the founder of ThoughtBox, an educational initiative which seeks to teach children by challenging them through competitive games or otherwise. Though her premise was fantastic, Luminea – whether because she had been chosen to open the event, or because she is not a confident public speaker – anxiously wrung her hands and spoke haltingly, at one point muttering ‘I’m sorry, I’m so nervous’ and reaching for her pack of notes.

It was a rough beginning, but TEDx only got better. The calibre of speakers, the genius of their ideas which seemed to increase as the day went on – with a few minor exceptions. It was a mistake to allow St Andrews lecturers to give TEDx talks, as they would – and did – naturally revert to a delivering the information as a lecture.

TEDx talks are renowned for integrating visual elements into speech, which most of the speakers did beautifully. However, Ali Watson and Felix Fitzroy – speaking of conflict resolution among children and the economics of the environment, respectfully – spoke as they would behind a lectern, reading off of their papers and, in the case of Fitzroy, actually using bulleted PowerPoint slides which I half expected to later find on MMS. The subject matter they addressed was interesting, but they did not try hard enough to obtain and keep the audience’s attention. A TEDx talk is essentially a 15-minute audition for an idea or enterprise, but the professors did not see the need to pander to their listeners, which was an error.

The rest of the speakers were fantastic. From the lively Liisa Henriksson-Macaulay, who taught us that music was invented before language and that our ancestors were “sex addicts who really loved food”, to the eminent President of the Hague Institute for Global Justice, Abiodun Williams, who gave a powerful speech on creativity in peacemaking (to my chagrin, he graduated from the University of Edinburgh – perhaps next year, innovative St Andrews alumni should be invited, if there are any).

Ultimately, the impeccable organisation, quality of speakers and provision of goodie bags – always a plus – made TEDx an unmissable event on the St Andrews social calendar. £40-plus may seem like a hefty fee, but – for the same price as any generic ball – you really do receive far more than you expected to pay for.

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