October 1, 2013


TEDxToronto ambassador badge 2013When you face border guards, be careful about what you say because you may not get in.

The delegates for TEDxToronto get selected through an undisclosed process. Perhaps that’s why the Twitter stream at #TEDxToronto overflows with praise even for the weaker elements. Besides, the hard-working TEDxToronto team consists of volunteers.

It’s tough to give genuine feedback. What if you think the hosts were better last year and that next year you'd prefer David Newland over Maestro Fresh Wes?


The purpose of a geography-based TEDx event is to highlight local speakers and encourage discussions. The real magic happens in the halls during the breaks and afterwards. There was lots of discussion at TEDxToronto, which is a solid sign of success.


TEDxToronto 2013: The Choices We MakeOver the past five years, TEDxToronto has found things that work. Here's what doesn't need to be changed:
  • the venue: Koerner Hall in the Royal Conservatory of Music has three floors and feels just right. Last year's Sony Centre allowed more attendees (about 1,300) but didn't feel special. For some reason, conversations where more difficult to start. This time, there was more congestion, which made bumping into random interesting delegates easier. For instance, I spoke to Brian Goldman whose 2010 TEDxToronto Talk on the mistakes doctors make is well worth watching.
  • the delegates: last year, I talked to several people who didn't even know what TEDx was. One had never even seen a video on TED.com! Why were they there? This time, I met many first-timers who were eager to attend.
  • TEDxToronto note optionsthe printed program: last year we got program and notebook separately. This time, both are combined. There’s space to write beside the speaker's bio. The thick covers reduce flex. The only challenge is the lack of lighting in the hall. Maybe next year we can get pens with a soft glow at their tips?
  • the ambassadors: some returning delegates were ambassadors and got special black name cards. They were to start conversations and answer questions. This was my 7th TEDx event (third TEDxToronto) and I got selected. Normally I'd talk to fewer delegates longer. Given the role, I spoke to more delegates for shorter periods. The biggest "mistake" I saw delegates make was huddling with colleagues and talking about work. Split up and talk to strangers!
  • the timing: the doors opened at 9:30 AM for registration, coffee and mingling. The talks started at 11 AM. This gap was ideal — a nice, relaxing way to start the day.

The Speakers

The speakers were well prepared and spoke about topics they cared about. Some of that passion transferred to the audience.

Overall, the speakers were a tad depressing. I kept waiting for happy, inspiring outcomes. Here are examples of downers:
  • failing to get a prisoner of conscience out of prison (try selling that to Hollywood)
  • a suicide survivor (I wanted to know about the man who made the choice to stop him from jumping from an overpass, and how he’ll raise his 5-day old daughter)
  • challenges facing aboriginal people
  • violence against women in video games
  • dying children
These topics are difficult to discuss, which makes them easy to forget in our busy lives. The speaker selectors made brave choices but I would have preferred more good news.

Show us

Telling doesn’t work as well as showing. Some speakers lost the opportunity to make a bigger impact.
  • a blanket with embedded sensors is interesting but we only saw slides. Why not a live demo? Imagine the drama if someone is under the blanket onstage and we don’t know why until the end of the talk when we see the actual sensor readings.
  • three inventors from Thalmic Labs showed how the Myo gesture-controlled armband tracks electrical patterns emitted by our bodies. We also saw the previously silent man in the middle fly a model helicopter using the armband.
  • Rosie the hospital robot: Dr. Ivar Mendez controlled mobile robots in three locations across North America (Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and California).
  • Steve Mann wore what we might mistake as Google Glass. Could we have been shown what he sees in real time? Steve was thought-provoking though, contrasting surveillance (done to us) with sousveillance (we have the cameras).
  • Matthew Good created live music and told a story which felt more genuine than rehearsed. A nice way to end the day.
You can't top the anticipation of a genuine live demonstration. The speaker makes the choice to show more courage by taking more risk.

Which One?

TEDxWomen events in TorontoThere are now lots of TEDx events around the world (see calendar).  While each is different, there is also overlap. For instance, Toronto has three TEDxWomen events over two days in December.

Despite the choice, TEDxToronto stands out because of the volunteers, delegates and amazing videos.


PS I’m looking forward to seeing what changes next year … if I get in.

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