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My inequality essay for TED

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The good folks at TED¬†asked me to write something about income inequality, a topic close to my (everyone’s?) heart.

My shortish essay asks and attempts to answer the question Why Is Inequality the Big Hot Issue Right Now?

Written by guterman

June 3, 2014 at 8:47 am

Posted in TED, writing

How to give a TED Talk (and how not to)

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I’m recovered from my TED Talk (transcript, TED blog coverage), so I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the experience of giving a TED Talk, what I learned from it, and what you might want to do if you’re in a similar situation. (Other speakers have been sharing their insights, too.)

It was thrilling, of course, a brief chance to leap onto a stage where I’ve seen so many great talks. It was a chance to embed myself deeper into a community I’m grateful to be part of. (I am doing more with TED now, as I’ll report in upcoming posts.) I was part of a session that included three giants — Andrew Stanton, Billy Collins, and Michael Tilson Thomas — so I was comfortable delivering a brief palette cleanser between the bigger, weightier, presentations.

That doesn’t mean I treated the advice in my talk as a joke. I hope it came across with humor — using Tina Turner as an example for business comebacks was supposed to be funny — but the comeback advice was meant sincerely. Tina really does have four very useful lessons for people and companies pulling themselves back up. The TED Talks that have moved me the most have had a combination of authority and vulnerability and I tried hard to capture that. My job was to show what Tina’s lessons taught me, but without the talk turning out to be about me.

Some advice I got before I went onstage from two pals who nailed it in their previous short talks turned out to be prescient: Paul Kedrosky said “it would be over before you know it” and Jim Daly said I’d feel like I was “shot out of a cannon.” Right and right. And after the talk, all I got was positive feedback; anyone who thought I wasn’t any good wasn’t going to come over to me and tell me that. A week later, I have a more balanced view of how I did (especially after seeing some warts-and-all video). Which brings me to the venerated TED Commandments.

The Eleventh Commandment

There is some excellent advice TED gives potential speakers on this page supporting TEDx speaker prep, but the physical “TED Commandments” it sends to event speakers (on a heavy plaque that’s somewhere between a tablet and a large tile) was a particularly helpful collection. There’s an older version of the “physical commandments” floating around the web. Here are the current 10 (I’ll leave out the descriptive text and just list the commandments):

I. Thou shalt not steal time.
II. Thou shalt not sell from the stage.
III. Thou shalt not flaunt thine ego.
IV. Thou shalt not commit obfuscation.
V. Thou shalt not murder PowerPoint.
VI. Thou shalt shine a light.
VII. Thou shalt tell a story.
VIII. Thou shalt honor emotion.
IX. Thou shalt bravely bare thy soul.
X. Thou shalt prepare for impact.

Pretty great advice, no? I followed it as best as I could, but I want to offer up an 11th commandment:

XI. Trust thyself.

In the days before the event, I must have practiced the talk 100 times, to everyone from friends I spotted in various Long Beach lobbies to my own reflection in the hotel bathroom mirror. I had the talk well-memorized and my presentation was adequate for someone who makes his living as a writer and an editor rather than as a performer. But, the afternoon before the talk, I wanted to be certain that all would go well if I had a brain freeze on the red circle, so I added presenter notes to my few slides. If there was a problem, the answer would be on the “confidence monitors” at my feet. Seemed like sensible backup for all but the most unexpected catastrophe.

But a funny thing happened to me when I had my chance on the stage: those monitors distracted me, like TVs in a bar when I’m trying to have a real conversation with a fellow human. As you can see from this cameraphone shot my fellow TEDxBoston curator Danielle Duplin took of the big screen at the TEDActive simulcast, I didn’t look down at the monitors all the time, but I surely looked down at them too much. What I thought would save me if I had trouble actually caused trouble. I should have trusted myself more.

Most of the time I was up there, though, I followed the advice my host June Cohen gave before the talk: enjoy yourself. I had a story I wanted to tell and I had a chance to tell it to an audience that could do something with it. I feel very, very lucky.

Written by guterman

March 12, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Posted in TED

Everything I need to know about business comebacks I learned from Tina Turner: my 2012 TED Talk

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After I’ve had time to recover from being shot out of that cannon, I’ll write about the experience of preparing for and delivering my talk at TED today. But a bunch of people have asked me to post a transcript right away, so here it is.

photo by James Duncan Davidson, http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedconference/6940703801/

Everyone of a certain age has felt washed up. Your old tricks … are old tricks. Whether in your business or personal life, whether you’re talking about a country, the environment, a world economic system, there comes a time when all you want is a big, dramatic comeback.

Not too long ago I found myself without my job, a job with a lot of meaning, working alongside people I loved. I was uncertain what to do next, some days not so sure I had much to offer anyone.

Turns out there’s plenty of comeback advice out there, a small subset of it based on empirical evidence. As I took responsibility for my own comeback, I found the conventional models unsatisfactory. I needed a sustainable model. What I needed, I realized, was Tina Turner.

Now you might think that the woman who wrote “Nutbush City Limits,” the woman who double-timed “Proud Mary” into the Top Five, the woman who taunted Mel Gibson in the thunderdome, might not be a model for businesspeople. Well, I studied plenty of business comebacks while I was sweating out my own and I’m here to share four lessons from Tina Turner that can help any individual or organization.

1. Comebacks take a long time.
When Tina hit with her version of “Let’s Stay Together,” it was the first time she’d entered the Billboard pop charts in nine years. Nine years. That’s about three lifetimes in pop music. During that decade, she’d done everything she could to keep going: Vegas gigs, Hollywood Squares. But even when she was doing corporate events to pay the rent, she was doing her job. She kept going.

2. Comebacks don’t come all at once.
Private Dancer, her comeback album, was her fifth solo record after she left Ike. She tried different approaches until a younger generation of British producers caught up with her. She experimented and refined, experimented and refined, until she got it right.

3. You can’t do it all yourself.
On Private Dancer, Tina Turner was able to surround herself with top collaborators because her previous work earned her so much goodwill. People who need comebacks had something good going before they needed to come back. The people who’ll accompany you on your comeback? Chances are they know about you already.

4. Be yourself, but be current.
Private Dancer worked because the voice sounded like Tina Turner, but the music didn’t sound like the Tina Turner you remembered. Everything you loved about her was still there, but this wasn’t nostalgia. She was making up-to-date hits, with way more gravity than the kids on the charts. Stick to your strengths, show ’em off even, but employ them in a modern context.

I’m not Tina Turner. No matter how well your legs have held up, you aren’t either. But the steps Tina took to not merely come back but surpass her impact the first time around — they’re steps any person, any business, can use right now. It wasn’t until her comeback, after all, that Turner had her first Number One record.

And, best of all, after you mount a successful comeback, you can get away with looking like this:

Thank you so much.

Written by guterman

February 28, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Posted in TED

God Only Knows

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image from ethelcentral.orgIf you followed my TED coverage last week (or if you’ve talked to me since I’ve come back), you know that one of the great pleasures of the conference for me was the string quartet ETHEL: agile, imaginative, energetic, surprising. The afternoon after the event ended, I met Ralph Farris, ETHEL’s artistic director and viola player, in the lobby of my hotel and told him to his face how much I love his band. (Am I allowed to call a string quartet a band?)

After we got the fanboy stuff out of the way, Ralph and I talked for a bit about string quartets and rock’n’roll. Conversation bended toward The Juliet Letters, the 1993 collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. Then and now (I listened to the set again after it was reissued in 2006), I find The Juliet Letters arch and overly polite: in a word, precious. Each part of that union has done remarkable work (here are some notes I took on Costello a while back), but the project remains too self-consciously inoffensive to take off, despite some soaring moments here and there (more from the Brodskys than E.C.).

I do enjoy, however, some of the other songs the unlikely quintet played to fill out their shows, particularly a brittle take on Costello’s “Pills and Soap” and, especially, their version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” On that classic, Costello’s singing is, more or less, as mannered as it was in general for that project, but it finds a place in the strings, gliding between the instruments, eventually soaring above them with one facile but still perfect “you” at the end.

On the flight back to Boston on Sunday, I listened to Pet Sounds, a record that has kept me good company on long trips before; it’s one of those albums that doesn’t seem to have a physical place so it feels apt when I’m in some container above the world, nowhere near anyone I love, not really anywhere at all. I was half-asleep from my last night at TED and half-surprised when “God Only Knows” appeared midway through the set. I’ve never been a member of the Beach-Boys-were-as-great-as-the-Beatles cult, but what a record Pet Sounds is, even after you have heard it 500 times. On songs like “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” lushly produced but still insular, and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” whose strings carry it between a Phil Spector teenage symphony and an almost unbearable expression of yearning, it feels like you’re listening not to the sound someone made in a studio but the sound inside someone’s head. There’s enough humor and drama and unexpected reversals in the two-minute song “Pet Sounds” to fill a pretty good novel, and it doesn’t have any words, just feeling. Pet Sounds is all emotion on the edge of repression, just barely expressed and the more powerful for it. It’s masterful pop music. I bet it made Costello and the Brodskys feel grounded after their more abstract journeys.

Listening to Pet Sounds got me thinking about another version of “God Only Knows” that I treasure:

Petra Haden is, wrongly I think, sometimes considered as a purveyor of novelty: her best-known recordings are a capella recordings of classic pop songs, among them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” all of The Who Sell Out, and “God Only Knows.” They’re formidable technical achievements and enjoyable to listen to regardless of whether you know that every sound is generated by a soulful human voice. We hear the original the way she heard it and we hear parts of the original that we didn’t hear until she brought them to our attention. Something new in a faithful version of an overplayed classic: that’s a gift. And, if you buy my argument that Pet Sounds is a record happening inside someone’s head, what could be more right than a precise, robust version of “God Only Knows” in which one inspired person overdubs herself over and over and over and over and … ? She makes us hear familiar songs in new ways; she makes us feel one of the most familiar pop songs of the ’60s in a new way.

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February 15, 2010 at 11:16 pm

TED 2010: Day 4 and Wrapup

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First, some notes on earlier talks here.

Yesterday I wrote about Bill Gates’ presentation. The video hasn’t been posted yet, but you can read an insightful slide-by-slide rundown by Nancy Duarte (who we’ve featured previously in MIT Sloan Management Review). And a few days back, I mentioned another Microsoft-related talk: Blaise Aguera y Arcas’ demo of a new mapping technology employing augmented reality. It really works and you can see it here:

And now, notes on the final day of TED 2010. By the last two sessions of the conference, after three days of one 18-minute marvel after another and three late nights of talking over those marvels with fellow attendees, you need something energetic to keep you sitting up straight and tall in your seat. And Saturday’s sessions offered some of that. Highlights included:

Sir Ken Robinson. His previous talk, from 2006, about rethinking education, was one of the first TED videos liberated for public viewing and remains the most-seen. This year’s talk went deeper in the same territory. If anything, it was even more iconoclastic, starting with the notion that reform of a broken model (what he considers the current public school situation in the U.S.) is insufficient and discussing how difficult it is to “disenthrall” ourselves from the “tyranny of common sense.” His talk will be up shortly and it’s worth seeing in its entirety; his notion of moving from the current approach to public education, which he terms industrial and linear, to a more “agricultural” and holistic (without the new age trappings) one is provocative and, after a while, inarguable.

Another superstar of the day was James Cameron, best known for films about 10-foot-tall blue people, big ships that sink, and what Arnold Schwarzenegger is really like. His autobiographical talk wasn’t short on self-regard, but it also wasn’t short on inspiration. Those looking for tips on how their movie might make a billion dollars got a few of them (he wanted a global audience, regardless of language, so he made the story of Avatar play primarily visually and emotionally), but he also celebrated what anyone can do: curiosity, imagination, respecting your team and being respected in turn. Cameron stuck close to his favorite subject — himself — and it would have been good if he had found some examples for his points that were not about him, but they were points worth hearing nonetheless.

Many of the talks in the first session were about simplicity — simplicity in design, thought, and how we live our lives — and they were all lively and engaging, but TED is really the wrong place to talk about simplicity. If anything, TED is a celebration of complexity, an exploration of what can be connected to something else in a new, delightful, and useful way. The stage was full of people who said they craved simplicity, but I’m pretty sure this audience could tolerate that only in small doses. In just the last session alone, emotion bounced from Cameron talking about Cameron to a young woman talking about the brain tumor that will kill her shortly to a satirist lampooning the past four days to a preternaturally mature child imploring the grownups to stop screwing up everything.

Again, these are highlights, only a taste of an experience hard to convey in the narrow confines of a blog. You don’t want to read about Thomas Dolby and the astonishing string quartet Ethel make a Sheryl Crow song sound more lively than Crow did herself two nights earlier; you want to hear it in person. You don’t want to read or hear about how someone’s life changed, for good or ill; you want to be in the room and share the moment. May you all get that opportunity.

The intricate stage is down, the final parties are over (well, it’s Sunday shortly after 6 a.m.; I think the final parties are over). It’s time to go home, once again, and see how I can apply what I’ve learned here to what I do every day. I’m glad I had the chance to share some of what I’ve picked up here, and I’ll let you know when talks I’ve cited are available for viewing.

Written by guterman

February 14, 2010 at 10:29 am

Posted in TED, TED2010

TED 2010: Day 3

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Yes, it’s elitist. Yes, sometimes the presenters and their audience can be too full of themselves. But I’ve yet to attend a day of TED when something hasn’t made me rethink something. We had all of that today.

I am disappointed to report that, unlike yesterday, no one on the stage destroyed any mosquitoes with a bright green laser. But, except for one very wrong move (inviting the far more unfunny than uncomfortable Sarah Silverman) and the occasional dud (people: don’t read papers and call them speeches!), the long day was full of delights both profound (George Church’s investigations into synthetic biology) and ridiculous (you have not lived a full life until you’ve seen a tattoo of Maury Povich and Bigfoot shaking hands).

One of the day’s strongest talks was by Bill Gates. He’s spoken at TED previously on a variety of topics, among them education and malaria (last year he set free some mosquitoes from the stage to make a point about the latter). Today he directed his mind toward energy and climate; in particular how to get CO2 levels to zero. He builds that on what has become conventional wisdom among sustainability scientists: that the temperature will keep going up until we cut CO2 almost down to nothing. He presented an equation in which

Total CO2 = People x Services Per Person x Energy Per Service x CO2 per unit of energy.

So, if he’s right, one of the variables on the right of the equal sign has to go down to zero. He argued why it won’t be any of the first three and focused on the last one, CO2 per unit of energy. I suspect TED will post Gates’ talk soon; we’ll point to it and let the man speak for himself. But he looked at what needed to be done — reducing and converting fossil fuels, managing nuclear energy in ways that are safe and don’t promote proliferation — and concluded we still need “an incredible miracle.” He’s investing in these areas and he was clear that he’s early on in thinking about his problem, but one hopes he uses the same precision of vision he used for everything from organizing his foundation to vanquishing the Netscape browser.

One last note on Gates’ talk: when he used the term “innovating to zero,” it reminded me of Valerie Plame Wilson’s talk yesterday about nuclear disarmament, in which she advocated getting nuclear weapons to zero, too. Those are laudable sentiments, of course, but especially in a room filled with technology executives, it’s hard to imagine a world in which an entire technology stops being used. The world only spins forward, of course. The challenge may be one of managing what exists, rather than eliminating what won’t go away.

Provocative in another way was Temple Grandin, whose known for being an expert in animal behavior, a designer in more humane storage and slaughter facilities, an advocate for the autistic, and an autistic person herself. She had a big point she wanted to make — “The world needs different kinds of minds to work together” — but she also had precise, deeply considered stories about how to treat animals and autistic children in much more helpful ways. When this talk is posted, it might make the same sort of impact Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk in 2008 about experiencing her own stroke; Grandin’s talk brought the audience into an unfamiliar world and made it, for 18 minutes at least, coherent.

Quickly (because there’s another event about to begin): John Underkoffler, who invented the Minority Report screens that have led to such real-world gestural-interface systems as the Wii and the iPhone, showed some incremental advances in his work, often turning away from the audience like a conductor to summon images out of his giant screens; Wired‘s Chris Anderson showed a demo of his magazine in tablet form that (a) seems fluid and promising (b) crashed midway, which offers a neat metaphor for print publishing. Font designer Marian Bantjes delivered a very similar talk to the one she delivered at Pop!Tech in 2008, but once you got past the repetition you hear a fascinating message true for both artists and managers. When she does a work of art, she asks: Who is it for? What does it say? What does it do? She didn’t say this, but if you don’t have good answers to those three questions, you might want to ask a fourth: Why am I doing this?

As with yesterday, I wrote a longish post but left out most of the day’s entertainment. One of many highlights today: David Byrne joined Thomas Dolby and the string quartet Ethel for a run at Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers.” More on that later, because it is time for the next event …

Written by guterman

February 13, 2010 at 1:01 am

Posted in TED, TED2010

A bit more TED before the next session…

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A few quick notes before I run into the next session:

One of the best TED-U sessions was Derek Sivers on what it takes to be a leader, with a shirtless dancing guy as the news hook. Treat yourself to this three-minute talk.

I wrote about Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize talk on Wednesday night. See his talk (below) and read Garr Reynolds’ trenchant commentary.

And, finally, do you want to give a TED talk? The guy who decides whether you will has advice.

Written by guterman

February 12, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Posted in TED, TED2010