Enter on stage is Dr. Tara Prescott, a Lecturer in Writing Programs and Faculty in Residence at UCLA, donning complete scuba gear with wetsuit, flippers, snorkel and all, to stress the importance for people to “Hike Their Own Hike,” and not be afraid to take adventurous chances in life. Videos that span across three large screens in the an auditorium at UCLA jump to life as she weaves the tales of her own personal risks she has taken to get the most out of life, and in the end, challenges us all to do the same.
Scott Hutchinson, Program Director, Visual Arts, UCLA Extension, is also a risk taker who possesses a robust desire to continually discover and adapt to new things along life’s journey. It was this passion that led him to his first TEDx in 1999 in Monterey and its impact inspired him to pursue more extended conversations, and eventually, future TED Talks planning of his own.
The concept of doing extended TED Talks via university campuses as locally produced “TEDx” events came about around the same time Scott was contemplating new ways to connect the university, its UCLA Extension lifelong learners and the surrounding community with TED-like concepts that would breed new ideas and inspiration for action.
He formally applied on behalf of UCLA in 2010, and it was a fairly straightforward process. The TED organization paid close attention to just exactly what the intent was being applied for, and what background and capabilities were possible to execute a university TEDx event.
Each TEDx events are 100% volunteer run and not paid for by the university, and they are held once a year. As of now, the only sponsors UCLA has secured have been those who supply services or products “in kind” such as donated furniture rentals supplied by Cort, plus beverages, Pre- and post-production, editing signage, parking, marketing and other expenses must all be covered by ticket sales.
Since the first UCLA TEDx in 2011, interest in the event has doubled in size each year.
“The first year we did a UCLA TEDx, my greatest fear was that wouldn’t be able to fill up even half of the room. Four years later in May 2016, the event sold out in 2 1/2 hours. We even had to turn faculty members away,” says Hutchinson.
The Spring TEDx event holds just enough seats to allow for one of the most endearing qualities of TEDx--the intimate sense of engagement the speakers on stage are able to have with the audience. If the event is enlarged to service a larger crowd, the power of the message could get lost.
To help alleviate some of the pressures of the growing demand, UCLA has recently begun experimenting with quarterly held TEDX Salons. Salons require a separate license by TED and limits attendance to 100 per event. The most recent UCLA Salon, “Gratitude,” was held on campus on July 22, 2016, and sold out almost immediately. Like the annual May UCLA TEDx talks, it Salons are shepherded by volunteers and presented by experts from the various UCLA departments and outside authorities.
Each event, large and small, requires tremendous time and dedication, but with no dedicated staff of budget, what is the real motivation behind it for UCLA and those involved?
“I get that question all the time,” explains Hutchinson, “and there is really no simple answer.”
“These TEDx events provide a forum to spread and stimulate new concepts while fostering real networking relationships that otherwise would not be possible. In particular, UCLA Extension has the unique advantage of being able to use TEDx to connect ampus community members (students, staff, faculty and alumni) as well as units (Faculty, academic programs, administrative departments).”
However, the real beauty of the TEDx format for UCLA is that it helps bridge the gap between isolated industry-specific jargon and the use words that cross over and are easier to grasp in modern day society. The live format allows audiences to feel more connected to the interesting visuals and physical social cues that are tied to each presentation, opening up windows of understanding and innovation that are often difficult to achieve. Throughout the day volunteers keep the audiences aware and invested with intermittent five minute “stretch breaks” that are set to music and dance on stage and on screen.
UCLA Extension is all about lifelong learning and curiosity. As an added bonus, many UCLA Extension class ideas come directly out of the TEDx talks to the instructors and advisory boards responsible for design the curriculum schedules. “We are always open to trying new things and TEDx exposes us to ideas to embrace for coursework that keeps us very current.”
Each year there are about 500 self-nominations, of which 10-15 typically pan out for follow ups. The goal of the talks is to share the overcoming of a personal struggle or teach something innovative and new with the crowd.
“Getting the right people on stage is critical, and striking the right balance is half the fun. What’s most impressive is how seriously our speakers take their presentations and how open they are to work with to help them get ideas across,” Hutchinson says.
Even though speakers don’t get paid, UCLA provides coaching, dry runs and rehearsals to prepare them for the big day. They do have one rule though: No notes on a piece of paper on stage
TED’s tagline is “Idea’s Worth Spreading, and UCLA TEDx talks allow innovative ideas and groundbreaking concepts to get exposure where they otherwise never would. The format provides an opportunity to drill down a big idea into something that people can actually interact and experience firsthand. The goals is for new ideas to be ignited, shared and explored further by others who may have interest or wish to attach themselves to the concepts.”
The hard work pays off in the end. With scores of videos and thousands of views, TEDx is a great forum to create and disseminate knowledge to larger masses and the 18-minute-or-less video talks add validity to a speaker’s career. Ultimately, TEDx serves as yet another tool for UCLA and other universities to expose pioneering work that is being done off the grid that would otherwise be hidden from students, faculty and community at large.
By Cynthia Lieberman, Co-Founder, CyberWise.org and UCLA Extension Instructor