After a decade of conversation, local organizers and participants in TEDxColumbus reflect on its impact.
Frederic Bertley, an internationally known scientist and the CEO and president of COSI, has been an invited speaker at the White House, the United Nations and the National Academy of Sciences. He’s taught at Harvard Medical School. He’s an ebullient and engaging lecturer. But today, he’s in a small conference room, attending the first of several coaching sessions in preparation for a 10- to 18-minute talk he will give in November at TEDxColumbus.
Ruth Milligan, an executive speaking coach and organizer of the event, listens quietly as Bertley tosses thoughts around. “Science illiteracy is a pernicious problem,” he says. Milligan scribbles something on a pink Post-it note. “We require car seats, but children are dying of measles because we don’t require immunization.” Another Post-it.
“You have an abundance of ideas,” says Milligan. “But what’s your idea to solve the problem?”
Bertley shakes his head. “The solution is to get people to understand that science illiteracy is a threat to our nation.”
Milligan puts down her pen. “Consider yourself the guide,” she says. “You’re Obi-Wan Kenobi. The audience is the hero. You need to guide them through.” The coaching session ends with homework. Bertley has named his villains; now he is assigned to answer the question, “What can people do?”
“I’m excited,” says Bertley, with a smile. “I’ve literally given talks all over the world, but I’ve never been coached. This is going to be unbelievable.”
Children of TED
At its founding 25 years ago, TED was an elite brand focused on talks about technology, entertainment and design given at a weeklong annual conference on the West Coast. Originally in Monterey, it was moved to Vancouver in 2014. In the beginning, to attend the exclusive event, you had to have an invitation and pony up a lot of money. Although an invitation is no longer required, those interested in attending the event in 2018 had to submit an application, and, if you were accepted, the ticket price was $10,000.
Eventually, TED began to release videos of the talks. The format is familiar: a single person, microphone hooked over one ear, standing in a red circle on a stage and describing an “idea worth spreading.” The talk is short—18 minutes or less—and the idea is compelling. A TED talk can be raw, born of painful, real-life events, as when neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor described in 2008 the experience of having a massive stroke. It can be illuminating, as when MoveOn.org’s Eli Pariser showed Americans in 2011 how Facebook algorithms were limiting their exposure to ideas different from their own. Some talks have celebrity appeal, as when Bill Gates gave a talk in 2011 entitled, “How State Budgets are Breaking our Schools.”
And sometimes, a TED talk can be local. In 2008, organizers decided to license others to create their own TED events. Or, rather, TEDx events—the brand they established for independently organized conferences. Milligan was one of the first to apply for a license, and one of the earliest TEDx events was held in Columbus later that year.
Spinoffs of the Columbus series have proliferated: Milligan and her team also run TEDxYouth@Columbus for teens and TEDxColumbus Women. Others have stepped up and created their own events: TEDxOhioStateUniversity; TEDxMarionCorrectional, the first TEDx event to take place in a prison; TEDxYearlingRoad; TEDxBattelle; TEDxNewAlbany; and others. New this fall: TEDxKingLincolnBronzeville. In addition, the concept has proven popular in corporate settings, with unlicensed, annual, TED-like events for staff at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Abbott Pharmaceuticals and elsewhere.
On Nov. 16, TEDxColumbus will hold its 10th annual event at the Riffe Center. A lineup of 14 speakers, selected from 160 applicants, will deliver their talks twice: once before a paying audience of adults and once in a theater filled with high school students. At the event, Milligan and Nancy Kramer, who co-founded the event and has been deeply involved ever since, will announce that they’re passing the leadership baton to Meagan Buren and Acacia Duncan, both of whom have been working on the event for some time. “Ruth and I will continue to be involved,” says Kramer. One project that will keep them busy: raising money for an endowment to sustain the event. They plan to announce the campaign this month.
Shaking Your Brain
When the series launched, friends of the organizers warned that it wouldn’t be long before they ran out of Columbus residents with interesting ideas to take the stage. Milligan and Kramer—the founder of the digital marketing firm Resource/Ammirati (now known as IBM iX) who Milligan recruited to help—were nervous. Today, those who attend the event regularly say the program is consistently compelling and that the quality of the speaker presentations is always improving.
“I liken it to sitting in a nice, comfortable room and somebody reaches inside your head, grabs onto your brain, firmly but gently, and shakes vigorously for a few hours,” says Dave Ramsey, a Delaware software developer who has attended TEDxColumbus every year since it began and who will give a talk this year about what he’s learned from all those TED talks. “It upsets your thought processes and makes you think about things you normally wouldn’t opt to think about.”
The roster of past TEDxColumbus speakers is studded with local stars. Drive Capital founder Mark Kvamme spoke in 2016 about the creative value of exercising the amygdala through fear by motocross racing. His talk featured lots of crash videos. “Orange is the New Black” author Piper Kerman spoke about teaching writing in federal prisons. Jeni Britton Bauer spoke about reinventing her company after listeria-tainted ice cream caused her to recall six months’ worth of product. George Barrett, who at the time was CEO of Cardinal Health, spoke about learning to reveal his passion for music to corporate colleagues. And Kramer herself used a TEDxColumbus talk to launch #FreeTheTampons, a social media campaign she initiated to provide menstrual supplies free of charge in schools and businesses.
But often, it is the lesser-known speakers in Columbus who make the greatest impression. Austin Channell, then a high school senior, spoke in 2013 about the weighted grading practices that discourage ambitious students from taking arts classes. The video of his talk has been viewed more than 120,000 times. The late Jennifer Kempton spoke about freeing herself from sexual slavery and founding Survivor’s Ink to help women cover tattoos that once marked them as gang property. Frederic Ndabaramiye described how he reached deep and found forgiveness during a chance meeting with the man who had used a machete to cut off both of Ndabaramiye’s hands during the ethnic war in Rwanda. All of the talks are available online.
Two Columbus talks have been shared on TED.com, considered a rare honor: James A. White Sr.’s 2014 talk about racism, “The Little Problem I had Renting a House,” and Casey Brown’s 2015 talk at TEDxColumbusWomen, “Know Your Worth, and Then Ask for It.” Both have garnered millions of views.
When asked why she was drawn to the TED concept, Milligan points to her late father, William W. Milligan, an administrative judge and a member of the Ohio House of Representatives. He was also, for 20 years, a member of the all-male Kit Kat Club, where men meet monthly to share papers they’ve written on topics outside their profession. “My father’s sport was thinking,” says Milligan.
She sometimes accompanied her father to the Kit Kat annual meetings, where women were allowed. She typed his final paper for him. She envied his membership. When she heard about the opportunity to organize a TEDx event, it hit her like a bolt of lightning. “I’d found my Kit Kat Club,” she says. “My chance to be with peers in a thinking, mental-gymnastics kind of place. … It was the perfect moment.”
An experienced speechwriter who was once chief of staff to former Ohio first lady Janet Voinovich, Milligan was running a more traditional public relations firm at the time; she had to train herself in the art of coaching TED speakers. To develop her coaching style, Milligan studied Gestalt psychology and the art of structured thinking. She learned to respond to the psychological crises that sometimes emerge as speakers prepare. She even developed a speaker coaching curriculum for the Ohio State students who rotate through the university’s TEDx program. “We’re very specific in the pathway that we want [speakers] to take,” she says. “It gives them a complete runway to be ready on stage without notes, without a program.”
Milligan also reimagined her public relations business to focus on executive speech coaching. TEDx stipulates that organizers may not make money from the event, so ticket sales and grants to TEDxColumbus go primarily to production expenses. Kramer and Milligan set up a separate nonprofit so that their organizing team (Buren, Duncan and two others), all of whom also work for Milligan’s coaching business, can receive stipends for their work on TEDxColumbus. Milligan is considered a volunteer for TEDx, yet her association with the event has allowed the coaching business to grow. She now has a large roster of private clients who hire her to train them or their employees to present in the TED way: concisely, personally and using the tools of traditional storytelling to connect with their audience.
One of the earliest and longest-running TEDx events, TEDxColumbus has been a model for other organizers. “From the outset, TEDxColumbus set the bar high,” says Lara Stein, founder and former director of the international TEDx office. “They [in Columbus] were determined to identify great stories and curate their local event and train their local speakers to present at the same level and quality as speakers on the main TED stage,” says Stein, who is now the executive director of Women’s March Global.
Those who have participated in TEDxColumbus tell a variety of stories about how it changed them. Alex Bandar was running his Idea Foundry in a garage as a side project when Milligan asked him to give a talk. She met him at the garage at 6 a.m. to coach him before he went to his day job. The coaching, says Bandar, helped crystallize his idea. “It was really interesting to me to learn that, hell, I have a message,” he says. “Very rarely do people get asked, ‘What do you stand for?’ and put it in a 15-minute package.”
In his talk, Bandar proposed creating makerspaces—tool-equipped workshops—in mobile shipping containers that schools could borrow. The idea proved unworkable but allowed him to explain his larger concept: that access to tools and training could help a community realize the creativity of its residents, increasing experimentation, personal fulfillment and business development.
The exposure he got from TEDxColumbus, he says, “accelerated our brand by five years, maybe 10.” It also earned him a fan in Kramer, who with her husband, Chris Celeste, supported the Idea Foundry with a large investment and a construction loan when it moved to a 65,000-square-foot space in Franklinton. The Idea Foundry now has 800 members who sign up to use not only the tools but also the airy co-working and gathering spaces on the building’s second floor. Bandar is planning to host TED-like “salons” in the building starting next year.
A Community Shares Stories
Decker Moss told a very personal story on the TEDxColumbus stage. He described his female-to-male transition at the age of 43—an identity shift complicated by the fact that he has a fraternal twin sister. He says he was motivated to share his story by a sense of obligation—he had support throughout his transition both at work and within his family and felt that he could help shift the conversation for those who are not so lucky. “I knew it might be more important than anything else I would do in my life,” he says.
The response to his talk, which has been viewed more than 940,000 times online, has been overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve heard from people all over the world who email me and tell me how it’s impacted them and helped them with their journey,” he says. “I get stopped in restaurants. Even now, five years later, people are still reaching out.”
Tamekia Smith, too, talks of empowering others by telling her story. Her first TED-type talk—coached by Milligan—was delivered to staff at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, where she works as an administrative assistant and peer counselor for employees who have experienced trauma. She spoke about her experience growing up with an incarcerated father.
After her talk, “There were people in the hallway with tears, telling me, ‘thank you,’” she says. “‘Thank you for being a voice.’ For me, that’s the purpose of taking the stage and finding my voice—to empower someone else.”
A gifted performance poet with a commanding stage presence, Smith went on to give another talk at TEDxColumbus in which she described how writing and poetry freed her from suicidal thoughts as a teen. It led to requests for school visits and other talks. Earlier this year, Smith was selected to present at the national TED conference, becoming the first person from Columbus invited to speak.
Finding the “Inner Go”
To date, 154 local speakers have been groomed to spread their ideas by Milligan and her team; hundreds, perhaps thousands, more have come through the other TED-style programs. All that idea-sharing and listening may have had an impact on the city itself.
“TEDx is another component to the notion of The Columbus Way,” says Kramer, referring to a Harvard Business School case study about the cooperative style of Columbus’ powerful business group, the Columbus Partnership. “That we’re collaborative, and that people are able to check their own agenda at the door. Ruth and I do this as a labor of love because we think it gives our community a platform and a voice.”
Columbus Foundation CEO Doug Kridler agrees. Taking the stage to open TEDxColumbus in 2010, he spoke about the need for the city to cultivate its “inner go.”
“We can’t let our worries crowd out our glories,” says Kridler today. “This is a celebration of the depth and variety of the resources and inspirations in our community. And from that comes a healthier community, where more people can flourish.”
The 10th annual TEDxColumbus event, titled On the Edge, is Nov. 16 at the Riffe Center’s Davidson Theatre. Information is available at TEDxColumbus.com.