Beyond borders: talking at TEDxLondon

by Laura Caccia

“Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, its greatest failures from not talking”  
Stephen Hawking

With this quote Simon Bucknall launched us into a day of inspiration at TEDxLondon by talking about talking. He was asking why we don’t teach public speaking “[a]s a skill. That can be learnt. In schools.” I quote his pauses here because the power of his words was itself a testament of what practising this skill can achieve. We love to talk, and do it all the time, but looking back on a day so full of practise, for listeners as much as speakers, I began to see why this was so important.

My own talk was late in the day and I had a lot of time to ponder.

There was a strange and beautiful energy in the room that came, I think, from the presence of so many inspiring people under roof. I don’t just mean the speakers. Of the one hundred organizers and coaches who had volunteered a year’s worth of weekends to bring this audience together, we never asked “why”. We knew that the answer would be a shrug, a smile, and the enticingly simple TED slogan, “ideas worth spreading”. Here was an audience, also, who had resisted the rare temptation of London’s Southbank in temperatures over thirty degrees to sit in the dark and listen, knowing that every idea would be free and online only a few weeks later.

Perhaps as a calming mechanism as much as anything else, I was trying to zoom out of my seat and look wider and larger at what we were all there for, and why. Two single images from that day stuck with me far more than my own experience speaking. As we set up the stage that morning, the seats in the dark auditorium dotted with glowing gift bags looked like stars in a night sky. Later I looked down from the speakers’ box during the first talk and saw the faces of the crowds merge into one as the lights dimmed and we focused together on that bright red circle. These seemed to symbolise how Curator Maryam Pasha had touched on the very heart of TED in choosing the theme #BeyondBorders. This room was one enormous and borderless stage where a crowd had gathered as to share three things: perspective, community and hope. We didn’t do any of that alone.

TED is in its essence a social event. We were encouraged to use our phones in the auditorium to engage with what we see online and had hour long breaks in the Royal Festival Hall’s social spaces to talk. But here the word “social” meant something more cerebral than simply writing a tweet.

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The greatest lesson I learnt during the coaching sessions was that TED is about the audience, not the speaker. Even if the idea is yours, you are on that stage to share. To do that well you have to connect with your audience, breaking down the barrier between seat and stage in the process. You can’t bat out an idea like mine – “code poetry” – if no one catches it. Chris Anderson says that the moment that makes TED is when when a speaker’s idea, the unique “pattern of information” in their brain, is recreated in real time in the minds of the audience. Audience members start to “sync” with the speaker and each other, in discovery. The idea is no longer yours but belongs to everyone listening, both in that room and beyond.

Talks about the mathematics of social hierarchy, London’s chicken shops, and a millennia of human migration opened up a new perspective on parts of life we see everyday. Talks about missions to Mercury, powerful personal journeys and mental health gave us hope in human resilience and determination. Talks about spoken-word poetry, feminism in beatboxing and Bollywood dancing opened our eyes to the community of creativity that links us all. Talks between ourselves in the long breaks reminded us of the value of talking. We were all there to share.

My own talk was about code poetry, an emerging genre that mingles human and artificial languages to create a piece of writing as functional as it is beautiful. What I saw in code poetry was that many more elements of our world are born of our creativity than we know.

Lines from this talk (which will be seared into my brain long after I forget my own name) keep springing up as I write about this event. One in particular lingers with me: “entirely and beautifully human”. The enduring link between all these talks, onstage and offstage, was their celebration of our uniquely human ability to create and to communicate.

At Oxford Insights we look at how artificial intelligence will change the way governments and organisations work by automating tasks and redistributing our time. We like to ask people what type of time is valuable to them. Time spent entering numbers into a spreadsheet or drawing a story from what they say? Time spent logging receipts or thinking about new ways to approach a problem? Artificial intelligence has the potential to change the way we think by allowing us to focus on the tasks that only we can do; by allowing us to be more human.

Not to say that a day on sunny Southbank isn’t “valuable”, but when I looked down on those faces in the audience I felt that we were really at home here. This is because one of the most beautiful parts of our nature is our ability to talk, share, and create together. The concept of ideas that go #BeyondBorders touches on the heart of TED, and to me, TED somehow celebrates the heart of what it means to be human.

Oxford Insights consultant Laura Caccia was a winner of OpenX in 2018, and spoke at TEDx London on 1 July 2018.