TEDx: Battle for Next Big Idea

By Charlotte Boghossian

Eight contestants had four minutes each to compete for the chance to be a speaker at TedxMiddlebury next month. After four minutes, an alarm rang, but most students talked through it.

The competition, held last Thursday on Oct. 10 at Crossroads Café, was the preliminary step towards the conference themed, “Research, Re-imagine, Rebuild.” Talks ran the gamut from “The Lord of the Rings” to hair removal in American culture.

A panel of three judges deliberated over the eight mini speeches, designed to be teasers of the talks that contestants hope to give at the event on Nov. 9. The final event will feature 12 speakers from across the country, one of whom is the winner of the student competition, yet to be announced.

The three judges, Director of The Project on Creativity and Innovation Liz Robinson, former governor of Vermont and Executive in Residence at Middlebury College Jim Douglas and Dean of Faculty Andi Lloyd are chosen as “an independent body from the organizers. They represent diverse points in Middlebury life,” board member Hudson Cavanaugh said.

“Last year we had Dean Collado, we had someone from the faculty of theater. We’ve even had a parent,” Cavanaugh said.

“The Project on Creativity and Innovation (PCI) helps us out with a lot of stuff, we get a lot of our money there. We honestly wouldn’t be able to do this without Liz Robinson,” said TedxMiddlebury board member Anna Jacobsen ’16.

With help from campus organizations like the PCI and the Middlebury College Activities Board (MCAB), a board of eight students organize TedxMiddlebury, meeting once a week to plan the 400-person event that will take place in Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts in November.

Between now and Nov. 9, board members will be busy advertising, selling tickets, organizing housing and transportation for speakers, training volunteers and supporting their speakers.

According to Jacobsen, these board members choose speakers, “by word of mouth [and] by things we’ve read in the paper. We use the Times list of 100 most influential people and we try to use the Middlebury alumni network to bring people in.”

The board has not yet released their list of speakers for this year’s conference, though they have decided on a group.

The slot for the student speaker, in contrast, is filled through this competition format, in which contestants submitted a short application in order to participate and the board “essentially let everyone on. It’s not a highly selective application process, but it’s a self-selecting group,” said Jacobsen.

Competing for the slot, Alec MacMillen ’14 spoke about the biological differences between introverts and extroverts, and how these differences take shape in a college setting.

“The inspiration for my TEDx talk proposal was the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain,” he said. “Reading the book was an eye-opening experience because I felt like when she was describing introverts she was describing me.”

Several of the talks struck a similar chord of taking risks — Alia Khalil ’14 discussed the limiting nature of self-consciousness, and John Hawley ’14 used his experience on the rugby team to relay the importance of vulnerability — an appropriate theme in this setting of public speaking.

Anna Carroll ’15 in her talk, “Smooth: American Hair Removal and the Unconscious of Cultural Conditioning,” took a different approach to the discussion of risk taking by challenging our ideal of “hairlessness” for women in society. “Why are all these girls getting Brazilians?” she said, going on to express respect for those women who defy expectations.

But there was variety in the messages sent in the eight mini speeches. Ben Kramer ’14 used his four minutes gave an homage to J.R.R. Tolkien and the universe he created with “The Lord of the Rings.” Lizzie Durkin ’15 discussed a project she took on: creating picture textbooks about developing countries.

The broad range of topics covered on Thursday reflects similarly diverse preparation techniques among the competitors. MacMillen spent eight to ten hours preparing his speech while Kramer said, “I had no idea the lecture was that evening. I was in the middle of dinner and I got a text from my friend saying they were bummed I wasn’t going to speak because I missed my original time slot. I literally got up that instant and dashed down to Crossroads. I had absolutely nothing planned.”

As the main event approaches, Jacobsen has high hopes for this year.

“We sold out last year. But I think our speakers are even better this year … one of our goals for this year is to facilitate even more discussion about our speakers and connect them more to the student body,” she said.

This goal fits well with the role for TEDx on a college campus envisioned by those involved.

“What makes TEDx so great in the context of college is that college is about intellectual pursuit and TEDx is really the embodiment of that, its ideas worth spreading” Jacobsen said.

“TEDx is supremely important because it indicates not only an intelligent community but one that’s open minded, one that’s willing to listen to its individuals. We all have a lot to learn and this helps us teach each other,” Kramer said.

Listen to four of the competitors describe their speeches in about thirty seconds.


Logan Randolph

John Hawley

Benjamin Kramer


Oliver Wijayapala

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