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Shawn Micallef and Sonya Barnett will both be speaking at TEDxToronto, a series of talks that will be held at the Sony Centre for The Performing Arts. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Shawn Micallef and Sonya Barnett will both be speaking at TEDxToronto, a series of talks that will be held at the Sony Centre for The Performing Arts. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

ideas

How TEDxToronto became the city’s premier speaker series Add to ...

Got an idea? Turn it into a memorized, 18-minute speech told in a compelling manner that is both locally relevant and globally applicable. Now deliver this talk in front of cameras and 1,000 people seated before you, plus another 30,000 live-streaming your speech online. Nervous?

This fall, 16 Torontonians will face such a predicament when they’re called onstage, one by one, to speak at the fourth annual TEDxToronto conference, held Oct. 26 at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

“Am I nervous? Definitely,” says speaker Sonya Barnett, one of two founders of SlutWalk, a march first held in Toronto in April, 2011, in protest of the notion that women invite rape and abuse by dressing provocatively. Since the idea was first hatched, more than 200 countries have held SlutWalks worldwide. At their talk, Ms. Barnett and co-founder Heather Jarvis plan to discuss “what it means to be a slut.”

Other speakers announced this week include public-space advocate and writer Shawn Micallef; University of Toronto political science professor and director of the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies, Ronald Deibert; and biomedical engineer and leader of the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation, Joseph Cafazzo.

All are busy writing speeches that address the theme of this year’s conference – alchemy: How single ideas and stories can combine to create something much larger, says TEDxToronto co-chair Afshin Mousavian.

“It’s a fitting theme for Toronto, given our diversity and how so many cultures are living together and mixing and combining.”

TEDxToronto is one of many satellite versions of TED (an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design), a now-world- famous non-profit speaker series based in California. The event earned its high-profile status not only by showcasing candid storytelling from both unknown and known speakers – including Melinda Gates, who, countering her own religious beliefs, talked about why birth control should be an absolute right for everyone – but by making these talks widely accessible online, free of charge, on YouTube and ted.com.

A far cry from the canned speeches of CEOs (“work smarter, not harder”) or the Hallmark sentimentality of a Tony Robbins wannabe, TED talks are sometimes controversial, often contrarian and always compelling. “It’s about allowing yourself to be vulnerable by telling your story,” says Darius Bashar, chair of programming at TEDxToronto.

At last year’s conference, physician Brian Goldman from Brockville, Ont., told the crowd he wasn’t sure how they were going to feel about him after his speech. “He walks on stage and admits that two people are no longer living because of his actions,” says Mr. Mousavian. Dr. Goldman’s point: Health professionals sometimes make mistakes, and by admitting this and talking about it, we’ll be better off.

“About two of our talks are picked up by ted.com each year,” says Mr. Bashar, including last year’s talk by Dr. Goldman, which has now been watched by approximately one million viewers. “People watch these videos and think, Toronto is an innovative place with unique ideas.”

That TEDxToronto has grown from a small event watched by 100 people four years ago into this city’s biggest, best-known speaker series, is largely testament to the unpaid team of volunteers behind the event, mostly twentysomethings with résumés equally divided between charity work and new-media expertise. Mr. Bashar is a film producer and Mr. Mousavian a product manager at design firm Jet Cooper.

“When people hear I do this for free, they’re shocked,” says Mr. Bashar, who begins planning the event in early February, working off a whiteboard list of more than 100 potential speakers. “The first year, nearly 50 per cent of them declined, but last year only one said no, and that was because she couldn’t make it that day,” says Mr. Bashar.

The team works intensely with each confirmed speaker, turning the speech into a well-honed, completely memorized and personal story. “Already I’m realizing a TED talk requires much more work than my other speaking engagements,” says Dr. Cafazzo, who will discuss the future of healthcare and how patients can lessen their dependence on the system – or, patient, heal thyself.

Dr. Cafazzo knows he could try to earn a spot at other Toronto speaking events, ones that would pay him dearly for his talk. But, says Dr. Cafazzo, “I don’t think anyone matches the reach of TED. [It’s] become the most accessible science and medicine forum. People are talking about the future of cancer care because they heard about it through TED. They’re even on Netflix.”

This year, TEDxToronto hopes to become the first TED affiliate to attach a $20,000 fund to one speaker’s idea, turning it from words into action. Should Mr. Micallef win, Toronto could quickly become a much different place.

“I’ve been thinking about the suburbs and downtown divide,” says Mr. Micallef. “You’ve got a deputy mayor saying he wouldn’t raise a family downtown. But I think this divide is politically driven and artificial, and could be overcome.”

How so? That’s Mr. Micallef’s task. “In the very least, [TED] will give me the opportunity to overcome some of the dumb things I’ve said.”

 

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