Trish Groves: TED 2012 Full spectrum

Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, told us on day 1 that this would be the most ambitious TED conference yet and, for its organisers, the most terrifying because speakers had been invited to find new, powerful ways of extracting the most out of their talks. Each had been urged, said Anderson, to “find the prism that will show the full spectrum.”

Writing this at the start of TED’s last day, I’m not convinced they succeeded. A surprising number of speakers this year have read from prompt cards or even a script, not always fluently, and those amazing TED-style powerpoint presentations have been in shorter supply than usual. There’s also been a lot less innovation than I expected so far but, to be fair, the first session today, is focusing on science. And so will my next blog.

Maybe it’s not a vintage TED. But it’s still TED. And the lack of gee whizz stuff has made more room for stories. In the first three days the really outstanding talks were by storytellers that made us think, feel, and connect: Susan Cain, Andrew Stanton, Billy Collins, Marco Tempest, Philippe Petit, and Jon Ronson.

Susan Cain stopped the overwhelmingly extravert TED audience in its tracks with her shy admission that, as an introvert, speaking to us was terrifying. Her book Quiet has brought numerous unavoidable invitations, so “this is my year of speaking dangerously.” At least a third of us are introverts, feeling most alive and switched on in quiet environments, but our world is biased in favour of extroverts. Schools expect kids to work in groups all the time: those who stay quiet or want to go off alone are seen as less able, even thought they’re often more knowledgeable and get better grades. Open plan offices subject introverts to the constant noise and gaze of coworkers. [I felt guilty hearing all this, and resolved to shut up more often. I hope I can.]

Cain took us back to her first trip to summer camp. She’d arrived with a suitcase full of treasured books, assuming she’d have hours of glorious, solitary, reading time. Everyone else thought she must be mad, particularly her camp counsellor (what a misnomer), and she was forced to be loud and jolly and keep her suitcase unopened under her bed. She finished her TED talk with some serious recommendations for a more equal working world and three pleas to us all: stop the madness for constant group work; “go to the wilderness” sometimes and unplug; and, if you’re an introvert, make sure you open your suitcase sometimes and let the others see it too. And remember that the world needs introverts.

Andrew Stanton (@AndrewStanton on Twitter) joined Pixar Animation Studios is 1990 as their second animator. But he was at TED as a master storyteller: as writer of all three Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and the new live action film of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sci-fi John Carter stories. He told us the story of his life, backwards from “And that’s what ultimately led me to talking about story here at TED“. Here are Stanton’s rules for storytelling: make me care; have strong story “spines” (Woody: “do the best for your child”, WALL-E: “find the beauty”, Michael Corleone: “please your father”); and—for Pixar films—no songs, no “I want” moments, no happy village. At the end of his story he told us about his beginning. He was born prematurely and was very sick with jaundice, so much so that his parents were told he wouldn’t survive. Watch Finding Nemo and you’ll see the story spine—Nemo’s dad: “I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.”

Billy Collins has twice been America’s poet laureate and I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of him. I’m glad I have now. His short, witty, poems run deep. He read us five as we watched their animated versions. “Forgetfulness” is a masterpiece. If I were a geriatrician, GP, or (still) a psychiatrist I’d recommend it to my patients. Watch it here.

Marco Tempest injected both science and technology into his storytelling. With a strong Swiss accent, sleight of computer wizardry, and remarkable showmanship, he related the rise and sad fall of Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla. Projecting images onto his face, a book, and—it seemed—onto the air in front of him, Tempest truly had us spellbound. His previous TED talk has been viewed well over 2 million times.

Man on Wire is one of my favourite films. Blending reconstruction, interviews, newsreels, home movies, and a heist narrative, it takes you from the young Philippe Petit’s childhood dream of tightrope walking between the World Trade Center’s twin towers to his ludicrously daring and successful attempt in 1974. Petit is the name I was most excited to see on the TED programme, but my anticipation was tempered with discomfort that he seemed, in the film, to be a charming psychopath. Would I warm to him in the (simulcast) flesh? In the event it was impossible not to. With gallic wit and panache he told his story and shared the secrets of juggling, wire-walking, and magic. Transfixing.

Did writer and filmmaker Jon Ronson meet Petit backstage, I wonder? He could’ve tried out the checklist from his book The Psychopath Test. Ronson speaks like a nice bloke you meet in a pub; a bit quiet, unassuming, gently funny. Enhanced by quirky animated slides, his talk took us from his discovery that he has 12 DSMIV diagnoses (why did he have DSMIV at home, though?), to lunch with a scientologist (aren’t they usually rather hard to get hold of?), via Broadmoor (one of England’s secure psychiatric hospitals), and into the world of the really rich CEO. The prevalence of psychopathy is 2.5% in the general population, said Ronson, but is much, much higher among CEOs. How many were sitting in the TED audience?

Trish Groves is deputy editor, BMJ.