I understand your skepticism because I have been to many of the same conferences you have. I’ve seen the tweets saying lives have been changed by a talk on agile delivery and I know as much as you do that it’s not true. I understand why you would apply this same skepticism to TedX Brum.
This is why I’m going to tell you why this was different, why this isn’t a fanfare at the end of a normal conference, why this isn’t about egos or back slapping or narcissism. This is about giving credit where it’s due and realising that it’s possible to do things differently. This is a message to all of us to up our fucking game. This conference cost a fraction of what the conferences I usually attend cost, the tickets prices were a fraction of the cost. The message here is we can and should do better.
Thank you to Dominic White for writing this with me and being there yesterday for me and the guests I shared my stage with.
Every single person in the building wanted to be there. This is not because it’s more fun than a normal day at work or because there was a speaker they wanted to meet or because they had a thing to sell. This was because the genuinely feel part of the community and understand the value they are bringing to it - they know that they are part of something much bigger than themselves.
What does this look like? Firstly, smiles. From the person holding the doors to the person serving tea - those smiles were big and bright and real and didn’t falter. This is really saying something considering how exhausted they were and probably still are. Secondly, time. Like Andrew unpacking all his things and taking his jacket off on the way out the building to talk to my camera for five minutes.
2. Talk about the actual thing
There was no euphemisms to make people feel better about themselves. We heard words like ’queer’ ‘black’ ‘gay’ ‘feminist’ ‘bold’ ‘suicide’ ‘racist’ ‘knives’ ‘death’. The level of honesty and vulnerability is one I’ve never witnessed before.
3. This is making an impact on actual human people
We went for a drink at the bar of the hotel, and the bar staff had been watching and came and spoke to me about my talk. The content and the atmosphere affected every single person within a 200 meter radius.
4. Devita’s preacher style
In Britain our political style is to control ourselves - not in the sense of our ideology, which can be absolutely batshit insane, but in our delivery. We are supposed never to be visibly angry, or visibly excited, or to shout at the people who annoy us. And it gets us nowhere. Here people cried, people shouted, people got mad, people danced and stood on their chairs and all of the ideas and presentations were stronger for it.
5. No painting-by-numbers
It was a conference that wasn't about ‘meeting new people’ or ‘learning new things’ - which are very middle-class objectives for actions. Nobody had an objective of getting new business cards. No speaker had slides full of ‘tweetable wisdom’. These weren't presentations that had been done a thousand times before to a thousand different conference halls - this was new and real. There was no existing structures justifying themselves. Only the new, the vibrant and the experimental - at a stage where we can start to test and adjust and adapt and copy.
6. Everybody wanted to be there and stay there
Nobody went out for coffees and calls. No audience members were planning their escape or hanging out in the hallways. Nobody broke away to 'explore the city'. It was meticulously organised and there wasn’t an off-beat. Nobody cared about the quality of coffee and food and how long the breaks were. The whole conference was about so much more than that.
7. Real common sense language
It was all delivered in language your mum would understand and want to take part in. Basic income, food lab, Blurt, all will require 21st-century technologies to undertake and are usually framed as technocratic responses to problems. See all the coverage of ‘uninformed’ voters during the Brexit vote. Oh, and regional accents. Where do hear regional accents? Well, regional news, Take Me Out and occasionally when something totally disastrous happens outside of London. Every speaker sounded different.
9. No question and answer
No smater-than-thou Q&A. I’m exhausted by status-quo warriors (usually characterised by the phrases "I love the idea, but you haven't thought about this other thing..." or "well it all sounds very nice but it'd never work in practice..."). Nobody wanted to be the cleverest person in the room.
10. No tool-fetishism
No process chat. No diagrams. No case studies. No evaluation metrics.
11. Eclectic content
An array of ages, gender, race, genre, opinions - diversity in every spectrum that all fed into the aim of the program. We heard from poets, musicians, rappers, dancers, activists, policy makers, dancers and singers.
So what is your conference for? Making money - then don’t do it. Promoting a discipline or an approach - then don’t do it. To give out prizes and awards to establish hierarchies inside industries - don’t do it. Conferences are one of the only places where lots of people from different backgrounds come together to focus on a thing - let's take responsibility for that.
Watch the entire event and if you are a conference organiser speak to the TedX Brum team or any of the eight hundred people who attended or the dozens of volunteers and learn from this group of people who want people to copy them.
Thank you Immy for the personal invitation to be part of this incredible thing and to each and every person who was on the stage, in the audience and behind the scenes for making us all realise that there are hundreds of people who do give a shit and who are doing actual, real things that we can all be part, of learn from and champion.