Review: TEDxDU 2016 Annual Conference – Elephant in the Room

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TEDx Durham University, hosted in The Assembly Rooms Theatre, on the 4th of June, was a day well-spent and an enlightening approach to the topic of, ‘The Elephant in the Room’.

Of the many speeches, there were a number that stood out instantly. Delivered by Daniel Roe, ‘How concision might save your life’ gave a passionate explanation with a breadth of examples on the topic of how poor communication can result in costly mistakes. With an insight into both the medical and commercial sphere, the speech offered an informative introduction to the topic. He had the audience laughing at regular intervals at his biting critique of those industries and their writers who ‘over-estimate’ their skills.

Positioning this speech in the same segment as ‘Why Graduates Should Get Online To Land Their Dream Job’ (Freya Bromley) was a wise organisational decision. Her opine on the benefits of blogging initiated a theme of speeches about the art of writing.

Karen Pollock, with her exceptionally moving speech entitled, ‘The search for humanity in the Holocaust’ brought tears to my eyes. As Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, she told stories from Holocaust survivors whom she encountered through her work. Particularly awe-inspiring was the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved 669 Jewish children by finding homes for them and arranging their safe passage to Britain.

This talk was thematically cohesive with both ‘The science of violence’ by Dinah Senior and ‘”Weaponised” refugees and the limits of the ethics of a just war’ by Professor John Williams. Although Williams’ delivery was dry, it was nevertheless a very topical issue under discussion which distilled the major arguments for and against the acceptance of refugees in Western countries. Senior’s talk was a thought-provoking rumination on the ‘epidemic’ of violence, which we are saddled with through the underlying ‘tone of shame’ in our daily interactions.

The element of audience participation also made a long event much more engaging and helped to hold the attention of the audience so that speeches became more memorable.

The student talks, in comparison, were unfortunately lacklustre and monotone. Ryan Murphy’s talk on ‘Taking Offers and Embracing Failure: An Improviser’s Guide to Life’ seemed unrelated to the overarching theme of the event, ‘The Elephant in the Room’. It was also vague in content and Murphy’s experience of improvised comedy was completely side-lined by his desire to give an airy pep-talk on success and failure.

Shaheen Ahmed-Chowdhury’s talk, ‘No Moustaches Allowed’ explored the gripping subject of the interaction between his identity and his former religious beliefs in Islam. However, the topic was too broad to be grasped in such a short time and the focus was sometimes misplaced on dull miscellanea. Instead of talking about exactly the arguments posed by his Imam on a topic such as ‘The role of women in Islam’, Ahmed-Chowdhury chose just to say that the Imam’s faith remained unshaken. Overall the strings that connected his interviews of his parents and others who believed in the faith were too loosely organized and no conclusion of note seemed to be achieved.

Mistakes by the crew also detracted from the experience, as despite the general tidiness of the stage itself and the similitude of the setting to other TED venues, there were constant technical problems that greatly detracted from the natural flow of the event. Sound quality was poor and the constant interruption of speakers adjusting their sound was both distracting for the audience and inconsiderate to the speakers themselves. The entire situation was exacerbated by the tech guy who came on bowing to the audience at every mistake; a wholly unprofessional attitude to the situation.

Another feature which left more to be desired about the fluidity of the event were the presenters which came on, in between each talk or performance. The awkward nature of their under-rehearsed dialogue immediately ruined the gravity of any preceding speech. The delivery was often clumsy and the content poorly written.

The choice to show a video as the last talk of the day was another poor choice from an organisational perspective. It would have had more of an impact if that slot were taken by one of the other speakers on the day, perhaps by one who could have left the conference on an uplifting note.

Also the decision to put the Singing Duo, Aoife and Emily’s performance as a culmination of the day was eclectic considering that many people had already started leaving before their performance. The two were remarkably talented in their acoustic renditions of When You Were Young by The Killers and Toxic by Britney Spears. The Northern Lights were similarly magnificent and have only become even better since the last TEDx Durham University event at which they performed.

It was inevitable that some mistakes were going to be made over the course of such a lengthy event. It was nevertheless unfortunate that a plethora of avoidable errors were committed, which inevitably took away from the hard work that had been obviously been put into TEDx at Durham. Regardless, on the whole the speakers were engaging and it was definitely worth having spent a Saturday in such an educational, and simultaneously entertaining atmosphere.

Image: TEDxDU

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