“Stories Beneath the Surface.” My First, and Probably Last, TedX Talk – and a Few Lessons Learned Along the Way.

by Chris Dixon

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Umm, who am I, why am I here and what was I was supposed to say? Trying to keep it together on the TedX stage. Photo Courtesy: TedXUGA. 

This past winter, I received an email from a journalism professor at the University of Georgia. Dr. Scott Shamp was the director of UGA’s TedX program. As a writer and graduate of UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, Shamp wondered if I’d be interested in giving a TedX talk. Maybe, he said, it could somehow revolve around an aspect of my book, Ghost Wave or some other story I’d covered in the past as a journalist. A TedX talk? Me? Jeez, that’s an honor. But standing in front of 500 people attempting to expound on some big “Idea Worth Sharing,” or wisdom I’d gleaned while traveling the road of life? I didn’t really have any big ideas and the whole prospect of passing on wisdom made me nervous. Who was to say that I had anything to say that folks would want to hear?

Would this be a titanic mistake?

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It turned out that UGA’s TedX program was a student-run affair that actually counted as a class. After speaking with a few very cool young TedX students; Grace Ferzely, Claire Bertram, Kate Devlin and Eric Daniel, I agreed to give it a go. Two things were clear. First: These kids had a hell of a lot more multimedia prowess than I did during my senior 1989 year of college (when I got my first computer – a Macintosh Plus). Second: I wanted to talk about someone I’d met during the course of my career. Someone way more interesting than myself.

Plenty of brainstorming with these young future media titans followed. Eventually we settled on a theme that revolved around a few of the seemingly crazy big wave surfers, divers and nation builders I met while writing Ghost Wave.

The book sprang out of a story I wrote for The New York Times about the now legendary Cortes Bank surf mission Mike Parsons, Grant “Twiggy” Baker, Brad Gerlach and Greg Long embarked on in January of 2008. Something about that mission, which led to a world record wave, really stuck with me.


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A story that spawned a book. 

If you only read the 800 word story, you’d be inclined to simply think these guys were crazy. But were they purely nuts, or were big wheels spinning in their minds? I guess I wanted to find out. The Cortes Bank, and the people whose lives have turned on a dime above its sunken mountaintop, thus drew me in. Three years of obsessive research and turning over countless stones left a story – and at least one idea – that Dr. Shamp and his TedX crew felt was worth sharing.

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I’m not worthy. From Left: Mike Parsons, Me, Jim Houtz, a former Navy demolitions expert and founder of the nation of Abalonia, and Greg Long. Photo: I’m not sure. 

Since taking the stage, I realized I learned a few things about the TedX process and can perhaps pass a bit of wisdom for anyone else who finds themselves faced with a T(echnology), E(ducation), D(esign) talk.

One. Keep your idea simple – and repeat it at least a few times during your talk to keep yourself focused.
Two. You’re not getting paid for this. Are you sure you still want to do it?
Three. You’re not getting paid for this. Are you willing and able to put in the time and hard yards?
Four. You’re not getting paid for this. And TedX will own it all. Just so you’re clear on that.
Five. You don’t go onstage with a script. Wait, what? Yeah, that’s right. Your talk is all in your head – or maybe some notes on your palm.


So plan on talking about about a topic with which you’re intimately familiar. The folks who hang Successories on their walls might call it “Owning your topic.” But despite the glibness of the idea, there’s truth to it. If you know your subject matter back and forth, but then get onstage and completely forget who you are, why you’re standing there, or what the hell you’re supposed to be talking about, you can wing it and not come completely unhinged in front of, potentially, the entire Internet.

Six. You’re not alone. Every other speaker is also nervous as shit.

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The last moments of the S.S. Jalisco above the Cortes Bank. 

Seven. Don’t try to memorize your script verbatim (at least if you’re not very good at that sort of thing). I did this at first and it nearly ruined me.  In fact, I nearly pulled out of the gig altogether after a fairly disastrous (at least in my mind) first run through. Shamp and Daniel instead suggested that I take the bones of my talk and just wing it. “You know this stuff,” they said. I wasn’t aware that you could just sort of ‘wing it.’ For me, that made all the difference.

On the morning of March 27, I was joined at UGA by TedX heavy hitters who again, made me wonder what the heck I’d gotten myself into. Fellow speakers included Dr. Han S. Park, whose peace building efforts between the two Koreas have earned him global renown. Michelle Blue was a gorgeous fashion designer who set up a project with girls from developing countries like Ghana. Sales from her beautifully designed scarves help provide them with an education. Julie Rushmore was a biologist who has been conducting groundbreaking research on vaccinating primates as a means of preventing human diseases like ebola. Dawn Bennett-Alexander basically wrote the book on U.S. employment law, while Lemuel LaRoche had started up a non-profit mentoring program for disadvantaged and troubled kids that teaches life lessons through chess, with the mantra “Think Before You Move.” He was a complete badass. They all were.

In the end, I got up and winged it. And had a really good time. There are few bigger adrenaline rushes than getting through something tough without feeling like a complete imbecile. A partial imbecile, I can live with.

So there you go.
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Thanks again to the folks at TedXUGA.

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