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Finding Center: 10 Lessons I’ve Learned from the Left and the Right

I’m coming off a whirlwind of a semester starting and that means I now have some extra time for blogging. This one is a quick summary of a talk I gave to an Art and Entrepreneurship class which is cross-listed between Art Theory & Criticism and Entrepreneurship and taught by Jonathan Hils, a sculpture by trade, and Jeremy Short, a professor of management and entrepreneurship, who is a good friend and excellent researcher (who, by the way, recently linked entrepreneurial optimism with business success).

Jeremy and I go back way back to my former life at the University of Oklahoma. Once upon a time, I started TEDxOU, an independently organized TED event, on our campus and Jeremy was, very literally, our first speaker and our first event. Jeremy was the first professor I knew to write a CC licensed textbook (also happens to be a graphic novel) and the first person I gave a national conference presentation with. I owe a lot to this guy. Jeremy was also the first faculty at OU to be interested in doing a MOOC and we bootstrapped that project via WordPress at management.ou.edu (now archived at management.adamcroom.com).

Jeremy asked that I give a talk on event planning and organization and talk a little bit about the lessons I took away from doing TEDx events. This was a great opportunity to divert from edtech as well as try to pull a blast from the past in order to talk about how I came to doing what exactly I do (which is largely mysterious to all including myself). In fact, my former-former life as a full-time musician even came into play with this one (I’ve only really organized two things in my life: conferences and rock shows). So, in some respects, I’ve literally been an art-entrepreneur, if only for a brief moment, and as much as I try to hide it, these were some of my most formative experiences. As a marketer, the front lines are selling CDs and t-shirts (more importantly a culture and experience) to sixteen year old girls. It may or may not be related to the core part of the message on event planning, but I’m hopeful it atleast built some empathy with the students. I called the talk Finding Center: 10 Lessons I’ve Learned from the Left and the Right (brains not wings).

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Left and Right

I’ve got to be honest, it’s not the most fun activity; to put your past out there as “lessons learned” (particularly when you have moved past a former identity) but I did find it a bit therapeutic. My main hope was that students who might be in similar positions, who are trying to understand where art and creativity can be applied in a more corporate environment, or vice versa, can begin to relate and forge their own path.

Lesson 1: Create a diverse portfolio of experiences

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This is high-school-me. It should come as no surprise that I’m holding a camera at the cusp of digital photography really becoming a commercial standard. I would categorize high-school-me as a tech geek. My high school activities mostly included building fan websites for bands that I liked as well working for the high school local public acccess channel creating and editing videos. This gave me my first actual professional opportunity in high school as an intern for Music Television (MTV) and I have an actual credit on a MTV docs production that was done at my high school.

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Once Upon a Prom

I decided to originally study broadcasting and electronic media and quickly moved to advertising when I realized that sounded more employable. I worked in student media in the production department for 3.5 of my 4 years at OU. While I worked for a centralized department, most of my work was on the newspaper and I spent many late nights spending in our proofs to the printer. This isn’t a numbered lesson, but you learn a lot when you are required to create a new product, literally, every single day. You learn a lot when you are the last one to touch a product with a circulation of 11,000. You occasionally end up in front page artwork.

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Lol at writing about Facebook affecting grades

I also did marketing for a regional chain restaurant called Raising Canes and was a part of Adrian Peterson’s first professional athletic camp. My junior year of high school I interned with the Center for the Creation Economic Wealth based purely off of a recommendation of my friend Chris Shilling who said he couldn’t really explain what it was but I needed to do it. This was my first time fully understanding how I would apply my own skills of marketing to an actual entrepreneurial venture, which was to commercial a technology that helped treat polycystic kidney disease, the largest genetic disease in the world. In the span of the semester, we would raise $55,000 to move the technology further down the FDA pathway, and that technology getting ever so closer thanks to the determination of Dr. Doris Benbrook.

The random string of events can only be summarized by the fact that I was willing to create a body of work anywhere that felt loosely affiliated to what I was studying whether that meant creating newspapers, selling chicken fingers, or commercializing medical technologies (including, at one point, doing all three at the same time.) Not everyone is fortunate to get opportunities in areas that are in any way or shape related to their studies, so if you can cobble together work and opportunities come your way, take them.

My last semester at OU, I took an elective where I could host a radio show called The Lokl Hour. I decided my show would be about local music and used my PR saviness to actually get a local reporter to write about it. There are probably thirty of these shows a semester, so it’s still funny that anyone wrote about it or that it meant anything, but it would turn out to have a large impact on me personally. A band came to promote their first record. We decided that would do a live debut of the album in its entirety and an interview (I wish this was still online but the company that hosted the content deleted it).

I graduated and took my first salaried position later that summer. I wasn’t enjoying the position that much and spent a lot of time helping promote local/regional rock shows with a local promoter named Andy Loper. Loper also managed the band, knew I wasn’t super happy about the job I was in, and wanted to know if I wanted to go out on tour with the band for six weeks as a guitarist. This would required quitting my job. I tried out for the band on a Tuesday. I put in a two day notice on Wednesday and left for tour on Friday.

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With The Rocket Summer.

Lesson 2: It’s completely possible to make a modest living with an identity that begins digitally

We were a band in the era of Myspace bands and we leveraged the heck out of that platform to get out our music and information about our band. I still believe that Myspace was one of the most beneficial platforms for musicians. It popularized streaming music by allowing people to add playlists to their individual sites. It was Spotify before Spotify and music was much more discoverable simply through your friends profiles. This is what allowed us to actually tour and this is where I first started to truly understand a simply lesson about digital identity. You can’t ignore platforms where your work can exist, particularly when you can create an audience for your work.

Lesson 3: Digital doesn’t mean less work and it doesn’t meaning abandoning the physical.

You don’t “go” to the web anymore, you live on it. That said, you live other places as well. Digital gave us a platform but it didn’t mean we didn’t abandon physical work. We still toured and if we had extra time we were likely to be found in the mall trying to convince people to listen to our album on our iPod and then buy our CD.

As a band, you are first and foremost a content creator, so we created content. For instance, when the holidays rolled around we released a Winter EP. Digital does, yes, allow for discovery but it also allows for understanding your audience and competition (Lots of bands were doing all of these strategies). But you quickly recognized how much a visual medium this space was. One thing we never skimped on was getting the right artist to do album artwork. Album artwork became your digital artwork and this is a campaign on the most basic level.

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Animation of the ol’ Myspace page

But all of the best dreams eventually end. I stopped touring, worked a few different jobs, and began working at OU roughly two years after leaving the band. My first job was essentially a glorified receptionist for the OU Corporate Engagement Office.

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In between booking travel arrangements, I decided to attend TEDxOKC. I couldn’t convince anybody in my office to reimburse this, but they did tell me to tell them I worked at OU to see if there were any sponsorship opportunities. Their organizer, Ken Stoner, gave me one better and said we should do TEDxOU. Soon thereafter, I was organizing my first event at OU and recruiting speakers.

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Red paper clips. Because TED.

Lesson 4: Networks are not one direction. Let people engage in the experience with you. Surround yourself with people you love and can trust.

Most people think of themselves at the center of the network and they assume that most people are connected to each other through them. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

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My linkedin profile shows me at the center, always, but if you actually visualize the network you’ll see that you are amongst several already formed networks.

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A discontinued LinkedIn tool called InMaps. A big bummer because this actually made LinkedIn somewhat valuable to me.

The one thing I learned from attending an actual TED conference a couple times (TEDActive RIP) it was that these conferences don’t exist purely to consume content, which I think is an unfortunate misconception of TED. It’s almost like the content exists to bring together a specific group of people, and I always felt that my goal was to trick people that liked TED Talks to hang out with each other for a day. To turn off cell phones and notifications and enter a new experience together. As a buddy once told me “I just want to party with people I like. Everything is just efforts to throw a party.” Rock shows and TED are only different in the type of people they attract.

But TEDxOU only existed because I had a bunch of friends, a network, who had specific skills sets that I didn’t have and could perform many of the necessary tasks for the events. One of my good friends who is a video graphic artist ran my AV, Mark Nehrenz, who I graduated with, put together the camera crew, the same buddy who likes to party (Dylan Mackey) was my stage manager, our photographer was a graduate student, our lighting guy was a freshman who loved staged design, and CCEW staff were the most supporting staff you could ask for by filling in the gaps, assisting speakers with their presentations, etc. We had a museum curator speak and he was kind enough to offer the museum for an after party and Bruce Goff’s Ledbetter House for a speaker reception. There are so many stories about the people who united over silly 18 minute talks. Which is exactly why you throw a party.

Lesson 5: Works comes before the party

There’s a lot that goes into getting the word about an event and we were no slouches if I say so myself. For instance, the OU Daily has written over 60 articles about TEDxOU. This was obviously initialized because of my connection with the paper, but it was also because I brought them into the idea of the event. The events in January, and January means new semester, and new semester means new staff writers so why not have them write a small article about each of the speakers (That was my pitch at least.)? The first year is also the year where you do have any type of cash flow as that comes after the event, so I got good at asking for favors for supplies whether that was swag or printing services or the like. It dawned on me that newspaper prints a lot so I figured why not have them run the entire agenda on the back page of the newspaper and we’ll hand them out? In exchange for a comped ad, we’ll give the newpaper to attendees as the actual agenda.

We also decided to make TEDxOU an event you had to apply to attend. You applied, if you were accepted you got a little email saying you were accepted, and that you had 72 hours to purchase your ticket. In hindsight, this is a really smart strategy for a couple of reasons. The first is that, people liked to be accepted into things. And so they end up taking your email and sharing that they got accepted and that’s free marketing which is a plus.

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The next is that you geniunely get to know about the people that are coming and we used that info to connect people to each other on Twitter prior to the event in hopes of starting conversations.

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But the big not-so-well-kept secret is no one really doesn’t get accepted. They just get an opportunity to be invited. They’ve self-selected themselves, which I do think that creates a very different atmosphere. Plus, solely from a logistics perspective, it’s so much better to know ahead of time how many people are coming. I can’t back up this claim, but I would say that with most of these type of events, people decide to attend last minute. The 72-hour window forces them to commit, clear their calendar, and show up. And these numbers are good when, say, making a budget or ordering food (less waste).

Lesson 6: Work also happens during the party.

One of the affordances you have at a TED event is you get to lean on the brand of TED. This includes the red carpet, the big block letters, etc. and creating an atmosphere is really, really fun whether its stage or lighting design or breaking up talks with musical acts. I love this part a lot.

We also partner with the OU Innovation Hub to create personalized wood cut name tags which become a high point for attendees. It gives people something small to initiate conversation and is a nice little token at the very least. I see these hanging in offices all the time.

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We also build into the breaks all kind of ways to interact outside of the actual talks. These have included coffee tasting demos, interactive art installations, four square games (actually playing four square not the app), and after parties. Again, if the event was just about the talks themselves they’d be awfully boring and I think anyone who attends conferences would agree.

Lesson 7: Work also happens after the after party.

To sum up, there’s a lot of work and you don’t want to limp in to any part of any event. We do a post-event survey in exchange for priority at next year’s event. This helps us gather stories about special moments that attendees had that otherwise would go unnoticed. This is one of my favorite parts because I get to hear how someone was inspired to action through meeting someone or hearing a specific talk. I’ve got several stories from here that I deeply cherish.

But, of course, there’s also getting the talks online and promoting those as well. And some interesting stories have come from the talks themselves. When you do your first event, you really like the idea of a talk picking up steam and going viral until one actually does. And then you get over that and realize your much more well positioned to create a local conversation and just hope that it applies to somebody else, and if it doesn’t, well at least you were talking to with your community which should be your goal anyways. In the words of Jane Jacobs, “If you do it for the local, the visitor will come; if you do it for the visitor, you will lose the local and the visitor.”

Lesson 8: If you have haters, you must be doing something right (in conjunction with Lesson 9) Know who your audience is and who it isn’t. They both have positive/negative values.

But, of course, virality breeds its own stories and ours happens to involve a diet phad. We had Christina Warriner,a paleontologist, talk in 2013. Christina wanted to talk about how the paleo diet isn’t actually one thing, how diets were actually quite diverse, and what paleothic diets are like. As someone who literally researches paleothic diets, I thought this was actually a really smart idea on her part of connecting her research to a modern topic.

But if you’ve ever met anybody who has done the paleo diet, you know then that they are… very passionate about their choice. When I submitted the talk to TED, I did so with the title “Debunking the Paleo Diet.” The truth is at the time I couldn’t come up with a better word than debunking, but, lucky for me, several people in the 10,000+ comments have ;-). The video has received 1.3 million views on YouTube which is likely not an incredible number but enough to garner some attention, but it is enough to now be the number one paleo video on YouTube. More fascinating to me than any large viewership number was the conversations that it happened because of it. Robb Wolf who wrote a book about paleo diets did a point-by-point counter argument to it as well as a podcast. So did Angelo Coppola (her rebuttal as 34,000+ views). The talk was also referenced by Scientific American and promoted by TED. Christina has told me that this talk turned into a lot of hate mail which is just vile, though it also got her a few speaker gigs (hopefully that was a nice consolation). I guess my best hope is that it gave the paleo diet crowd a critical and historical perspective to their choice.

(Not in the talk) I don’t know how to prepare someone for this potentially happening. The popularity of these talks has dwindled a bit which means we aren’t seeing nearly this level of response anymore, but I know this is a major reason academics shy away from the media. 

Lesson 10: Read the tea leaves and know when the time is right to build an exit strategy.

As I mentioned before, I am no longer organizing the event day-to-day and only offering broad oversight. This is the team that does all of the heavy lifting now and I couldn’t be more thankful for them and the hours of effort the put in year-after-year. This picture was from the one TEDxOU events that I actually missed because I was out of town. Eventually, you’ll realize that there are other opportunities out there for you if you are willing to let go others. I’ve been in both a band and an event that outlasted my tenure with them, and that’s great because it means I had an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself and it doesn’t mean you didn’t have an impact. In fact, TEDxOU looks very similar to how it always has and I hooe that’s a reflection of putting together a reusable strategy with reusable processes.

Letting go (for the most part) allowed me to move on. This is probably the hardest lesson I learned. Early on, I was very careful to make sure I was highly involved with how it moved forward. I remember other departments wanting to do mini “TED-like” events and being suspicious and possessive, and the best advice I ever received from a former boss of mine was to stop thinking like that, understanding that imitiation is flattering, and embrace it. And that’s stuck with me more than anything else and I apply it constantly. In fact, sharing has come to professionally define me to a certain extent and I embrace that.

“Is that how he’s going to end?” (Yes.)

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