Students' coaching of speakers is the talk of TEDx

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Gillian Rea
GCU News Bureau

The sellout crowd in Ethington Theatre on Friday night probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that intense planning went into the 2019 edition of TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity.

But those observers no doubt would be stunned to know exactly what that preparation entailed. Heck, even Abe Lincoln could have learned a thing or two from the efforts of the 87 GCU students (33 team members, 54 one-day volunteers) who executed the third annual event from beginning to end, front to back, and every which way in between.

Josiah Friedman thought the show looked "incredibly professional."

Even though the professional-looking presentation of last year’s TEDxGCU drew raves, the team members saw a number of ways it could be improved as they chopped it up in post-production meetings.

To start with, they started earlier. The staff was in place by last summer, and they communicated via Skype during the break to get a jump on what they would do once they returned to campus. But most notable were the improvements they instituted in the communication process with the speakers.

Rather than requiring just two rough drafts, the Speaker Acquisition Team – led by senior Catherine Toews – went all out. This time, the speakers were asked to submit or be available for …

  • Four rough drafts
  • A questionnaire to talk about their motives
  • Three videos
  • Weekly calls
  • A dry run two weeks before the event
  • Another dry run the day before the event

Each speaker had a student liaison, and Toews (sounds like Taves) trained them to be picky. Every sentence, every word mattered. No detail was too small to overlook.

“They really get into the nitty-gritty and into the trenches with each of the speakers,” she said. “We go line by line, trying to make sure that their words, even down to the very simple sentences, are as clean as we can make them, as understandable as we can make them.”

Vice President of Content Creation Justin McLean can appreciate how difficult it is for students to pull that off. After all, he did Toews’ job for the 2018 event, and he could see that “the amount of work that went into that is substantially more than I put in last year.”

But that’s just part of the story about this part of the story.

Amy Kao said it felt "very natural" for the students to give her input on her talk.

“To have a TEDx team member who’s a college student, not even graduated yet, critique them on a talk and tell them what to change is an extremely hard thing to pull off,” he said.

The extra effort began long before the speakers were in place. The decision on whom to invite was conducted in a four-hour meeting of the directors and the 13-member Speaker Acquisition Team.  

They wound up with speakers addressing everything from fake drugs to questionable scientific research, from choosing purpose over fear in our decision-making to choosing real connections over smartphones in our relationships – a good cross-section of 14-minute talks that, in the TED tradition, shared technology, entertainment and design ideas.

Afterward, those speakers addressed what it was like to work with the students.

“It’s phenomenal,” said Josiah Friedman, founder and CEO of Voices for the Voiceless, a nonprofit that seeks to change how the world deals with unplanned pregnancies. “They’re students, but the show does not give off the vibe that it obviously would have been created by students. It’s so incredibly professional. These people are spending time the whole year, and they’ve thought of everything. There are no holes in the plan.”

Amy Kao, who has made it her mission to increase awareness about fake drugs, was impressed by how the students made it their mission to help her. Like Friedman, it was her first TEDx talk.

“I didn’t view them as students. I just viewed it as a professional providing me with very valuable feedback, constructive feedback, on how I can better my story,” she said. “These students, they are so professional and so committed to the way they help speakers refine their story and communicate their message, it didn’t really feel like an awkward dynamic or anything like that. It was, in fact, very natural.”

Brian Mohr normally uses a PowerPoint for his presentations but agreed to go without it on the advice of his student liaison, Madeline Hooten. "I'm glad I did," he said.

Just as natural as the talks themselves. Not many people can give a 14-minute talk from memory without stumbling or hesitating, and Brian Mohr – another first-timer on the TEDx circuit – explained how time-consuming it is to prepare for that task.

Mohr estimated that he put in three 40-hour weeks of preparation even though he’s an experienced public speaker. He practiced his talk, on creating more meaningful connections in our lives, another eight times Friday in his family room.

The biggest challenge was that, unlike his usual presentations, he wasn’t using a PowerPoint to trigger his memory: “My liaison, Madeline (Hooten), challenged me to do it without any slides. I said, ‘All right, I’ll give it a shot.’ And I’m glad I did.”

That was typical of the kind of impact the students had – and the kind of energy they expended.

“If I put in three 40-hour weeks,” Mohr said, “they probably put in 40-hour weeks for a year to get it to this point.”

Toews said it was more like seven hours a week – the students do have to go to classes, after all – but it was a labor of love for both her and junior Konnor Bennett, another director who drew considerable praise for his work.

The film production major was the Director of Videography, and his little touches were evident all evening – right down to the closing video, which featured scenes shot just moments earlier. He said that idea was hatched in the last few weeks.

Dominic Pachuilo was resplendent in his red suit.

But what the audience didn’t witness was the way Bennett has taught the tricks of the videography trade to freshmen on his team. Talk about planning for the future …

“They haven’t done anything on this scale, and he’s taught them,” McLean said. “He has a team that’s learning.”

The audience certainly couldn’t miss the swanky red suit worn by TEDxGCU President Dominic Pachuilo, whose leadership has been the catalyst behind all the positive vibes the last two years. Even that suit was well-planned.

Pachuilo wanted to do something special in his final TEDx event, so he waited for the after-Christmas sales and then found his red gem at Macys.

“I’ve got to go all out. I’ve got to go all red,” he told McLean, who will be his successor.

Having Caleb Duarte as the emcee was another good addition this year.

About the only thing that wasn’t planned was emcee Caleb Duarte’s opening monologue. But that still turned out well, too.

Like the TEDx speakers, Duarte had practiced his talk over and over in the days leading up to the event, but then he got onstage, changed his mind and did what he does so well – he ad-libbed as he delivered his message about the importance of other people believing in you:

“I was able to watch it a little bit at intermission, and I can remember exactly what I was thinking when I said that: ‘OK, this sounds nice, let’s transition into that.’”

And, like the speakers, Duarte was awed by the dedication of the TEDx team. He wants to be a major talk-show host someday, and his first exposure to TEDx is another step in that journey.

“It makes me realize that to get to the top I just want to keep working with people who are passionate,” he said.

That same sentiment was heard from the speakers as well. Asked if he would like to return, Mohr said, “Oh my God, I would do this again in a heartbeat. I had a blast, and the students were just awesome to work with.”

There will be more trees to chop down next year. It won’t be long before the TEDxGCU student team is sharpening the axe once more.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: TEDxGCU preview shows off students' innovations

GCU Today: Students' TEDx production gets a standing ovation


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