Why TEDxZurich does not work [edited]

Of course nobody who was invited to TEDxZurich this year is gonna dare to criticize the event, because all are afraid not to get the invite next year (which is one of the inherent flaws of this elitist, invitation-only conference model. But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion…). So I volunteer to take on the task, since I was not invited and probably never will be… Oh well…

After watching almost all the talks yesterday on the live stream – yes, i was that bored – i can confidently say, the TED format is not suited for translation into our Swiss-Germanic culture.

Let me explain. TED works really well, because it is totally embedded into California culture. Most of these guys bump into each other pretty much twice each year. Once at TED. But the second time in the Nevada Desert, most likely frying on acid, probably naked, at Burning Man. This sets the decorum. The 18 minute talks are designed for native-English speakers, California casual, eloquent, witty, who deliver their message fast and to the point.

At this years TEDxZureich most non-English speakers were struggling with the English language, and this (most shockingly) included both MCs, sorry Co-Hosts. The ideas didn’t come to live when delivered in such clunky, often clumsy English. At times I was almost ashamed to hear, how poor the English was and how thick the accent. A friend of mine had to stop watching the stream, because she was too embarrassed.

Which makes me wonder: Shouldn’t TEDxZureich allow people to speak in their native tongue? And work with simultaneous translations and/or subtitles to keep things international and English? Call it TED-DExZureich? This works very well for the Ars Electronica symposium and many other conferences.

But speaking of the MCs, sorry Co-Hosts, one of the two is a very large, very ugly very imposing man with a confusing, almost intimidating sense of humor. It’s not enough to keep saying, “It’s cool, man”. You would have to actually mean it, man. His uptight rigidity in time-keeping didn’t exactly help to make people get cheering after the talks. When he pointed out that there was a standing ovation at a TED talk shown on video, this sounded like a threat, and some people actually tried to produce that standing ovation the next round… In short, he is pretty much the exact antipole of California casual. But most importantly, [edit: all these things i just listed do not matter compared to the fact that] his English-language skills are almost as horrible as some of the speakers’. And now that is a true embarrassment.

How about the content? A few ideas were really quite inspiring, Molly Crotchett’s talk had a deep impact on me, hmmm… pills to change people’s ethical values, hmmm… I also loved Roman Gaus’ presentation of urbanfarming.ch, delivered with confidence and decent enough English. Some other talks contained nice ideas, but were delivered in such horrendous English, that they were torture. The WEF dude came and talked about the impact twitter had on politics. Seriously? That’s so 2008, man. The only two other true highlights were the talks delivered via video, one of which we have seen a million times (Mick Ebling). Isn’t that fail?

In short, yes, there were ideas worth spreading, but the language-issue and the MCs, sorry Co-Hosts, need to seriously be reconsidered for this format to work here.

edit: After feedback and some further reflection i want to apologize for calling one of the MCs large and ugly. I personally have no issue, if people should call me ugly, it does not touch me. But i understand that for some people this might be crossing the line.

In rereading what i wrote i also realize that i left out some thinking and context. My point was this: all the things i first listed about the MC, who I admittedly do not like very much personally, do not matter in the light that his English is simply not good enough for such a high profile event. You can’t on one hand host and create an exclusive, elitist, invitation-only event and then fail in such a basic thing as your English skills. So please, switch to German for future events. Also, if you create such an event, it would be very important to create an atmosphere where criticism is welcomed and invited. That’s all.

About Jan Zuppinger

Jan Zuppinger has been writing this blog since 2002. He likes to grow vegetables. He likes to eat them too. He has opinions on everything, but sadly no one cares. Jan Zuppinger is not joking, just joking, he is joking, just joking, he's not joking. *click.