TEDxUofM

Well, the weekend finally came and passed. TEDxUofM 2011 went off as a smashing success in my book. Below are some of my random thoughts and experiences from what was a fantastic and inspiring weekend.

First and foremost, let’s just get this out of the way: The University of Michigan – Ann Arbor is the greatest place on Earth. Seriously.

For all the crap that the state of Michigan (especially Detroit) takes, I was smiling even as I walked through DTW. By the time I set foot on Central Campus I could hardly contain the reverence and pure joy I always feel when I swerve to miss the block M on the Diag. I’ve been to quite a few colleges and universities over the past couple of years and none of them come close to replicating the mix of excellence, inspiration, and straight up fun that flows around that place. Its overwhelming even deciding where to have your first meal because Ann Arbor is that awesome. Why did I leave? Sigh.

Anyways, a quick recap of Thursday, the day before the conference. I arrived in Ann Arbor around noon, walked around reliving my glory days (which only ended a year ago), grabbed some food (Pot Bellies was easy, cheap, and delicious), then headed over to the recently completed North Quad for a final rehearsal with the speaker coach Tom*. Turns out that my weird left-handedness makes me more liable to throw remotes across the room during a presentation. Other than that, I was feeling pretty good about my presentation. I had practiced and tweaked to the point where I had things pretty much rolling off my tongue with minimal thought.

*Tom is a presentation genius by the way. Follow him on Twitter, check out his company, and most importantly, buy his sweet new app.

From there it was time to meet with one of the stars of my talk (hint: girlfriend) and head over to theater for a quick visual check of my slides on the big screen. The Michigan Theater is a perfect example of why Ann Arbor is so freakin sweet. Not only is A2 able to support two local theaters right next to each other, but one of them looks like this…

Michigan Theater...damn.

When I arrived I was immediately struck by just how much work the TEDxUofM crew had put into this event. One of the most amazing parts about TEDxUofM is that it is entirely student run and every speaker is affiliated with the university as a student, alumni (me), professor, doctor, etc. The theater was buzzing with all of these student volunteers getting the stage ready, unveiling crazy installation pieces like laser cut plastic TEDx signs, or putting together the 1700+ programs for attendees. They could only be in the theater for a few hours, so things were crazy to say the least. Huge props to the tech guys who were multitasking like whoa trying to organize slide decks for ~20 presentations across two computers all while tweaking display and audio settings to make sure things went smoothly. Of course they did such a good job it looked effortless the next day.

After running through my slides, satisfied with the way things looked on a GIANT screen, I ran across the street to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch Michigan Hockey hold on to a lead against heavy favorite North Dakota to punch their ticket to the NCAA Championship game (sadness…they lost in the finals later that weekend). Talk about an awesome way to be welcomed back to Ann Arbor. The sense of community you feel in a packed bar where everyone is wearing the same colors and screaming at the same thing is something I truly miss here at MIT. Robotics competitions just don’t draw kegs or crowds.

So by now you are probably thinking “TALK ABOUT THE CONFERENCE, DAMNIT!” Fine.

The day of TEDxUofM, I started off the right way with some Angelo’s raisin toast, then headed to the theater to get settled. I didn’t present until the second session (after lunch) so I was able to calm my nerves and enjoy the show for the first couple talks. Things went off with a bang, once again proving how badass Michigan is. Check out what the event kicked off with. This outrageously cool animation was made by my speaker shadow (aka person who made sure I showed up in the right places at the right time), Shannon. This was used to open the conference…can you say pump up video?

TEDxUofM 2011 Intro from TEDxUofM Innovators Series on Vimeo.

Because I know you want to listen to that song over and over, it was made by a med student, DJ Medicine Hat, and is titled Long Time Comin’.

Long Time Comin’ by MedicineHat

Seriously, we weren’t even 2 minutes into this event and I was already floored by the talent that had been amassed. The first session came and went with some really inspiring talks (one of by my former advisor Scott E. Page). It was going to be tough following life saving doctors and human rights lawyers…all I do is stare a computer all day, occasionally making pretty pictures.

I didn’t really eat that much at lunch for fear it would end up in the front row, as my presentation was slotted second up after the intermission. Backstage though, I managed to keep pretty calm and collected through a combination of techniques recommended to me by my dad (he meditates) and a friend who dances ballet professionally. I have to thank the crazy talented trio, AJ Holmes, Ali Gordon, and Carlos Valdes for warming up the crowd with their awesome performance about writing a musical (the talk itself was even kind of a musical…very meta).

Wow ok now I am freaking out a little…deep breaths…I was up next. Peter Kotvis gave a super flattering and perfectly themed intro for me (THANKS PETER!), but I am most thankful that he didn’t ask me to try to write one or edit one myself. I hate doing stuff like that. Ok so this is the part where I pretty much blacked out (not really). I remember hearing my name, walking out on stage, noticing it was bright as hell on stage (this is why it will most likely appear that I am staring down the whole time…derp), and just talking into the abyss (I couldn’t really see beyond the first few rows).**

**Giant pet peeve. I HATE putting punctuation inside the parentheses…it just looks awkward.

By the time I actually got on stage I had probably given my talk 20 or 30 times to an empty room, once to a room full of people, and twice to Tom. Everything I had read about doing this sort of stuff said the same thing….”Practice, practice, practice!” Yeah…we talkin’ ’bout practice. I probably put in over 40 hours for a 13 minute talk so I hope it paid off.

While I am not the type of person who gets super nervous about public speaking, you can’t help but getting a few nerves in that moment RIGHT before you start speaking to a couple thousand people. This is when those 40 hours take over and as soon as I got that first laugh (at the expense of my poor communication skills), I was pretty much locked in. I remember bits and pieces of my time on stage, but that’s kind of it. What I remember most clearly is saying “Thank you” then looking at the clock to see the seconds tick down from :02 to :01 and thinking “AWESOME!!!!” Things almost NEVER get timed that perfectly and while I am sure it was nothing but luck, I am gonna brag about that. I think I might have been a little too excited because I remember walking off stage a bit quickly.

So that was done. It felt SWEET. I went back to the audience and enjoyed the amazing amazing amazing rest of the show.

Now I’ll say couple more quick observations from the rest of the day. The North Campus Research Complex (NCRC) where the reception was held is AWESOME! Probably the best land purchase since Jefferson bought the Louisiana territory. The building are decked out because…it’s big pharma, duh… and now they can just higher a bunch of scientists to fill it because they bought it so cheap.

While I would have loved to just pass out after dinner, I rallied and spent the night at Charlie’s because that’s just what you do. In all, it was an amazing day and I am still kind of in awe of how badass the University of Michigan is. To just pull that much talent and inspiration from within is no small achievement.

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who watched my presentation, traveled to see the event, and of course those who put it together!

I can’t wait to see how they top it next year!

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