The Art and Commerce of Storytelling - How I Became A TEDx Producer


I have always been a story teller. It started back when I took my first stage. My story, although told with my body through dance, was a total expression of my soul. Story telling is something anyone can take on. And when we decide to become vulnerable, and share our ideas and purpose with the world, it’s possible to create not only magic, but also make an impact that will have a profound effect on every life.

Story telling is an art that may take on many forms. Choreography, filmmaking, literature, and now famously, The TED Talks. TED is a not-for-profit organization standing for technology, entertainment and design, but also includes scientific, cultural and academic topics. The conference, for short form, 18 minute or less talks, started in 1984 and has continued annually since 1990, with curator Chris Anderson at the helm. TED Talks are “ideas worth spreading” and there are over 2,600 TED Talks freely available online. Wikipedia notes that by November 2012, TED Talks have been watched over one billion times worldwide.

Tricia Brouk, courtesy of of Tricia Brouk.com

In 2011, TED started what they then called, “TEDx in a Box” for people in developing countries to have events in the style of TED. These independently organized events, now called simply TEDx, have become incredibly popular, and as of October 2017, TED has archived over 100,000 TEDx talks. That is almost 15,000 ideas worth spreading per year. That’s a lot of ideas, compared to the average of just 92 TED talks per year since 1990.

TEDx events provide an opportunity that TED can’t. According to TEDx Santa Cruz, as of 2015, there have been over 1500 TEDx events scheduled all over the world, in comparison to one TED event per year. TEDx turns the dream that you too can step into the red circle and share an idea that could potentially have global impact, into a reality. And this reality is something I was thrust into a very short time ago.

Three years ago, I was minding my own business writing, directing and choreographing for film, television and theater, when my dear friend and speaker, Petra Kolber, asked me to direct her TEDxSyracuse. I was a fan of TED and TEDx Talks, so I jumped at the chance to work with Petra and also become an expert on the art of TEDx. The first thing I did was invest in Chris Anderson’s book, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. If you want to take a TED or TEDx stage. Start here. Period.

What I found so fascinating during my dive into TED, is that Keynotes and TED Talks are not the same. Chris Anderson says that a TED Talk is a gift not an ask. It’s an idea not an issue. And in the end, you want the audience to adopt your idea as their own. How sexy is that?

What is this phenomenon? Why did TEDx blow up? People love stories. People also love the brand. The TED brand is associated not only with big ideas, but also with big deal people. Past speakers include: Pope Francis, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Bill Gates, Bono, and Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. People’s lives have been catapulted from obscurity to instant fame with a TEDx, like Brene Brown and Simon Sinek. This kind of credibility not only gets you booked on more stages, but it also drives the sales of your books and products.

When taking on the task of directing a TEDx, I approached it the same way I did any show I work on. I work with the writer on the script, as a dramaturg, analyzing the arc, through-line and its impact. And I direct the speaker the same way I do my actors, by teaching them intention, objective and action, and block the speaker by giving them choreography, which is knowing when and why to walk. And when and why to be still.

The one difference I became hyper-aware of, was that when I work with speakers, it’s all about the story or the idea. But with my actors, it’s all about them! I love my actors, but they lead with their needs.

In a room with a speaker, it’s all about their idea, so my job becomes about getting them to get out of their own way, so we hear this idea loud and clear and potentially “adopt it as our own”. This is how the magic happens. This is how the global impact happens.

Petra delivered a very successful TEDx and is also a best-selling author and sought- after Keynote speaker. Because she wears a TEDx crown, this credibility offered her up more paid speaking gigs. Her success also offered up my success. I began working with several other speakers who wanted to take a TEDx stage. I found myself with this handful of amazing speakers and nowhere to put them, so realized, as a theater producer, I had to put on a show. I applied to TEDx for my license.

The process was grueling. The application itself isn’t complicated, but the answers are. I don’t have the statistics of how many people apply for their license, which is free by the way, but the one person I know who’s brilliant and amazing, was turned down. I went back and forth with TEDx several times and each time, I spent hours crafting my answers, trying to read their minds as to what they needed from me and what would make me the right person to produce a TEDx. The TEDx team are amazing. They are communicative, helpful, thoughtful and totally supportive. However, it is truly a mystery as to how they choose organizers and why.

In November of 2017, I was granted my TEDxLincolnSquare license and with that responsibility, I took on producing my first event with my co-producer Jamie Broderick. I’m a theater producer, so I incorporate music and Broadway singers. I hire comediennes, magicians and pop stars to perform. I call it theatrical academia. TEDx events are independently organized events about the community and for the community. And Jamie and I nurture our community from the moment tickets go on sale. As a TEDx organizer, we are not allowed to make money from the event and speakers are not paid. Many people have asked me why I produce a show that doesn’t make me a dime. This always makes me laugh because it’s nothing new to me, you rarely make a dime as a producer in theater either. The commerce of story-telling is not always dollars. It’s impact. The art of story-telling on a TEDx stage brings credibility which creates opportunity for commerce. The credibility of being the executive producer of TEDxLincolnSquare definitely gets people to call me back, but the impact I’m having on the world makes me rich.

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How This CEO Is Using Your Period To Prevent Chronic Diseases

With so many groundbreaking medical advances being revealed to the world every single day, you would imagine there would be some advancement on the plethora of many female-prevalent diseases (think female cancers, Alzheimer's, depression, heart conditions etc.) that women are fighting every single day.

For Anna Villarreal and her team, there frankly wasn't enough being done. In turn, she developed a method that diagnoses these diseases earlier than traditional methods, using a pretty untraditional method in itself: through your menstrual blood.

Getting from point A to point B wasn't so easy though. Villarreal was battling a disease herself and through that experience. “I wondered if there was a way to test menstrual blood for female specific diseases," she says. "Perhaps my situation could have been prevented or at least better managed. This led me to begin researching menstrual blood as a diagnostic source. For reasons the scientific and medical community do not fully understand, certain diseases impact women differently than men. The research shows that clinical trials have a disproportionate focus on male research subjects despite clear evidence that many diseases impact more women than men."

There's also no denying that gap in women's healthcare in clinical research involving female subjects - which is exactly what inspired Villarreal to launch her company, LifeStory Health. She says that, “with my personal experience everything was brought full circle."

“There is a challenge and a need in the medical community for more sex-specific research. I believe the omission of females as research subjects is putting women's health at risk and we need to fuel a conversation that will improve women's healthcare.,"

-Anna Villarreal

Her brand new biotech company is committed to changing the women's healthcare market through technology, innovation and vocalization and through extensive research and testing. She is working to develop the first ever, non-invasive, menstrual blood diagnostic and has partnered with a top Boston-area University on research and has won awards from The International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Northeastern University's RISE.

How does it work exactly? Proteins are discovered in menstrual blood that can quickly and easily detect, manage and track diseases in women, resulting in diseases that can be earlier detected, treated and even prevented in the first place. The menstrual blood is easy to collect and since it's a relatively unexplored diagnostic it's honestly a really revolutionary concept, too.

So far, the reactions of this innovative research has been nothing but excitement. “The reactions have been incredibly positive." she shares with SWAAY. “Currently, menstrual blood is discarded as bio waste, but it could carry the potential for new breakthroughs in diagnosis. When I educate women on the lack of female subjects used in research and clinical trials, they are surprised and very excited at the prospect that LifeStory Health may provide a solution and the key to early detection."

To give a doctor's input, and a little bit more of an explanation as to why this really works, Dr. Pat Salber, MD, and Founder of The Doctor Weighs In comments: “researchers have been studying stem cells derived from menstrual blood for more than a decade. Stem cells are cells that have the capability of differentiating into different types of tissues. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Adult stem cells have a more limited differentiation potential, but avoid the ethical issues that have surrounded research with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells from menstrual blood are adult stem cells."

These stem cells are so important when it comes to new findings. “Stem cells serve as the backbone of research in the field of regenerative medicine – the focus which is to grow tissues, such as skin, to repair burn and other types of serious skin wounds.

A certain type of stem cell, known as mesenchymal stem cells (MenSCs) derived from menstrual blood has been found to both grow well in the lab and have the capability to differentiate in various cell types, including skin. In addition to being used to grow tissues, their properties can be studied that will elucidate many different aspects of cell function," Dr. Salber explains.

To show the outpour of support for her efforts and this major girl power research, Villarreal remarks, “women are volunteering their samples happily report the arrival of their periods by giving samples to our lab announcing “de-identified sample number XXX arrived today!" It's a far cry from the stereotype of when “it's that time of the month."

How are these collections being done? “Although it might sound odd to collect menstrual blood, plastic cups have been developed to use in the collection process. This is similar to menstrual products, called menstrual cups, that have been on the market for many years," Dr. Salber says.

Equally shocking and innovative, this might be something that becomes more common practice in the future. And according to Dr. Salber, women may be able to not only use the menstrual blood for early detection, but be able to store the stem cells from it to help treat future diseases. “Companies are working to commercialize the use of menstrual blood stem cells. One company, for example, is offering a patented service to store menstrual blood stem cells for use in tissue generation if the need arises."