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

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.

7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.