Adam Burk is determined to disperse some of the brightest and most ambitious ideas Mainers have, from bee-keeping to preventing hate.
Burk is organizing Maine's second annual TEDxDirigo, a grassroots offspring of the legendary TED conferences, which for 27 years have hosted invitation-only annual gatherings with eclectic luminaries — physicists, writers, magicians, emerging-market investors, etc. — who give tight, condensed talks aimed to inspire. The best of the videotaped lectures catch on online, becoming viral sensations.
TEDx events, like the one next month in Maine, are locally organized, independent versions of TED. Maine's first TEDx conference was held last year at the Frontier Cafe in Brunswick with 100 participants. Burk says he's making the 2011 event in Portland bigger, with just under 300 attendees. He's also upping his budget from $40,000 to $200,000 (two-thirds of which comes from in-kind services, he says) and giving the conference a sleeker look, a more than superficial priority.
With help from a $25,000 grant from the Quimby Family Foundation, Roxanne Quimby's Portland-based philanthropy, Burk says he'll use three video cameras and a fancier set at the Portland Stage Company venue. The VIA Agency, a Portland ad agency, is providing post-production services pro bono.
"If we hope to get the video on TED, we need a better production value," Burk says, referring to TED's popular website which posts top videos from its annual conferences as well as from the hundreds of TEDx events around the globe.
Traveling via the web is the most powerful way, these days, to promulgate "ideas worth spreading," as the TED motto goes. TED — the acronym comes from its origins in the technology, entertainment and design industries — and TEDx aim to expose diverse innovators to audiences eager to embrace novel ideas, "people who understand rallying around ideas and creating change," Burk says.
TED's potential widespread exposure can benefit those who speak at the conferences, many of whom are used to giving talks to specialized groups. With TED, they have a chance to reach a generalized local audience as well as receptive listeners around the world.
"You might say it's a tremendous amount of free advertising," says Christy Hemenway, an entrepreneur in Bath who's designed an easy-to-assemble beehive to help apiarists keep healthy bee colonies. She says her talk will be about the curative value of bees in a broken agricultural system. "It's an amazing group to be connected to," she says. "I'm over the moon to be connected to it."
Burk says TED talks aren't sales pitches, but rather highlight intriguing, "change-making" concepts. He adds, though, "There's no doubt the TED platform has been incredibly powerful in leveraging new ideas and businesses and products."
Burk, 31, works full time at a social services agency in Portland while volunteering his time to TEDxDirigo along with a handful of others. Maine's TEDx, held Sept. 10, costs $100, including a locavore lunch. People must apply to attend, filling out a survey demonstrating either their track record of making change or their desire to support change, Burk says. He calls this latter group "people on the cusp … They might say, 'I feel there's a disconnection in my life, and I want to expose myself to a community of people living and working on their passions.'"
The conference is designed to attract diverse participants from a range of professions, backgrounds, ages and interests, Burk says. The conference's invitation-only premise is not elitist but rather helps ensure a stimulating, heterogeneous group, he says. So far, attendees include educators, students, angel investors, philanthropists, marketers, publishers and entrepreneurs, he says.
This year's 18 speakers include Habib Dagher, founding director of University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center; Emilia Dahlin, a singer-songwriter and social and ecological activist; Jodie Hittle, an insurance professional and poet; and Jeff Thaler, an environmental lawyer.
Prior to the event, the unpaid speakers are coached by public-speaking experts provided free by TEDxDirigo. These consultants work with the group to hone their messages down to a power-packed 18 minutes or less.
That training is invaluable, according to Russell Libby, head of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. "It was a chance to organize my thoughts on things I had been working on for a long time [and a chance to reach] outside my circle," Libby says. "Most of the people there are not people who deal with agriculture every day … and in that process you think about the messages that work outside your circle."
Peter Arnold, Chewonki Foundation's sustainability director, spoke at last year's event and says the experience better prepared him to disseminate his views on how organizations can embrace sustainability. "Personally, it helped me articulate my message," he says. "I can rattle it off."
Enhanced public-speaking savvy is one thing, but another more tangible benefit is the video speakers can keep.
John Rooks, who will speak at this year's event, founded The SOAP Group, a marketing consulting agency in Portland that focuses on sustainability and social justice. "That's one of the benefits of [TED]: a professionally produced video — or it should be, if they've trained you right and you've done a good job preparing for it," Rooks says. "But anything worth spreading takes a spreader. You do have to market it and push it." He says he'll use his Twitter page and blog to communicate with his agency's business community.
Beyond promoting its speakers, Burk says TEDxDirigo helps Maine, bolstering the state's image as a vibrant destination for the next generation of visionaries. "This is Maine's only innovation conference, highlighting and celebrating what's here in our state," he says. "Maine is a place where brilliant things happen every day."
This story was revised from its original version.