TED TALKS TO YOU

Leslie Belknap hopes to change the world, 18 minutes at a time

"My heart has always driven my decisions,” Leslie Belknap says, reflecting on the career path that led to her position as executive director of TEDxNashville. Belknap’s role as Nashville’s co-organizer of TEDxNashville might lead one to think that statement was made in the standard TED Talk setting — standing on a stage, speaking to a small audience and millions of online listeners. Instead, Belknap is sitting at a table in an East Nashville coffee shop. In contrast to her mastery of public communications, she seems a little nervous speaking about herself one-to-one, but a small case of the jitters does nothing to blunt the passion she has for her work.
     “During and after college I spent most of my time traveling through northern Mexico (working on a photo documentary series),” she says. “I was seeking groups where Spanish was not their first language. They have something like 68 languages that are spoken in Mexico because of all the indigenous groups trying to maintain their identity. It opened up my eyes to the needs in those communities, and I thought getting a medical degree would allow me to connect with those groups and other indigenous groups around the world.”
     A native of Chattanooga, Belknap spent her childhood and early teenage years in Tennessee. When she was 16, her family moved to Washington state where she graduated from high school. Securing a media arts degree from Prescott College in Arizona, she lived in California, New Mexico, Montana, and Arizona before embarking on her expedition through northern Mexico. Her experiences south of the border prompted her to consider a dramatic career change.
     “I moved to Nashville in 2011 to apply for Vanderbilt’s Master of Nursing program,” Belknap says. “I was about to submit my application when I was offered a job with a local presentation design and presentation training agency. As part of that job, I spent a lot of time training speakers, as well as researching and writing about public speaking. As a result of my public speaking expertise, I was recruited by TEDxNashville to coach TEDxNashville speakers.”
     TEDxNashville is a local nonprofit company licensed through the nonprofit media organization TED. TED was founded in February 1984 by architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman as a conference focused on the convergence of Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED). Beginning in 1990, TED became an annual event, and the slate of speakers gradually expanded to include presentations by scientists, philosophers, musicians, religious leaders, philanthropists, and many others, fulfilling the company’s motto, “Ideas Worth Spreading.”
     In 2006, TED began offering free, online streaming videos of “TED Talks.” The 18-minute maximum presentations addressed a large variety of topics, often through storytelling. The popularity of online TED Talks has boomed in recent years with an estimated combined online viewing total of more than 2.4 billion. The standard TED Talks format — a large, barren stage featuring a lone speaker wearing a headset microphone — has become a ubiquitous part of pop culture, copied by other conferences, parodied by comedians, and used in commercials for a variety of products.
     TEDxNashville held its first event in 2010, and Belknap began working with the organization in 2013. Her experience teaching public speaking and her desire to make a difference in the world made her a natural fit for the organization.
     “The company I was working for helped TEDxNashville revamp their speaker training program, and I worked directly with TEDxNashville speakers,” she explains. “I loved that process so much that when our company decided to drop community service work, I continued to work with TEDxNashville as a volunteer. I eventually joined the board about three years ago.”
     Belknap became cochair of TEDxNashville’s speakers committee, and in February 2016 became the executive director. Her first major event in her expanded role was the seventh annual TEDxNashville conference. Held on April 15-16, 2016, at the War Memorial Auditorium and Tennessee Performing Arts Center, it attracted 3,000 attendees for 20 talks by a wide variety of speakers and performances by 29 artists.
     “TED began offering Level 2 licenses in 2015,” Belknap says. “They allow a TEDx organization to hold a two-day event and TEDxNashville was one of the first to receive that license. Our main conference is particularly important since our primary source of revenue is the sale of conference tickets and support from our sponsors.”
     Belknap’s list of favorite Ted Talks includes two from the 2016 TEDxNashville. “The Spacetime Symphony of Gravitational Waves” by Dr. Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, associate professor of Physics & Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, is a lively and entertaining explanation of gravitational waves, Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and a philosophical observation on humanity’s place in the universe.
     “One of the beauties of TED Talks is that they can take the most complex ideas and condense them to a form that most laypeople can understand,” Belknap says. “And (Dr. Holley-Bockelmann’s) talk was a wonderful example of that, and how everything we do leaves a permanent impression on the fabric of space.”
     Another of Belknap’s favorites is “Heroes and Villains: Is hip-hop a cancer or a cure?” by Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae. Over the course of 18 minutes, Lecrae constructs a powerful narrative of how hip-hop music transformed from a source of social commentary to the perception that it glorifies crime, drug use, and misogyny. He also presents a path for the music to become a force for positive social change.
     While TEDxNashville recruits speakers from around the world, as was the case with Lecrae, the majority are recruited from the Nashville area. “We strive to mostly have local speakers because we want to put Nashville’s brilliance on a global platform.” Belknap says. “We coach our speakers to relate to a global or at least national audience, so their message will be appreciated by as many people as possible. By giving Nashville a global platform, we help to enhance our reputation as an innovative and creative city. We’re a hub for start-ups and research and there are a lot of really important ideas developed here. The fact that we’re not a business or sales conference and that you’ll hear important ideas in a short format helps to grow our understanding of the world. I’ve been very pleased to hear that within the TED community, TEDxNashville is viewed as one of the top curators in the world, because Nashville is a magnet for brilliant people.”
     This year’s TEDxNashville conference will be held on March 17-18 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Twenty speakers will cover diverse topics that include the reclamation of public spaces, the future of humanity and robots, forgiveness and criminal justice, how the intersection of sex and race created popular music, and much more.
     “Our theme this year is ‘Illuminate,’ ” Belknap says. “Along with our main event, we’re also planning several smaller, one-day salons, a health care-focused event in August at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and a dinner series that will be by invitation only. We’re also tentatively planning a youth event in November.”
     Although the short format of TED Talks precludes in-depth examination of a topic, Belknap says the easily digestible format and noncommercial, nonreligious, and nonpartisan policies make them the perfect means for planting signposts leading to greater exploration.
     “The TED’s guidelines for talks prohibit sales, religious, or political agenda,” she says. “A TEDx event is a safe space for new ideas in their purest form. More importantly, accessing TED Talks is free anywhere in the world through TED.com and various social media platforms. I think that’s especially important in this time when science and journalism are under attack.
     “There’s a buzz now about the echo chambers that people find themselves in through social media. People tend to seek out sources of information reflecting their personal perspectives and ignore sources that don’t match their biases. Attending TEDxNashville is a great way to break out of that bubble. Even if you disagree with a certain talk, it’s only going to take 18 minutes or less of your time, but hopefully, it will open you up to new ideas.”
     There’s little doubt that Belknap is a true believer in the core, driving philosophy of TED. Her fervor is especially interesting in today’s hardline partisan atmosphere, as it can’t be classified as left or right, up or down, or black and white. It’s a belief that the free and easy flow of information is crucial to a better world.
     “When I talk about topics that are near and dear to my heart or big life changes, I often reference a TED Talk,” she says. “I definitely think if you stumble across the right TED Talk, it can be the catalyst you need to make a life change.
     “If I wasn’t working with TEDxNashville, I think I still would have ended up working to spread paradigm-shifting information and ideas in some way. The reason I wanted to become a nurse practitioner was to make the world a better place, but I like to think that I’m now in a position to accomplish that goal in a different way. TED likes to say their talks cover the whole spectrum of human ingenuity, and hopefully, the lasting impact of those ideas will change the world for the better.”