TEDxGRI had the honor of attending the first TEDx Grand Rapids last week. There was only seating for about 500 people, so you had to apply to attend and then be picked by one of the organizers. I was delightfully surprised when my application was accepted, though I still stand by my statement that someone was drinking the night they invited me.

In short, the event was awesome. The venue was gorgeous, the speakers were excellent, and the side conversations were varied and interesting. Much of this has been covered by other sources, so I’m going to talk about something else.

As this was my first TED or TEDx event, I was not fully prepared for what was involved. I had a great time, but I think it could have been better if I’d done a few things differently. I figure the best way to remember the mistakes I made is to write them down here so I can look it up next year when I attend TEDxGR 2012 (pretty please). Heck, maybe some other TED virgin will see my tips and have an even better experience at their event because of them.

TEDxGR#1 Read and watch all of the prepared material beforehand

The organizers had a lot of material online before the event. They had speaker bios, a social network with info about the attendees, YouTube interviews with local movers and shakers, links about each of the organizers, and tons of information on Twitter. I skimmed over most of this information, but I really should have spent more time on it, especially names and pictures of the speakers and the organizing team. When you’re walking through a crowd of hundreds, it is nice to be able to recognize who is making the event happen. Not all of them are wearing special shirts.

#2 Bring business cards or a business card-sized item to exchange

I very rarely have the occasion to hand out my business card, so of course I didn’t have any on me at TEDxGR. Even if I’d had them, they wouldn’t have had the contact information I wanted to give to most of the people I met. I felt like I was there more to represent the various user groups with which I’m involved, rather than my workplace. Next time I’ll have special business cards made up with my personal contact information (name, email, web site, qrcode) and group contact info on the back. I can then circle the group I’m pimping to a particular person and hand the card to him or her.

Many of my nerdier friends think that business cards are being replaced by electronic versions. In some ways they are. However, in this case exchanging cards is much faster than fumbling for a smartphone or tablet and typing in a bunch of info on the spot. Go with physical cards – they’re easier and quicker.

TEDxGR#3 Bring a paper notepad, mechanical pencil, and Sharpie

As a tech and gadget geek, I was inclined to rely on my Android phone and Evernote to take notes during the presentations. Although some people had Internet connection problems, I was not one of them (thanks, Verizon!). However I really didn’t take any notes on my Droid. When sitting in the lower section of the theater, they asked us not to use “laptops and tablets” because the lights would distract other attendees and the speakers. Even when I moved up to the electronics-allowed balcony, I didn’t use it because typing on a smartphone is really slow. Also having Twitter and email blinking at me took too much of my attention away from the action on stage. Knowing that the presentations were being recorded, I stopped worrying about taking notes and just paid attention. It would’ve been nice to jot a few things down as they came to me. Hopefully they’ll come to me again when I re-watch the talks online.

When you’re mingling with the other attendees during breaks and lunch, the paper and writing implement will also come in handy. There’s only so much you can fit on a business card, and when the spontaneous discussions are flowing you’ll probably want to sketch and jot down ideas quickly. If you need to share it with someone else, take a picture afterwards and email it. The old fashioned tools are great for creating, and the new ones are great for sharing. Put them both to good use.

So why do I suggest and mechanical pencil and a Sharpie? If your lead breaks, you’ll be really happy you have a mechanical pencil instead of an old wooden one. The Sharpie is because you never know what surface you’ll be writing on. Sometimes you’re writing on a paper pad on your knee (pencil). Sometimes you’re talking to someone without a horizontal surface in site (Sharpie). Sometimes you want to jot some extra info a business card (pencil) or on your name badges (Sharpie). With a pencil and a Sharpie, you’re ready to write on anything.

#4 Try hard to suss out the awesome

Everyone at the event is awesome in some way, and he or she is probably humble about it. This can be intimidating and frustrating. When you meet someone, you may both be trying to figure out what makes the other unique and great. I am often inclined to end the conversation if it’s going nowhere, but I really think at an event like TEDxGR that that is the wrong choice. Don’t stop talking until you find out the awesome, it will probably be worth it.

Ben Rousch at TEDxGRFor instance, during the first session I sat next to a random young lady and introduced myself. She revealed that her name was Angela Satterlee and that she is a designer at Universal Mind. We didn’t discuss much about her beyond that before I invited her to the next GRWebDev meeting. I spent several minutes admiring the theater and the slideshow of red Xs around the city. I thought the whole look and feel of the event was wonderful, but I didn’t mention it to anyone.

Now if I’d followed Tip #1, I would’ve known that Universal Mind was behind much of the visual design of TEDxGR, and could’ve asked her about it. I would then have found out that Angela herself was responsible for quite a bit of it. Being humble, she didn’t mention it, and I didn’t stick with the conversation long enough to suss it out for myself.

I never did run into her again after I found this out, so if you happen to see this post, great job Angela!

#5 Set aside your shyness

By nature I’m inclined to retreat from a crowd, and to not engage random people in conversation. However events like this are different – you really need to just grab someone and start talking. Everyone is there to socialize, so it’s not really rude or unexpected. I found the “What I innovate” label on the badegs to be an excellent way to start a conversation.  So anytime you’re outside and you see another attendee standing alone, introduce yourself. Sometimes these conversations won’t go anywhere, but other times you’ll end up talking for half an hour. This is one thing I think I did pretty well at TEDxGR. It was exhausting, but I met a lot of interesting people and learned essential skills for business just by walking up and talking.

If you have any other tips for making my next TEDx experience even more excellent, please add them in the comments section. I’ll repost this next year with all of your juicy advice included.

TEDxGR was one of the fanciest and best business events I’ve ever been to. I learned a lot about the benefits of invoice financing, and also the way the event was run. I owe a very hearty thank you to the organizing team.

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