Behind the scenes of a TED talk

Posted on Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Andrew Pelling on stage wearing a microphone headset with shelves of electronic equipment and a TED sign in the background.

Andrew Pelling’s TED talk, which went live on last week, has over 400,000 views so far. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

By Andrew Pelling

Never have I put so much effort into just being myself.

If you’ve seen my TED Talk, “This Scientist Makes Ears out of Apples,” posted June 15, I look as cool as a cucumber, relaxed and natural. In fact, I was sweating bullets.

It had taken me months of writing and rewriting before I stepped on stage in Vancouver to film the talk in February 2016.

To make it even more nerve-racking, I had to present first, before the other TED fellows. This was in front of an audience of around 2,500 people, some of whom are really prominent multi-billionaires. The minimum ticket price to attend is about $11,000 Canadian.

I’m happy to say I did it in one take. They had prepared me well, with webinars on everything, including how to move, what to do with your hands, how to keep breathing on stage and what to wear.

When I first found out I had been selected as a TED fellow in December 2015, I couldn’t believe they had chosen me. Ted fellows are a very select group. There were only 20 others selected for 2016.

However, I only had a couple of months to get ready to film the talk. It took over my life. I was ragged. All I could think about was TED, TED, TED.

Every week, I would have a video chat with the TED fellows team to read my script and show slides. They asked us to write out our talk word for word, which was very uncomfortable for me because I usually wing these things.

Every week they would tear my presentation apart. It was a real process of creative destruction. They kept asking, “Why do you care about this? Why do you do it?” They are experts in getting you to drill down to the core idea. They wanted to know, deep down, who is Andrew Pelling?

As a scientist, that is a very strange place to be. For us, talks are always all about the data. We try to remain anonymous and objective.

I was getting closer and closer to the big day and I still didn’t have an approved version of the talk. It was only about a week before we were due to record it that they said, “Lock it down, you’re done.”

Andrew Pelling peering through a thin apple slice in a petri dish.

The point of my talk isn’t really about carving ear shapes out of apples, stripping out the cells and using the leftover cellulose structure as a matrix in which to grow human cells — although it was a good hook. (When I did show the apple ear, there were gasps from the crowd. I was not expecting that.) My talk was really about playfulness and asking unconventional questions. I talked about why I love building stuff out of old CD players and electronic garbage. As a teenager, I used to take apart hardware, and now I take apart biology.

For me, pursuing risky ideas and being unconventional as a scientist is really important. It’s how I generate ideas and it’s not the way most scientists tend to operate. It also doesn’t come naturally. You have to practise being unconventional. In my lab I ask students to start building stuff. I give them freedom and time to just play around and take risks. That makes them more creative thinkers, which means they can become even better scientists.

One really cool thing was that the TED team recreated a customized set to look like my office. During our video chats they had seen all of the crazy stuff I have built. I packed up about six boxes and shipped them to Vancouver. Apparently, props make for better talks.

Now that the TED talk is out there it is incredible to hear from people around the world how inspired they are by our method of working. The best thing about this experience is being connected to an incredible network of TED fellows who have all gone through the same process.

Andrew Pelling of uOttawa is Canada Research Chair in Experimental Cell Mechanics.

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