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UB staff member offers a peek inside TEDxBuffalo

Lauren McGowen poses next to the TEDx letters.

Lauren McGowan started as a general volunteer with TEDxBuffalo and now is a member of the planning committee and sponsorship chair.

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published April 18, 2018

“Our goal is to present ideas that have that takeaway for the audience. ”
Lauren McGowan, director of recruitment and admissions
School of Social Work

Lauren McGowan found out about TEDxBuffalo at just the right time.  

McGowan was already hooked on TED, the world-famous nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. In 2015, she was looking for ways to get more involved in her community and was excited to learn there was a local group that had been holding TEDx programs in Buffalo.

“They had been doing this since TED granted them a license in 2011, and they were looking for more volunteers,” says McGowan, now director of recruitment and admission for the UB School of Social Work. “So I signed up right away.

“That year, I just went and helped out the day of the event, and I learned a lot. I got to see how TEDx programs work, how things are set up, and I realized all of the energy and effort that goes into producing one of these events,” she says.

“As a group, we shared all of the things I loved about TED talks — learning about new things, sharing ideas, connecting with people.”

McGowan notes that applications are still being accepted for the lineup of speakers for this year’s TEDxBuffalo, which will be held in October.

“To be selected as a TED speaker is seen by many people as fairly prestigious, and we do get a lot of applications,” she says. “We ask for a two-minute pitch video.”

McGowan says the pitch can be as simple as an iPhone recording, allowing an applicant to tell committee members who they are, something about their idea, why they think people will be interested in it and what they feel will be the main takeaway for the audience.

“Are they hoping to shed light on a particular issue or change someone’s mind?  Maybe dispel a preconceived notion about something. Do they want people to take action after their talk? What is their end goal?” she says.

“Once all of the applications and videos are in, members of the organizing committee get together to review everything, whittling them down to a final group of presenters.

“We have a rubric and a rating system that we use, followed by open discussion,” she says.

“It is always interesting to see what each committee member’s thoughts and opinions are about each applicant, why they feel they might or might not work for our event. Sometimes we find we have additional questions. So we reach out to the applicant, have a conversation and try to come to a decision.”

McGowan says last year’s TEDxBuffalo received between 50 and 60 applications, with nine presenters being chosen for the event. This year the goal is six or seven speakers.

Over the past few years, McGowan has gradually increased her responsibilities with TEDxBuffalo to include membership on the planning committee and, starting last year, serving as sponsorship chair.

“This year I again volunteered for that role,” she says. “TEDx local organizations are self-funded. We raise all of our operating funds to cover our costs. And as more and more people find out about us, we get bigger and our expenses go up.”

For the past couple of years, McGowan says, TEDxBuffalo has reached capacity in its current venue, Babeville, in Buffalo.

“This year we are there again, but if the event keeps getting more successful we will need to find a larger space. It’s a good problem to have.”

In past years, TEDxBuffalo did not charge for the event. Starting in 2016, however, the organizers began selling tickets to help offset their costs. Organizers say there will be a charge for this year’s event.

This year’s TEDxBuffalo will take place on Oct. 18. Tickets will go on sale closer to the event.

“We are a 501c3, totally volunteer and officially licensed by TED,” McGowan says. “We follow their guidelines, rules and regulations, which can make operating our event and covering our costs a bit challenging.

“The rules on sponsorships are pretty strict,” she notes. “For example, we are not allowed any mention of our sponsors on social media, which makes it challenging for us to provide incentives to the organizations that support us.”

In order to try to deliver on more sponsor recognition, McGowan says TEDxBuffalo organizers will be trying a different fundraising strategy this year: moving from a large number of smaller donations to a smaller number of larger companies and organizations. “This way, we can really highlight our partner organizations and give them more focused recognition where we can,” she says.

McGowan points out that just as TED talks share free knowledge and powerful ideas from some of the world’s most inspired thinkers, TEDxBuffalo strives to have a similar impact here in Western New York.  

“We want people to connect with ideas and take something away at the end of the event,” she says. “We want people to be entertained and intrigued, and really enjoy the event, but really, our goal is to present ideas that have that takeaway for the audience.

“Our presenters are experts on their topic — which can include research — and there have been several UB faculty members. But it is more about the speaker telling a story about their research, as opposed to a more formal type of presentation,” she says.

Whether TEDxBuffalo changes audience members’ ways of thinking about something, moves them to share an idea or maybe compels them to take action, McGowan says organizers “do want them to be impacted or changed in a positive way.”

“We feel our audiences — and TED audiences in general — are made up, in large part, by lifelong learners. So whether it is an especially stimulating discussion — perhaps one which presents new information — a discovery or a call to action, we want people to take away ideas.”

The deadline for submitting an application for this year’s TEDxBuffalo is April 30. Applicants may submit their pitch videos by visiting the TEDxBuffalo website and should feel free to contact McGowan directly if they have questions.