TEDxDetroit Keep the Ideas Flowing With a Lineup of Online Talks

Volunteer executive producer Janet Tyler shares her thoughts about the event
TEDxDetroit 2020
Better days: TEDxDetroit’s Janet Tyler speaks at a pre-COVID-19 live event. // Photograph by Shaun Wilson courtesy of TEDX

Like just about everything else in these COVID times, TEDxDetroit has had to pivot from the way it normally presents its annual celebration of ideas. Since 2009, TEDxDetroit has featured more than 250 doctors, filmmakers, educators, engineers, poets, and others it describes as offering game-changing concepts in an annual one-day event.

It was originally scheduled for Sept. 30 this year as a full schedule of live talks, exhibits, videos, performances, and more at a new venue, Ford Field, with a hope of accommodating 5,000 to break previous attendance records. Organizers have now made the decision to take it virtual for attendees — and possibly speakers, too.

Janet Tyler, a leadership development expert and executive coach with her own consultancy, Novi-based True Depth, has been a key TEDxDetroit leader for 11 years. As one of four volunteer executive producers — there’s no paid staff — she serves as marketing and communications director, also assisting in planning, coordination, and coaching and preparing presenters.

At press time, she and other leaders were continuing to work out the way this year’s event, still scheduled for Sept. 30, will look. They were also hoping to identify a pared-down speakers’ lineup by mid-August. Access to view the talks will be free, Tyler says, as opposed to typical ticket prices of $75 to $125 to attend in person. Here, Tyler shares her thoughts about the event and its impact — regardless of format.

Hour Detroit: So what do you know about 2020 so far?

Janet Tyler: For us, it doesn’t matter whether the event is virtual — whether the speakers will be on stage and we are recording or [they are] doing it from home. We are really hoping it will allow for some kind of mixed event. If we’re able to do an in-person component — I’m thinking 50 people — they would really be there to support the speakers in some way. The rest would be virtual just to keep everyone safe.

How did TEDxDetroit get started and how has it evolved?

My counterpart Charlie Wollborg saw that TED was opening up local licenses and they were going to be called TEDx and he jumped on it. It started at Lawrence Tech. There were a very small number of attendees at that show … then it moved into downtown and started rotating the venues (Gem Theatre, Masonic Temple, Fox Theatre, and Detroit Institute of Arts among them). We have 11 under our belt.

How did you get involved?

I was born and raised in Detroit, so in the beginning, it was really just shining a light on the absolutely positive stories … to show off these beautiful theaters and also a little bit of the “Detroit has a lot of positive things happening.” We were really taking our licks in the media 10 years ago. It was difficult to get people to come downtown from the suburbs and attend an event in the city, so for me it was really a point of pride. Now, looking at how far the committee has come, the attendees, our fans — we’d love to be able to say we had a little small part in the resurgence. Now it’s more about the renaissance of Detroit, but back in the day it was part of the fuel.

What do you look for in speakers?

Presenters have to have a connection to Detroit. So, if you are either a boomerang, or you may have the gentleman from Pixar [Detroit native James Murphy] who obviously doesn’t live in Detroit any longer but was from Detroit, so there’s a connection. We want it to be a relatively strong tie to the region, the five-county region around Detroit. It’s really egalitarian. You’ve got the area’s leading thinkers, designers, entertainers, entrepreneurs, artists, students.

What about the themes?

We’re looking for the interesting idea, the idea that’s worth sharing, and … there is not necessarily a call to action, but what is the learning someone can take away from that talk — whether it’s to educate, to inspire, or simply to entertain. I kind of look at TED talks through those three lenses. Sometimes you get two out of three, sometimes you get three out of three, and that to me is the magic sauce. When all of those things come together under one TED talk, it’s a wonderful mix.

Any thoughts beyond 2020?

2021 is going to be a great year for us. That’s one thing we do know. We have the energy, we have the volunteers, we have the history behind us and, like many events, we’re going to do something virtual [in 2020] that won’t be exactly the same, but we do want to connect with our community and the people who are fans of what we’ve built. But we’re going to see you next year bigger and brighter than we’ve been in the past, and hopefully at Ford Field, to hit that target number of 5,000.