I Have to Ask You: Curating TEDxPlano

Posted on December 11, 2017

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Shannah Hayley, Director Communications and Community Outreach, City of Plano (Texas), discusses as her side job as the Curator for TEDxPlano.

My day job as Director of Communications and Community Outreach for the City of Plano (Texas) is very busy and very fulfilling. However, my side gig as the Curator for TEDxPlano seems to get the most attention. I fell into this role through my work with the city. I’m now in my third year of curating and I can honestly say it’s one of my favorite ways to spend my limited free time.

With that in mind, here are the three most memorable TED Talks I’ve watched and how I think they apply to the work we do in government.

How great leaders inspire action by Simon Sinek


Known as a classic TED Talk, Simon Sinek actually presented his “Great leaders begin with why” at a TEDx event – TEDxPugetSound. As the curator for a TEDx I find this very inspiring: Ideas worth spreading are literally all around us. But that’s not why this makes my list of most memorable TED presentations.

Sinek challenges each of us to think about the core of our work; to move from the what and the how to the why. I find this especially powerful in the government world. It’s very easy to categorize our work as “budget analyst” or “planner.” Perhaps the nobler among us might say we’re “serving the community” or “protecting public safety.” These are what and how statements. Identifying the why of our work requires introspection and becomes the touchstone we return to on days when the work is hard (like when you receive yet another You are corrupt and even the stupidest monkey could do your job email, with city management and elected officials cc’d).

For me, my why is this: I want to make my life in a place where we are like family – recognizing our many differences and celebrating our many commonalities. I call this community and it’s why I do what I do to increase civic engagement and participation. It’s why I curate TEDxPlano and it informs how I interact with our various constituencies.

We’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers by Rachel Botsman

I had the privilege to hear this Talk live at TED Summit 2016. Rachel Botsman is internationally known for her research in how technology is transforming trust. There are many takeaways from Botsman’s Talk but let me focus on the two that have occupied my thinking for over a year:

First: Trust is not rational. A better definition is “trust is a confident relationship to the unknown.” Many of the challenges we face in the government sector can be directly tied to a loss of trust, justified or not, by our constituents. All too often within our organizations you hear the phrase “those people aren’t thinking rationally.”

Think about that statement in light of this new definition. The reaction of “those people” is better understood as a loss of confidence in the system we are a part of rather than as a loss of sanity. This perspective can lead to a radical transformation of how we message to, and our working relationship with, constituents.

Second: Trust has and will continue to evolve over time. The industrial revolution led to a revolution in trust from person-to-person to person-to-institution. The digital age has driven yet another evolution of trust to a distributed model. Distributed trust is transparent, inclusive and often led from the bottom-up. Does this sound like many of the conversations our communities, demanding leadership “by the people,” increased expectations for open source data, new definitions of participatory planning efforts and so on?

The challenge for governmental entities isn’t merely to adopt a new system-wide approach to organizational operations. It’s also to accept that these expectations are the new norm and the demands of this nature will only increase over time. If we want to rebuild trust with our constituencies, we will only achieve it through an inclusive iterative process, focused on transparency and accountability. This won’t be comfortable but I believe the rewards of restored trust, which will be jointly earned by all involved, are worth the effort.

Why Brexit happened and what to do next by Alexander Betts

This is yet another Talk I heard live at TED Summit 2016. It was particularly memorable as the Brexit vote happened the night before the conference began.

Whether you agree with Betts’ evaluation of what is behind the political divide in the UK or his premise for how to move forward as a country, his post-Brexit self-assessment holds lessons for us all. As he states: “(I)t (Brexit) suggested that people like me who think of ourselves as inclusive, open and tolerant, perhaps don’t know our own countries and societies nearly as well as we’d like to believe.”

This is powerful. Betts notes we are almost “embarrassingly unaware” of how divided our communities are. This line of thinking challenged me to rethink common narratives in government. For example: Does an economic development win feel like a “win” to everyone in a community if it brings added traffic and higher property values (and resulting taxes) along with jobs?

I’m not suggesting we stop talking about awards, cancelling corporate relocation pursuits, rejecting redevelopment efforts, or avoiding other major initiatives. Rather, I believe this Talk issues a clarion call for a focus on increased efforts towards cooperation, collaboration and civic education within our communities.

To this end, this is why Plano sponsors the community-based efforts of TEDxPlano. This is why we’re practicing collaborative strategic communication planning with our residents. And this is why we’ve invested in Plano’s own version of Schoolhouse Rock!, #AskPlano.
We all love TED Talks for the inspiration they provide. But the very best TED Talks inspire us to action. With that in mind, at the end of every TEDxPlanoSalon I facilitate, I ask participants one question. It’s my question to you, fellow government co-laborer:
What is the one thing you’ve taken away from this conversation that you will now personally put into practice?

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