In some ways my own TEDx talk started when I first encountered our twelfth side project pioneer. I met Mel whilst I was working at Bath Spa University and she approached me about getting student involvement in the first of her TEDxBristol events back in 2015. Being on the side-lines of such an amazing event definitely gave me the bug to get involved myself. Mel was an absolute pleasure to work with and it was even more amazing because it was all just a side project!
Mel’s day job is as Producer for the BBC Academy; specifically producing and project-managing the Digital Cities project across the UK. But this is a direct result of her side project successes masterminding two hugely successful TEDxBristol events in 2015 and 2017. So how did this side project come about and how has it shaped her day job?
Rewind five years and Mel was working for the BBC’s Media Action charity which, working alongside the BBC World Service, has offices around the globe. Media Action uses communication and media projects as a form of aid; helping train and support journalists and making programming that delivers social change through local journalism reporting on themes like climate change, health, and democracy.
During this period one of Mel’s colleagues gave a TEDx talk and it struck Mel how powerful the story of a single person could be in articulating events and insights. This view was reinforced when Mel attended TEDxCoventGarden back in the UK:
“I was completely captivated by how just one person’s voice could tell a story that was both incredibly personal and yet global and provide a universal takeout – this is really hard to do with a TV programme captured in lots of places with lots of people.”
Finding her own story
Mel moved to back to Bristol where she had completed her undergraduate degree to join BBC Factual as a Producer in 2014. Throwing herself back into the city she reached out to the organisers of the already-established TEDxBristol event to offer her skills as a volunteer. A first meeting turned into an unexpected interview and Mel found herself in charge!
“I took it on with incredible naivety, but it was an opportunity to hit all the buttons in my head, the first of those being the realisation that my day job at the BBC was fantastic but sometimes also quite frustrating. Editorial steers, budgets and set formats meant I couldn’t always tell stories in the way I wanted, and some important voices and stories did not make the cut.
TED gave me the chance to pick the stories and how they should be told. This appealed to my journalistic background and interest in social activism.”
Like many side project pioneers Mel had found that her professional skills got a new lease of creative life outside of the day job; TEDxBristol was a chance to stretch herself in a new way.
But she also found an unexpected link to her passions; TEDxBristol wasn’t just about professional competence – it was far more personal than that:
“I also had a lightbulb moment that what makes me tick, and what makes me excited about life, is that there has always been this ribbon of activism and social justice running through my work; I was interested in people’s rights since I studied law at Bristol; the Geneva conventions, humanitarian laws, issues of social justice. I’m just fascinated by people stories, how it all connects.”
“TED is about storytelling and social action, giving a 15-20 min platform to a partisan opinion, a strong idea, it could be challenging and controversial, but it is honestly held. In the mass media you must do fair and balanced and it all gets a bit watered down. i.e. having to humour climate change deniers. What excited me most was a chance to feature undiluted strong stand points.”
“What this opportunity has allowed me is that I am much more interested in stories, issues and activism than I am in telly and film and entertainment. I’ve been able to refine and discover things about myself that I’m not sure I knew a few years ago.”
Developing new skills and finding a new plan
To deliver on the promise of the project Mel had to develop some new competencies in live event production, in managing others (~250 on show day), and a host of further practical event management skills.
“As a result of TEDx I grew my skillset in live event production. What also then happened as a result was I that grew a community that gravitated to TEDxBristol because of its values. Because it’s a voluntary event people come forward unashamedly to develop their skills or meet people, build their CVs, try things out. I found that I could give people hard to come by opportunities.”
Eurekaha side project pioneer Matt Mullan became her digital manager, despite never having done anything like it before.
“It was giving me skills on a stage I couldn’t develop in the day job. There was real joy in being able to help people realise their potential.”
It was the success of TEDxBristol 2015 that led to Mel’s new boss at the BBC approaching her and asking if she’d thought about running events for the BBC; bringing her creative producer approach to previously ‘project-managed’ events. She suggested he offer her a job, and he did! Mel’s current role is more events focussed and fundamentally it flexes around her ongoing commitment to TEDxBristol and both Mel and her boss see tremendous synergy from Mel running her side project.
The next step in Mel’s journey is wanting to contribute back to TED her professional insight and expertise and refine what TEDx talks more widely are for and how their quality stays high and the talks stay challenging in an age when fake news and filter bubbles proliferate. The editorial angle about creating really trustworthy content in the digital wild west really appeals to both her professional journalistic approach and her social justice values: “TEDx could be a shining light in this sea of crazy!”
I couldn’t let Mel go without extracting some final advice for fellow side-project people:
- “Naivety is necessary, or you’d be too scared to try.”
- “Ask for help, get as many people enthused and involved as you can because you can’t do it by yourself. Sharing problems gets you through. When I’ve asked for help it has come in spades – don’t be too proud.”
- “Manage your expectations of what is possible. Our 2015 event was too big too soon – we had to go bigger in 2017!”
- “Competition can be embraced; it’s easy to feel inadequate and jealous of other events that seem better and smarter. But don’t be too hard on yourself and try to learn from the best. Unashamedly learn, borrow, and put your own twist on things. And don’t be too precious when others start to borrow from you!”
- “Collaboration is part of the process of manifesting an idea; by sharing it you’re committing to it and then other people will help and develop it too.”