Interview: Edwina Throsby, Head of Curatorial

Head of Curatorial, Edwina Throsby, on feisty meetings, the importance of learning, and what it takes to find and prepare ‘a bunch of people as incredible as the last lot’ for the TEDxSydney stage.

What we see on the TEDxSydney stage each year is the result of many, many months of planning and preparation. From the initial brainstorming session where the curatorial team tosses around the names of literally hundreds of potential speakers, creating a ‘shortlist’ of 50 or 60 for deeper research, to helping the final selection polish their talks, it’s all exciting and personally hugely gratifying for TEDxSydney’s Head of Curatorial, Edwina Throsby, who sees this year’s theme of learning as ‘a cradle to grave experience.’

Tell us a bit more about the Learning theme, why it was chosen and how it has impacted speaker choice.

The learning theme was my response to the shift of the event from a Saturday to a Thursday. This presented itself as a wonderful opportunity to engage and involve school and university students, via our satellite events in classrooms and on campuses around the country. That got me thinking more about the way we learn, and that learning really never stops – just because you leave school doesn’t mean you stop seeking new information, having fresh ideas, wanting inspiration. Every one of the speakers at TEDxSydney has something to impart to the audience, that might be the result of a lifetime of research, or just a life well lived.

What are the speaker selection meetings like? Do you guys ever disagree? Does it get feisty?

We disagree ALL THE TIME. I love our curatorial meetings. We have a brilliant team, and I encourage people to challenge each other. When we occasionally have visitors to our meetings, they’re surprised at the rigour of our process. Someone will pitch, “This woman is the world leader on such-and-such, she’s won a swag of international awards, she’s amazing” and someone else will sit back with arms folded and ask “Yeah, but what’s she going to tell our audience what they don’t already know?” Our community is smart and switched on, and we want to bring them big, fresh ideas, great stories, stuff to really make them think.

What’s involved in preparing somebody to deliver a talk? How much does TEDxSydney know about the content beforehand, how is it rehearsed, what does it take to get stage-ready?

By the time the speakers are on the stage, our team has been working with them for months. From initial contact, when the curators have long talks with the speakers about possible ideas, structures, etc, to a draft process and rehearsals, everyone works very hard to ensure the talk is as good as it can be. It’s a bit like the process that an author goes through with a good editor: the idea and the content is all the author’s, but the editor is there to give feedback and support.

What do the speakers do in the last few minutes before going on stage? Anything you’ve seen that surprised you?

It’s different for every speaker. One thing I’ve noticed is that, even for speakers who have given talks all around the world, to extraordinarily important crowds, there is still something about walking out onto the Concert Hall stage with your head crammed full of what you’re about to say.  I’m yet to see a speaker backstage who looks totally unfazed. One moment I remember well was in Session 2 in 2014, which I was hosting. I was sitting side of stage with the first speaker of the session, the wonderful scientist Cyndi Shannon Weickert, who I’d been working with on her talk for months. As the video that was opening the session played, she reached for my hand and held it. We were both pretty terrified about going out onto the stage, and this small gesture made all the difference.

What has been your greatest learning from being involved in TEDxSydney since 2012?

Firstly, I have a weird thing about “learning” being used as a noun! But the most important thing I’ve learnt is that the well of ideas – new things to learn, discover, engage with and be amazed by – never runs dry. At the beginning of every new year I think, “there’s no way we can find a bunch of people as incredible as this last lot.” And every year, we do. There are a lot of brilliant, fascinating people out there.

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