What Frank Swain Doesn’t Understand about TEDx

I know I’m supposed to swoon a little at the idea of being an Official TEDx Speaker, that doing this will rain down confetti and job offers and fame on me. But in the end it boils down to this: TEDx is just another organisation asking me to work for free. – Frank Swain

Journalist Frank Swain wants you to know that he turned down a TEDx talk because he’s tired of being asked to “work for free.”

He misses the point of TEDx entirely.

Swain, like a lot of other people, seems to think that TEDx events are solely about self-promotion and “exposure” rather than an opportunity for a community to come together and put “big ideas” on the table to discuss.

Having been the first-ever presenter at the San Antonio TEDx–and still enjoying the fruit of connections made at the event (even if my “big idea” didn’t pan out), I can say that being a TEDx Talker isn’t about “the show” but rather about the sense of community the event helps forge.

 Image Source
Image Source

When it comes right down to it, as a citizen I want to be a part of a city that values public discourse and for which a cadre of people (all volunteers, by the way) come together to make that happen. TEDx has helped communities like mine do just that. More precisely, the volunteers at TEDx (both the speakers and the committees) have helped cities do that. It’s not just the speakers who volunteer, you see.

Without a doubt, the TEDx brand helps draw people to these events, a vital component to success. When I worked in non-profit professional theatre, we called this getting “butts in seats.” It’s a powerful draw, and it brings people to listen to others whom they might not otherwise ever encounter in a large city.

The end result of the TEDx experience–the connections, the publicity generated for ideas (as opposed to local sports teams), the good vibes generated between participants on the day of the event and afterward–is worth the time of anyone (speaker, volunteer, or attendee) who believes in the value of conversation, connection, and community.

If that’s not your thing, though, and you can’t fathom doing a little volunteer speech-making, then don’t bother submitting an application or just politely say “no” to an invitation.

There are plenty of other people who are willing to embrace the opportunity.

Kindly make way for them.

Because I want to hear what they have to say.

Update: Portions of this post were excerpted and appeared in a News.Com.Au article a few hours after hit “publish.” Interestingly, I was in no way compensated for this exposure but am grateful that a reporter on the other side of the planet cares what a hyperlocal Texas journalist and author thinks.



Hands down, this was the best TEDx San Antonio talk in 2010. Watch it. . . and then imagine if my good friend Alicia had said “no” to TEDx because they didn’t offer her money.


  1. Circling back ’round to share this comment I made on my own Facebook page regarding the PITA experience of creative people being asked routinely to “work for free” under the guise of “good exposure”:

    “I founded an award-winning career center for visual and performing artists (students and alumni) at UT Austin in the 1990s. I am well-versed in the issue of creative people being taken advantage of–perhaps more so than anyone who can read this. I’ve also worked in for-profit and non-profit sectors and volunteered extensively in community-based initiatives. So I have a full 360 view: if you can get people together in a room to talk about interesting topics, then you can foster something more powerful than money.

    Is blowback on TED/TEDx inevitable for organizational growth? Yeah, probably. But babies thrown out with bathwater are problematic. [Horrible use of an idiomatic expression, I know] I’m just trying to retrain the focus on what works and that maybe it IS OKAY to work for free, if the variables are right and the opportunity is in line with one’s personal and professional needs.”

  2. Hi Pamela, I met you as a fellow presenter at TEDx/SA/2010. I know I can do much better about keeping in touch with you and others from that event, but I wanted you to know I agree 100% with your outlook regarding what TEDx should really be about and that thinking of everything as “where’s my cut/advantage?” is not the spirit that belongs at TEDx. That kind of talk never came up in the conversations I had in the run-up or aftermath. However, I feel I’ve been more than blessed with the good will and encouragement participating in TEDx generated. My “idea” from that night three years ago is still emerging, but not because of the event. If anything, the event kept me from slipping into personal self-doubt regarding what is just now coming into focus. Thanks for expressing this, Pamela. We had a great time, didn’t we?

    • Thanks, Stephen. Your comment about how the experience–not just your talk– helped you recovery from personal self-doubt resonates with me. I appreciate your sharing that fact, and, yes, we had a great time!

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