Exposing The Tyranny Of TEDx Basel

My friend Peter Sandbach is a hedgehog. When I interviewed him for a spot on my team at work a few years ago, he began our conversation by putting three stacks of three-by-five cards in front of me on the meeting room table. The first was labeled, “What I SHOULD Want,” the second, “What I REALLY DO Want,” and the third, “What I would find ACCEPTABLE.”

My first question was, “What you SHOULD want according to whom?” He explained it meant what people expected someone with his level of seniority and experience in the organization to want.

He proceeded to enumerate the wish list beneath the “SHOULD Want” deck – things like title, base salary, bonus, staff and budget size, scope of authority, etc. And then he lifted the “What I REALLY DO Want” card to reveal a hand-drawn image of a funny little round creature with short legs and what looked like an armor of toothpicks sticking out of its back.

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Do you know the story of the hedgehog and the fox?” Peter asked. He said he first learned about it in “Good to Great,” the business best-seller by Jim Collins. The book cites a professor at Princeton who believed that what separates people who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart is that they’re hedgehogs. They rely on one simple thing they feel born and built to do, like the odd little animal in the forest who can always frustrate the much faster, more cunning and nimble-footed fox by rolling himself into a ball and baring his sharp spikes to keep his enemy at bay.

Peter’s one simple thing has always been communication – in particular, is an exceptional presenter and presentation coach. He’s helped develop and polish people’s presentation skills at our company all the way from new employees to the CEO, and he himself is the organization’s most popular and in-demand speaker, meeting facilitator and MC.

Enter TEDx Basel

So when he was accepted to appear at a TEDx Basel speaker showcase earlier this summer, Peter was over the moon. None of us at work had ever seen him more excited, or more nervous.

Peter wanted to kill it at TEDx Basel. He never expected the organizers of TEDx Basel to try so hard to kill the spontaneity, creativity, free-spiritedness, and fire that burned at the core of his hedgehog’s heart. It began with their demand for prior review of every word of every presentation, and their complete editorial power to delete or change anything they believed could be objectionable to anyone.

The Scourge of Corporate-Speak

The subject of Peter’s presentation was the scourge of corporate-speak that is making a mockery of the way many companies communicate to their employees and the public. There’s a common word for it that has spawned a popular parlor game among corporate communicators: “Bullshit Bingo” – filling a Bingo grid with the most egregious examples of jargon and buzzwords that pass for the English language inside the walls of today’s companies.

Peter made the unforgivable mistake of ignoring strict instructions to delete the word “bullshit” from his presentation. He used it once, in an arguably reasonable and defensible context, within a presentation of the maximum allowable TED Talk duration of 18 minutes. That proved to be a declaration of war with Tedx Basel.

A Berlin Wall of Censorship

Tedx Basel belongs to a global brand that touts the free flow of ideas. But by Peter’s account, a name like Censorship Unlimited might be a better fit.

The wall of tyrannical content control went up almost immediately and continues to this moment, months after the speaking event, with the organization’s refusal to post a video of his presentation with all the others. Is this fair? What do the rules say? According to Peter, TEDx Basel has no published rules and apparently is governed only by the iron fist of Hayes Ford, an American, no less, who refuses to post the video of his talk, despite its popularity among those who saw it and Peter’s repeated attempts to reach a truce.

Where Does It Say Profanity Prohibited?

I scoured the international TEDx website for answers and found mostly rules about the use of the brand and logo, requirements for the licensing of events and instructions for programming formats aimed at maintaining consistency. There was very little about the presentations themselves, other than the time limit and that they cannot have a “commercial agenda,” deal in “pseudoscience,” or be “inflammatory” from a religious or political perspective. There are no references to profanity or forbidden words. However, there is a “permission release form, giving TED and others the right to edit and distribute video” of presentations. This gives TEDx Basel the right to keep Peter’s presentation under wraps. But Peter has found a workaround for that, getting his own unedited copy and making it available to friends. 

Two Sides to Every Story

I know Peter’s side of the story. It reflects his deeply held beliefs and the theme of his presentation: that simple, plain talk, including the occasional, swear word once in a while, are desperately needed in a world where truth is too often obscured by spin, the opaque language typically used by corporations and governments, and the excessive political correctness that seeks to shield university students from any thought or idea that might possibly cause offense or discomfort to anyone.

When I contacted Tedx Basel’s Hayes Ford to get his side, his response was that “We prefer not to give any statement to third parties about this.”

The Bottom Line

I did not see Peter’s Tedx Basel talk when he first gave it. I saw it when our boss asked Peter to present it at a town hall meeting at work, with no censorship of any kind. Our boss, by the way, got his doctorate degree in theology, studied for the priesthood and even lived for a time at the Vatican. He has used the dreaded B-word occasionally, as have other senior executives at our own notoriously buttoned down and conservative company. And there have been no ill effects – or even gasps – among corporate audiences very much like the ones TEDx Basel caters to. In fact, the use of a well-placed swear word from time to time seems to have helped some of our top executives come across as more down-to-earth and believable.

Peter reprised his talk for more than a hundred of us, from many different countries, cultures, and generations – from baby boomers to Millennials and members of Generation Z. He presented it word for word as he gave it at the Tedx Basel event. We laughed. We applauded. We were entertained and inspired.

The whole situation reminds me of the time the Rolling Stones appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show one Sunday evening in 1967 to sing their hit song, “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Before the live show went on the air, the all-powerful Sullivan, considering the lyric a bit too risqué for the viewing audience to handle, ordered Jagger to change the words to the much more respectable “let’s spend some time together.” Mick rolled his eyes when singing those words the first couple of times but then couldn’t contain himself and belted out the chorus in its original form.

Now, going on 50 years later, Mick and the Rolling Stones are still touring, doing the one thing they were born to do. I suspect my friend Peter Sandbach will be doing his thing for many years to come as well. Ed Sullivan then, like Hayes Ford of Tedx Basel now, both picked the wrong hedgehogs to mess with.

Martin D. Hirsch
Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.
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