My TED talk: Mister Splashy Pants
Sometimes You Just Have to Stand Up
My commercial law professor at the University of Virginia, Professor Wheeler, one day commented in class on the fact that I always volunteered to be the demo person in front of the class when he needed human props. He said how important it was to show up, to stand up—lauding my effort. I just thought it was fun to be that guy in a class of hungover undergrads. It wasn’t that I thought I might get better grades, but I figured I had two legs, so why the hell not get up and use them?
I’d never expected to give a TED talk, let alone at twenty-six years old, but then again I’d never expected to be in Mysore, India, which is where I was in October of 2009 as an attendee of TEDIndia, one of the yearly TED presentations that the organizers host all around the world.
A month or so before the conference I was included on a massive e-mail blast from Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference, that included this attention-grabbing nugget:
It is commonly said that TED attendees are every bit as remarkable as those appearing on stage. It happens to be true. That’s why at every conference we invite you to consider whether you have something to contribute to the program—and possibly later to the wider TED community, through the TED.com site.
So there at my laptop I raised my virtual hand—so to speak—and submitted a pitch for a three-minute talk to TED. These are the palate cleansers in between the more heady and often very emotional eighteen-minute TED talks. I figured I’d better get right to the pitch. Here’s what I wrote:
The tale of Mister Splashy Pants: a lesson for nonprofits on the Internet. How Greenpeace took itself a little less seriously and helped start an Internet meme that actually got the Japanese government to call off that year’s humpback whaling expedition. People manage to sell entire books on the subject of “new media marketing” but I only need three minutes—with the help of this whale—to explain the “secret.”
How could they resist a name like Mister Splashy Pants? Splashy to his friends.
I figured they must’ve been totally floored with awe, because I didn’t hear back for a month. Was this just their way of saying no? I was already in India at this point, so I sent a quick “ping” e-mail to see if I could get a yes or no.
“Congratulations. You did get accepted.”
Hot damn, I had twenty-four hours to write and rehearse a talk people practice for months…
Better turn on some South Park.
Thanks to VPN, I could watch South Park from south India. The episode was called “Whale Whores” (season 13, episode 11), and it satirized the Animal Planet documentary-style reality show called Whale Wars (oh, puns!), which features the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization that harasses Japanese whalers in an effort to protect marine life.
In the episode, after hordes of Japanese storm the Denver aquarium during Stan’s birthday and slaughter all the dolphins (am I really writing about South Park right now? I love this country), an enraged Stan implores his friends to join him in protecting the dolphins and whales, which the Japanese seem so intent on eradicating.
Stan’s friends are not interested until Stan joins the cast of Whale Wars, at which point Cartman and Kenny pretend to be whale-loving activists in order to milk some of the fame associated with the show. They volunteer, despite admitting earlier that they “don’t give two shits about stupid-ass whales.”
I grabbed a screen capture of Cartman, in a Save the Whales shirt, proclaiming his love of whales; Kenny is beside him, dolphin lover (sic) scrawled on his chest.
That image reminded me of what was then one of the biggest events on reddit—voting for the name for a humpback whale that Greenpeace was tracking. This event has since been eclipsed by other events, such as the “money bomb” donation of over half a million dollars to DonorsChoose.org or fund-raising for three-year-old Lucas Gonzalez, who needed a bone marrow transplant. But the story of Mister Splashy Pants was a special moment in reddit’s development and proved to be a prophetic tale of the power of social media: for an idea to truly become mainstream, it needs to go beyond the early adopters—in this case, whale lovers like Stan—and also include those who want to join the trend.
A lot of people rag on PowerPoint (often rightfully so). But in the right hands, this much-maligned communication tool can actually be incredibly entertaining (and even informative). The problem is, most people don’t understand how to use it, which sets the bar for PowerPoint presentations really low. Here’s my philosophy: lots of big pictures, text, and tons of slides. For my TED talk, I had room for no more than a few words on each slide—and they had to be in 86-point type, minimum. Forty-two slides—a good sign, even though it meant I had only a little more than four seconds for each slide.
There was going to be a giant TED sign on the stage behind me. This could make or break my public speaking career. And I was going to be on the same stage where the brilliant statistician Hans Rosling, using beautiful data, emphatically demonstrated how India ascended to economic superpower status—meanwhile, I was going to talk about a whale named Mister Splashy Pants. No pressure.
I finished before sunrise and took a power nap. When I awoke I began feverishly practicing with my timer. I missed all the morning talks. I was terrified of Chris Anderson, who famously cuts off speakers when they go on too long. As someone who routinely talks more than I should, I didn’t want my talk punctuated by a giant cane pulling me offstage.
I’d later learn that TED does not in fact use a giant cane.
I don’t remember the talk before mine, because I was so busy trying to remember what I was going to say.
Why are my hands shaking?
Chris Anderson introduced me as Alex. I hate being called Alex, but I smiled and took the stage, trying hard not to trip on the way. When you’ve grown up embracing your unisex name (okay, it’s predominantly a woman’s name here in the United States), it’s incredibly vexing to hear someone shorten it to the male version. I’m a dude named Alexis; please call me by my name. Now I was thinking about Alexis Argüello, the three-time world champion boxer my father named me after, and I wondered if he ever had the same issue growing up in Nicaragua—shit, I’m supposed to give a talk right now.
Remember, it can’t go worse than a giant room of CompUSA shoppers actively ignoring you.
That got me started. Get to it, Ohanian.
“There are a lot of ‘Web 2.0 consultants’ [I made air quotes with my fingers] who make a lot of money—in fact, they make their livings on this kind of stuff. I’m going to try and save you all the time and all the money and go through it in the next three minutes, so bear with me.”
I breathlessly shared the story of Greenpeace’s dogged efforts to raise online awareness of their effort to stop Japanese humpback whaling expeditions. They wanted to track one particular whale on its migration and humanize it with a name chosen by their online community. Greenpeace staff chose about twenty very erudite names—like Talei and Kaimana (which means “divine power of the ocean” in a Polynesian language)— and then there was Mister. Splashy. Pants.
I enunciated each word one at a time for full comedic effect. Laughter. They’re not hating this.
Once a reddit user discovered the poll and submitted it to reddit.com, a surge of votes flooded in for this obvious favorite. Who doesn’t want to hear a news anchor say “Mister Splashy Pants”?
Greenpeace wasn’t pleased. They insisted on rerunning the voting process, which only galvanized us. I changed our reddit logo from a smiling whale to a more combative version.
For any scientists reading this:
This time, polls closed with Splashy having an even more commanding lead.
Oh no, I’m running out of time. Please let them be gentle.
Eventually they relented and let the online favorite win (sometimes you just have to let yourself be disrupted, remember), but at this point they’d inadvertently created a brand that excited far more people than just Greenpeace fans—the message had spread far beyond whale lovers. In fact, the Japanese government actually called off the whaling expedition.
Everyone who creates something online has lost control of their message but in the process has gained access to a global audience. Mister Splashy Pants is a story about the democratization of content online—starring a whale—and it demonstrated how little control we have over our brands. It turns out we never had control, only now we realize it. Before the social web, we had little idea of what people actually thought about us—now we know, and when like-minded people band together, they wield a really big stick.
The talk is over. Applause. Even a few “Woo!”s from the crowd.
Nailed it. I’d given a few non-CompUSA talks before then, but once the video of my TED talk hit a million views and was front-paged on reddit, I became a known “public speaker.” In a brilliant illustration of my argument, the video was submitted to reddit with the following headline: “Nutjob mistakenly allowed to give TED Talk, he rambles for over four minutes before being carried off the stage.”
I have a lecture agent now and get paid more for a speaking gig than I did for an entire year’s work at Pizza Hut. It’s a little bit insane, but then I remember that I’m still getting paid less than Snooki , which makes me really question things.
I still get nervous before I get onstage—I just know how to better handle the nerves now. In truth, it really is all about practice. Once you’ve been onstage enough times and make sure you’re always well rehearsed and armed with the feeling that you really know what you’re talking about, it then becomes all about polish. Listen to yourself. I listen (not watch; I want to focus on the words) to every talk I give once afterward to see where the “ums” and “you knows” crept in. I’ll pay attention to jokes that didn’t work and others that worked better than expected—was it the joke or the delivery? Then I put that talk out of mind. Test, analyze, and repeat.
The Internet offers a wealth of great speeches, all freely available with just a few keystrokes. Find your favorite speakers and study them. I notice the way Jon Stewart disarms an interview subject with a joke before hitting him with a knockout punch. President Obama really knows how to hit the Pause button at the right moment for maximum impact. When used well, silence is powerful. And when I learned that Louis C.K.— easily one of the best comics of our generation—trashes all his material every year and starts anew, I knew I needed to keep from getting lazy and recycling entire talks. Louis does it because, he says, “The way to improve is to reject everything you’re doing. You have to create a void by destroying everything; you have to kill it. Or else you’ll tell the same fucking jokes every night.”
Being a stand-up comic is infinitely harder than giving a talk or a speech, so if he can stay that on top of his game, why can’t I?