Karen Day is what you call a pro. A writer, photographer, TV producer and filmmaker, she’s worked on humanitarian issues in locations from Afghanistan to Cuba to pre-war Iraq. Her most recent film, Girl from God’s Country (2015), shares the story and contributions of early film pioneer Nell Shipman.
Karen’s also very fun to hang out with. Shortly after her TEDxBoise 2015 talk, “The End of the Impossible,” we had coffee and a whole lot of laughs. I’ll skip the gossip and bawdy humor here–you just had to be there. Here are some of her more pertinent, more G-rated comments. Enjoy–I did.
Why’d you apply to TEDxBoise?
It was serendipity. I had already been talking to TED Global about doing this talk.
Then my daughter called me and said, “oh my gosh, it’s on Facebook, which she knows I don’t have time or desire to adhere to.” She said, “you should apply.” I would never have seen it if not for that kind of Facebook generation thing.
I did it because, as I acknowledged in the talk, it’s always been on my bucket list. Oh yeah, along with Bradley Cooper.
How’d you get ready?
I knew that I would change my normal talk because I wanted to make it actionable, as opposed to just talking about some crazy stuff that I do in my life. So I did not actually write that TED Talk until the night of the 11th [five days before the event]. I started at midnight, then came and saw you at 10 that morning. I didn’t have any problem writing it because I often work under deadline, but I would say I concentrated on it for that week.
I also know what I’m capable of doing—I can go live in front of ten thousand people. But I wanted to make sure the content was entertaining. In my business it’s so easy to have it go overly earnest, or be depressing, or make people feel insignificant, like “there’s nothing I could do anyway because the challenges are too great.” So that’s why I like TEDx–it’s an actionable idea.
What was the performance like?
For me it was a blast. I was not really nervous—I was excited, and I liked the idea of live-streaming. I’m also a control freak, so everything that was not working in the production was bugging me, but I put that aside. I wanted it to be successful for Boise. In the work that I do, I strive against the stereotype. I love the idea of showing the audience that Idaho is not bereft of gray matter or sophistication.
The good news is that, because I have a platform, I’m going to put the talk onto my website, http://karenday.net/, which gets a lot of traffic. It kind of rotates in between pictures of Obama and other presidents of the world, and there’ll be a TEDxBoise talk there too.
How was your approach for your TED Talk different from what you typically do?
I waited [to start writing]—I had that luxury. I had a body of work which was experiential. I knew where I was going since that’s what had been accepted as the format of the talk. However, when I started to research TED Talks seriously, I realized I needed to add an idea that was actionable. That part challenged me, since–not that what I do doesn’t try to get people to make a difference–but most of the people that I come in contact with, they buy the T shirt and then they’ve done something. The whole motivation of giving, it’s kind of like, “I’ve done it, and I’m done with it.” It made me take a look at the dynamics.
I was really committed to making it good, and I’m committed to making Idaho look as good as possible.
You’ve watched your talk. What do you think?
I did watch it. I figured I could learn something from it. I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the camera, and as I’ve gotten older I don’t like to be in front of the camera, because I also know what looks good on camera. So on some level, I was just surprised at how good my hair looked! It was amazing.
I was disappointed with some of the long shots. Some of the impact, I understand the missed opportunity because that’s what I do for a living. But I was really pleased with the talk. For the people who were there it was probably really engaging. I’m not sure how it will look in the end, whether it will be as impactful as it was in person because of the way it’s produced, but no big deal. It is what it is.
What responses have you had to the talk?
It has put me in a different realm of credibility, though I’m still the same ridiculous person I’ve always been. This was just on my personal bucket list, since after working with Harvard for two years and constantly feeling like I was Temple Grandin, [I wanted to feel] that “I can do a TED Talk. I was the little engine who could do the TED Talk.”
Would you like to do another TED Talk?
I may press forward on the idea of a TED Talk [on women in early film], which is getting a lot of publicity. My new film (Girl from God’s Country) will get a lot of visibility, so yes, I may take that and incorporate it. This talk gave me a lot of experience in the TED realm, so next time I’ll be really kick-ass. Who knows?
What would you do differently?
I haven’t really thought about it. Would I prepare more? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure I would do that much differently. I’m very comfortable.
What advice would you give other TED speakers?
You need to have an idea that’s actionable. The purpose is to get people to adopt the idea, and actually take action. So I would challenge anybody, no matter how great your idea is, to translate that into something that is actionable. If you want your TED Talk to be purposeful, that’s the key.
Karen Day, “The End of the Impossible”