A few months after Freakonomics was first released I was honored to be invited to speak at my first European TED conference, held in the United Kingdom. I wasn’t sure what to talk about.
At my first TED appearance a couple years earlier I had given a rather edgy talk about gangs that had been pretty well received. What to do for an encore? We had just described all my most interesting research in Freakonomics. I didn’t just want to rehash that stuff. So I decided to take a risk and talk about my research on child car seats, even though I had never presented it anywhere before. (Here’s the Times article we wrote on the subject.)
I struggled with a way to make it interesting. I couldn’t just get up there and give a standard academic talk. This audience demands a lot more. I thought of a more creative way to tell the story, and I felt optimistic. For a while.
First, I caught a cold. By the time I landed at Heathrow, my ears were so plugged I couldn’t hear a thing. Between that and jet lag, I was walking around in a mental fog. Then I saw the schedule. I was to take the stage right after Sir Richard Dawkins. One lesson I have learned is you do not want to follow a great speaker. Dawkins did not disappoint the crowd, giving a fascinating talk about the fundamental issues of mankind and the universe.
I could not believe I was going to follow him by talking about how car seats don’t work.
My recollection is that I stood on the stage mumbling for 15 minutes with everyone in the entire audience staring at me with a perplexed look. There was a smattering of polite applause when, to their relief, I finally stopped talking. I exited the stage and made a run for the airport. I never gave this talk to another audience.
It was with dread that I discovered that the folks at TED had recently posted the video of my talk online. I watched a bit of the video, hoping that I would discover my recollections were far more negative than reality.
Unfortunately, my memory was accurate. Watch at your own risk.