Baratunde Thurston on the most difficult performance role he has ever taken on

My guest today is Baratunde Thurston. Baratunde is a particularly hilarious comedian, he wrote the bestselling book How to be Black as well as many feature articles for places like Fast Company and Medium. He helped to re-launch the Daily Show with Trevor Noah through building the digital expansion team. And he used to write for the Onion and has been nominated for an Emmy award.

This conversation is a little different in that we deep dive into a very specific work project of Baratunde’s and it was one that I witnessed a few months ago. It was the closing keynote of the TED 2018 conference. While the footage is not yet live, you can get a feel for what this looked like when he did the same thing at TED2015.

To set the scene, the 2000 TED delegates had just experienced around 100 talks over the course of five days. Imagine the impact of watching just one TED talk and multiply that by 100. It’s an amazing and immersive experience and feels like you have been blasted by a fire hose with ideas. And the very last talk was Baratunde Thurston who summed up the entire conference experience – from the 100 or so talks to the snack foods to the parties – in 20 hilarious minutes.

But here is the thing – Baratunde wrote this phenomenal presentation during TED. So while experiencing the five day event he also wrote his talk. And then he memorised it. And then he presented it. In front of the entire TED audience. It was one of the most mind-blowing performances I have seen in my life. So I reached out to Baratunde to speak to him about how we did this. We delve into:

  • Preparation – and why its almost impossible to prepare for a performance like this
  • The technology he used to record and collaborate
  • His physical / health routine
  • The different ways to structure a joke
  • Unpacking some of the jokes and how they came together
  • How he memorised a 20 minute talk in the space of a few hours
  • How he manages nerves

We also cover a heap of other things, including:

  • Baratunde’s quirky (but effective) email autoresponder
  • Baratunde’s weekly reflection ritual
  • How he writes articles
  • Why working on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah was the hardest job he has ever job
  • The key question to ask your employer when accepting a new job
  • Why he is so frustrated with the social media companies

Find more about Baratunde at, on Medium, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

SMS him at +12029027949 (and use #howiwork).

Finally, here is a transcript of the episode:

Baratunde: I’m glad your mind was blown. It is by far the most difficult, creative and performance role I’ve ever taken on, and I’ve done a lot of things in my life and various jobs and whatnot. That’s just so … it’s a high wire act.

Amantha: Welcome to How I Work, a show about the tactics used by leading innovators to get so much out of their day. I’m your host, Dr. Amantha Imber. I’m an organisational psychologist, the CEO of Inventium and I’m obsessed with finding ways to optimise my work day. My guest today is Baratunde Thurston. I don’t quite know how to introduce him in a nutshell because he’s done so many diverse things. For example, he’s a particularly hilarious comedian. He wrote the bestselling book, How To Be Black, as well as many feature articles for places like Fast Company and Medium. He also helped to relaunch The Daily Show with Trevor Noah through building the digital expansion team. He used to write for The Onion, and he’s even been nominated for an Emmy award.

Now, this conversation is a little different to some of my others in that we deep dive into a very specific work project of Baratunde’s, and it’s one that I actually witnessed a few months ago. It was the closing keynote of the TED 2018 Conference. And to set the scene, the 2000 TED delegates that just experienced around 100 talks over the course of five days and like imagine the impact of watching just one TED talk, and multiply that by 100. It’s an amazing and immersive experience, and it feels like you’ve literally been blasted by a fire hose with ideas. The very last talk was Baratunde Thurston, who summed up the entire conference experience. That’s right. From the hundred or so talks, through to the parties, through to even the snack foods, in 20 hilarious minutes. But here’s the thing. Baratunde wrote this phenomenal presentation during TED. So while experiencing the five day event, he also wrote the talk and then he memorised it, and then he presented it in front of the entire TED audience. It was, seriously, one of the most mind blowing performances I have seen in my life. So I reached out to Baratunde to speak to him about how he did this.

We also talk about some other stuff in the episode, such as his quirky email autoresponder, how he writes jokes, and why his job at The Daily Show with Trevor Noah was the hardest job he’s ever had. Over to Baratunde to hear about how he works.

Baratunde, welcome to the show.

Baratunde: Thanks for having me, Amantha. Good to be here.

Amantha: I wanted to start with your email autoresponder. So when I reached out initially, I got the response that
said, “Try this particular email address. Yes, I could forward the messages with technology but this way I know if you really care.” I loved that. That made me laugh and it made me send you an email again.

Baratunde: Good, good. I love creating redundant human labour. I’m the opposite of AI.

Amantha: Good aim, good aim. How long ago did you have that, that you have that autoresponder?

Baratunde: That’s pretty recent. Just the past few months. You’re one of the early recipients of that magical auto message, and I think I realised because I kind of forgot about that email account because I stopped using it so I assumed people just knew how my behaviour had changed and where I checked messages. That wasn’t the case and so I wanted to make it extra clear to people and not only should you not email me here, but if you want me to see it, do it again. I borrowed that from a friend. She used to have a vacation message, the most aggressive vacation auto response I’ve ever seen in my life. It went something like, “Hi, I’m on vacation. I believe in proper vacations so your email has been deleted. If it’s really important, email me after this date and I will respond to you because I won’t be on vacation anymore.” I thought that’s really aggressive. Like I didn’t feel like I was in a position career wise where I could just delete possible money, you know, or friend, or relevance. But it’s, you know, the aggressive and the boldness, you find out who cares so that was my inspiration.

Amantha: That’s cool. Have you actually done the analysis in terms of what percentage of people emailing you at that email care enough to send you another email?

Baratunde: You know, the irony is I don’t care enough so I haven’t. But, after we’re done with this interview, I will go run those numbers. I’m actually pretty curious now.

Amantha: Fantastic. Send me the Excel spreadsheet. See how it goes.

Baratunde: It’s a vast minority, I know that much.

Amantha: I feel like you’ve got your hand in so many pies. Like you’re a comedian, a writer, a performer, a technologist, a speaker, your own cultivated [inaudible 00:05:18], you sit on several boards. I want to know sort of mentally, and also by your schedule, how do you juggle it? Are you batching things that you do, certain days for certain hats that you wear? What does that look like in your life?

Baratunde: A little chaotic. I’ve tried the batch thing and I was like, “Oh, I’ll email on Tuesdays.” Didn’t work out. I sometimes create blocks of time, especially when I’m on a project and I know I need a couple of hours of runway kind of focused on something. The other technique I’ve played with, with some success, is it’s called the Pomodoro technique. It claims we work best in 25 minute bursts with five minute breaks. So in an hour you do 50 minutes of work and I’d actually gone to a workshop called The Art of Freelance and it was designed for people who have no single boss, which is probably the future of all of our labour. And so we’re in various versions of gigs and consulting arrangements and projects and things like that. So to keep you self motivated, they provided us with a couple of tools and one of them was this 25 minute theory. But it honestly, it just depends on what is the primary project of the time.

So I have spent the past year, I’ve been working on a TV project and trying to get that off the ground. So that kind of blows up the second priority items where those, they just don’t matter as much so those can be chaotic, but if the main project is being handled then everything else is okay. It’s a bit of a messy answer, kind of like my organising of my life, but I’ve learned that just totally winging it doesn’t work at all. So I kind of hope that there’s this magic technique, that if I just find the right system that’ll fix it. I’ve tried the Getting Things Done years back. I grew up with a Franklin day planner before it become Franklin Covey. I literally, in middle school I had a paper day planner, my appointment book with my class schedule and my goals for the day. I was a very popular child, very cool.

Amantha: Very cool.

Baratunde: Nothing but friends. Very cool. All the cool kids had printed day planners back in the nineties. I was very pioneering. What I found with these systems is I never fully adhere to them, but I take a few valuable pieces from them and the best tend to maintain. So what tends to help is like Sunday, let’s look ahead, let’s look back, let’s see what I said I was going to do, what rolls forward, let’s see what I the most important. Then ideally, every day I’m making some time in the beginning of the day to do that on a daily basis. Quite honestly, that part doesn’t happen but if I can do the weekly preview and even a couple days of that week, look more consciously like what are the most important things that I must get done today versus stuff I just feel good if I did.

So I’ve gotten a little bit … I’ve gotten marginally better at shifting my personality and behaviour around that stuff. Because when I was younger and had energy and youth on my side, I just didn’t sleep and that’s how I got it done. I just burned the candle at both ends. I had an extra lighter and I burned it from the middle as well. I’ve learned that is unsustainable. I’ve crossed the threshold of 40 and though I look externally younger, my cells and my skeleton, my molecules know my true age and they are far less forgiving.

Amantha: That’s interesting that you started with so much structure and it sounds like Sunday is then a key day for you in terms of doing the reflection and then the forward planning. Is that a fair summary of what a Sunday looks like? Is that sort of the critical day in terms of looking back and looking forward for you now, in terms of your routine?

Baratunde: Every day is critical. You’re asking me to choose among my children. I love them all. All seven days are my favourites, but something around Sunday is … It is important to have a moment of assessment otherwise I’m just running and I can forget where to or where for. So having sometimes it’s Sunday, sometimes it’s Monday morning, occasionally it slips to Monday afternoon or something. It almost, earlier in the week is the best and I don’t think it’s … my life doesn’t work where it can always be a set time. That’s just not possible. I might be on a flight. I might have a conference or a speaking gig or a stand up show, all the things you listed, might be happening. I might be having to read indictments that have been handed down by the special council in the United States government about further shenanigans of the administration. These are important things that I have to get done. Within the flexibility of my unscheduled or inconsistent life, I don’t have a rhythm of appointments, I don’t have a job I have to report to every day, something like Sunday or as close to Sunday as possible is very helpful for the assessment.

Amantha: Cool. I want to explore something that I saw you do earlier this year which was over at TED in Vancouver, and I know you’ve done this a few times now, you did the closing keynote for TED. That pretty much blew my mind. So to sort of set the scene for anyone-

Baratunde: Mission accomplished.

Amantha: Mission accomplished. To set the scene for those that were not there, is you pretty much sat through five days where it feels like you’ve got this fire hose going full pelt against your face with ideas and you sat there, or maybe you stood there, and you summarised the whole thing and then you prepared and delivered and memorised this hilarious 20 minute or thereabouts keynote that summed it all out, and it was just amazing. I want to unpack, like what went into that? Because seriously it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed. So I guess to start with, how’d you get the gig? Because I know that you first did this maybe back in 2015 or something, this closing keynote.

Baratunde: Yes, 2015, exactly. So thank you. First of all you explained it well. That is what happened and I’m glad your mind was blown. It is by far the most difficult creative and performance role I’ve ever taken on. I’ve done a lot of things in my life and various jobs and whatnot. That’s just, it’s a high wire act so I appreciate your appreciation. How I got it is I lobbied to do that. I have done that for many other conferences in the past five to seven years, and I kind of discovered it by accident. I was hosting I think it might have been the first time was a conference that Fast Company magazine was putting on and I was the MC for it. As a way of saying goodbye to people, I reflected on everything we had learned that day. They were like, “Whoa, that was a nice way to button it all up together. Way to bring it home.” So I did it for like another really tiny conference in DC, maybe 30-40 people in a single room, single track conference and went up with my iPad. I’ve done it at the New York Times centre for a conference for [inaudible 00:13:32], 99% kind of conference.
So it became clear this is like my magic act. I think I can … this is a unique offering. It doesn’t have a shelf life so you’re putting in a lot of work for something that only makes sense to the people who were there. But for those who were there, it feels like magic because my job is to try to reflect the totality of the experience, some of the content, but also the mood, the food, the weather, mistakes, errors and things like that, controversies. And to do it with humour and not entirely mean but also not let them off the hook. It’s like a roast, but yet I’m not trying to make you cry either. So with TED, I had attended the TED conference at the invitation of the TED fellows programme during its last year in Long Beach, which I think was 2010. I was like … and I saw Julia Sweeny do this at that conference. I was like, “Oh she does the thing kind of like I do.” She does it totally differently, but it’s the same basic function. And so I was like, I emailed Ted and, “Hey TED. I do this. You should have me do it.” They didn’t know who I was and they’re like, “That’s cute kid. Sure, whatever.”

So the next year, I was not invited to do it and I felt like I should have been, but I emailed them and I explained competency, why is that not good enough. But to their credit, and several other people’s credit, like many other things in my life, so a few people advocated for me to do it because they had seen me in other context and they were longer term serving TED-sters so they had some weight. So what TED did is they gave me an audition and TED does a mini version of the conference in New York City where I live at a small venue call Joe’s Pub. It’s kind of like their way of trying out speakers and it was called TED Acts NYC. There were maybe 10 speakers in a single night and they invited me to do the wrap up for those, and so I did, and I melted their faces or blew their minds or insert superlative. So I think that earned me the opportunity to do it on the big stage. I must have done 2014 and then hey, okay, do you want to do this in 2015 the following year. So that’s how I got the gig. It is a thing I do for many others, but it is a thing that’s most difficult to do for TED.

Amantha: So with the 2008 keynote, when does preparation start for something like that?

Baratunde: So that’s a good question. The very first time that I did it, they offered me, and I should also say I don’t do this entirely alone. This is actually a two person job. Maybe really a three person job. So I do this with one of my co-writers, producers. He was one of the co-founders of Cultivated Wit back when that was like an active business, a man named Brian Janosch. We worked together for years. We met at The Onion where we both worked at the same time and we’ve done a lot of projects. [inaudible 00:16:52] and web series and TV shows.

So he knows how to write with and for me, and taking something on as big as TED is very hard to do alone. The one nights I can do by myself. The five-day hundred talk, that is insane to pull off alone. Then we also have remotely a graphics resource. That’s my way of referring to a human being that’s good with Photoshop. Because we’re attempting not just to create an oral product but a visual product, right? A TED talk has slides. So a parody of a TED talk needs slides too, and it makes it more impressive because people are like, “Wait, when did you make slides? How did you have time to have slides?”

Amantha: Yes, yes.

Baratunde: So that means, and this year we had a man named JJ who we worked with. Again, previously from The Onion. He’s really, really nice with Photoshop so we use Slack and email to communicate with him. So that’s good. Had to get that off the table. I carry the bulk of the load and entirety on that stage, but all the jokes, like I can’t write all those jokes by myself, and I’m certainly not that good with Photoshop on my own. So help was required. Now, you asked the question. I got so sidetracked by making sure these other people got credit, I forgot the question.

Amantha: When does preparation start? Does it start like weeks or months out? You’re looking at the programme and
doing research into the speakers or does it start on the day you arrive?

Baratunde: It really starts when I arrive. It starts maybe honestly there’s like an infrastructure kind of build out if you will. Maybe a week before, setting up the Slack channel, setting up the Google Docs. This is all powered by Google and Slack, mostly Google. Just getting, so basically laying out the docs, pre laying out an outline, understanding where we’re going to store files. Attending the conference consciously. So the prep is to be the ultimate TED attendee, so it means going through the registration with an extra eye, that I’m going because these are the things I’m interested in.

I’m also going because I’m probably going to have something to say about this or I want to be in position to be able to reflect on that. So TED is not just about the talks, it’s about the food, it’s about the meet ups at night. It’s about the off campus excursions. People are going like jet skiing and hiking through the forest. I need to have enough of those experiences to reflect that back at the audience too. It’s 90% or 85% about what happens on the stage, but that other 15% matters because that, for the people who are there, their TED experience isn’t just lectures.

So the preparation isn’t so much about writing a bunch of material or studying the talks. I don’t look at the talks before hand. I’m not in on the rehearsals. I see what everyone who shows up sees in terms of name, topic, and a little bit of a bio. But I haven’t looked at their slides or rehearsals or their transcripts or any of that ahead of time. That would kind of spoil it because I need to experience what an attendee experiences. The power of what we’re doing with that closer is to emerge as one of the attendees and say like, “I was there with you when she had this tiny fish in a jar. I was there with you when Steven Pinker reminded us that, actually, your problems aren’t problems at all, we’re doing great. I was there with you, but we all got rained on.” So if it’s too pre-baked, I might write about my interpretation of a talk from a video or from a Word document, but that’s not how it was received, which also means I have to be in the room with people, or at least in the hallway. I have to be among the attendees because I’m basically trying to … it’s almost like an ombudsman and so the level of representation in a role like that.

So yeah, it’s a lot of logistics on just picking things to do. There’s a little bit of technical infrastructure set up, and then I’m doing screen captures and taking pictures every step of the way. When I instal the app, I’m looking at what’s new on the app this year, screenshot, screenshot, maybe I’ll make a comment about the app. Then it’s, it really, really, really happens once I get to Vancouver. And I set up a physical routine as well. This is also real important. So I’m working out. I really, I get a deep tissue massage the day I arrive to make sure I’m as loose as possible. I’m eating right. I’m not drinking. A lot of people go to TED, there’s a lot of alcohol flowing. I cannot indulge heavily. I can’t stay out late partying, losing my voice. When you’re the last speaker, you kind of have to forego some of the fun to be a good speaker.

Amantha: So when are you finding time to actually write the material? Because TED is so consuming and the activities and talks, they’re starting at 8 in the morning and going til the nighttime. So when does the material writing or the joke writing actually happen?

Baratunde: Yeah. So this is so much fun. This is the first I’m being able to really talk about this so just thank you, because it’s amazing and impossible and weird. Brian and I set up a shared Google Doc. I pulled it up in preparation for our discussion here, so I can tell you that across that week of TED talks which there are roughly 90 of them, 9-0 talks, which we captured all of them, we have a running set of documents. We had to split it into two. The combined page count is 50, 5-0. So we actually have 50 pages of notes, and this is just the raw stuff. So we each have our laptops with us in the room. We sit in the back of the room so the glow of our screens doesn’t offend or obstruct, and it’s name, subject of their talk, and then bullets with our comments on what they’re talking about. Sometimes with questions. Sometimes it’s so obvious and we both end up typing the same thing, or we comment on each others. So I’ll type something and he’ll use the comment feature and write +1.

There’s one guy, Aaswath Raman. I’m looking up the notes for his now. This is session six, all about the environment, and he was describing a cooling shade material, basically a way to shield us on the ground from the power of the sun. I wrote, “Oh, a giant shade like that episode from the Simpson’s where Mr. Burns blocked the sun from the entire town of Springfield?” And so we highlight. We’re typing in real time during the session. That’s the first round of notes. After the sessions, in between, we’re looking back at every bullet and highlighting and commenting or bolding and saying, “Okay, we may have had 10 notes on this one talk, here are the two that stand out.” We’ll also capture quotes and so the first few days, it’s all just gather, gather, gather. By the third day, by Wednesday night … maybe it was Thursday night. I have to double check the timestamp on the photo, but then we start to lay out what are the emerging themes, what is the likely structure. Like enough has happened by session six that okay, we feel like we know what this TED is heading toward and who the audience is and what some of the highlights are.

Then we start creating content buckets. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a TV production office, index cards on a big cork board, Act One, Act Two, Act Three, with kind of scenes underneath on different cards. We go to my hotel room. We do a cheap version of that with pieces of paper. I just lay them out on a table or the bed or the floor in this case, and we start dropping in the observations that we’ve made, highlighting. Then towards the end of the week, we’re still gathering as much raw material, but the threshold for what gets included gets higher because we know we’re running out of space where we don’t have two hours to review TED in 20 minutes. We start sending off the graphics requests. We don’t want to over produce graphics, so we have to wait until the end and we really use our graphics resource on like that final day, the final two days, with enough time for revision.

So that’s the how do we write. It’s round one, real time as we’re taking notes. Round two, commenting on the notes, usually in between sessions [inaudible 00:26:02] day, and then the final round is the last night. TED ended on a Saturday, mid day, this year. So Friday night is the last night. There’s a huge party that we miss. We hear everyone enjoying themselves, but we [inaudible 00:26:17] above the fun because the [inaudible 00:26:21] is strong. And we’re finalising the outline that we’ve been building, and finalising the slides. We convert from outline form to slide form and we’re probably up until … I was probably up until 3:30, 4:00 in the morning. Brian was probably up until 6:00. I maybe sleep a little bit, then I’m up by 7:30 and do a workout, get that adrenaline up, eat very light, and we still have one more session. My talk is in the last session, so we still have to observe that one because the best magic is to reference like the talk right before you. People will be like, “How did you … what?” That has to just be in my head. That can’t be on a slide at that last moment, but leaving a place for it or finding a way to weave it in is highly desirable, highly desirable.

Amantha: Can I ask how do you write a joke? Maybe this is a more general question, but certainly I mean, you’re having to write a lot of jokes at a really fast pace. You able to unpack how do you write a joke?

Baratunde: So that is an incredible question. I almost feel like that’s an entire podcast because it depends on what kind of joke and what context, what setting, what audience. So these jokes, they’re heavily satire format, which is to say the form of the joke is built on the form of largely a TED talk, more generally the TED experience, but specifically the TED talk. So the context is I’m onstage in front of 1000 or so people, in a red circle, with a giant screen behind me and a clicker, and I’m imparting knowledge. I am sharing information. I am giving you, I’m sharing ideas worth spreading. That’s TED’s little model – ideas worth spreading – so it has to feel important. I have to come across in this satire as authoritative, as an expert because everybody who I am talking about is an expert in astrophysics or HIV or childcare or something. So to write that joke is in part to remember that I’m delivering expertise, that I am imparting wisdom and sharing ideas worth spreading. That effects the tone.

In terms of the actual content of the joke, I’m looking back at the outline now just to see what I opened with, and it was a racial commentary. I’d been mistaken a lot that week for a director of Black Panther, which I am not. I loved Black Panther, I did not create Black Panther. And it happened at least three significant times, which means it happened in people’s heads way more often and they just didn’t share that with me. So I wanted to acknowledge that. There’s not a tonne of black speakers at TED or speakers of colour in general. It’s like okay, let’s own this. That’s my power, I have the stage, I’m going to say that.

So what I said is, “First, I want to acknowledge everyone who thanked me this week for making Black Panther.” That’s like create tension, release tension. Everyone who congratulated me on my dance performances. There’s a bunch of dancers from this African American dance company, I was not one of those dancers but people thought I was. To be fair, there are many more people of colour at TED this year. It’s probably confusing for the veterans. It’s not a race problem, it’s a math problem, and you’ll get better with it. So I guess you can hear the structure of the joke. The delivery was a lot of it. The deliverer, that would come out very differently from a white speaker. They couldn’t do that joke. It’s a unique thing I can say because of my unique experience and the authority I have. So I’m establishing authority.

I’m also giving them shit, right, but I’m giving them a little bit of a way out, and I’m setting the stage for that’s what I’m going to do for the next 20 minutes. I’m going to call you out, but I’m going to hug you when I do it. I’m going to let you know I saw, celebrate you, I’m going to let you laugh about it, but we’re not going to let it go unsaid. That’s like an example of the opening joke. Another one that occurs to me, sometimes a speaker will give you the joke. The quotes that come out of TED are just magical and so this is just about your listening ability. Did you hear what they just said? Sharing, reminding everyone, we all heard that is amazing. There was this kid. He said, “After my sophomore year of high school, I spent my summer figuring out how everything in this field works.”

Amantha: That’s a riot.

Baratunde: He was talking about artificial intelligence. He was 17 years old. Like are you kidding me? I just have to remind people that a child said he figured out how everything in AI worked the summer after he graduated high school. Not technically a joke, but a strong proof of listening and a memorable moment that is humorous. Then some are visual. So the last example I’ll give is there was a rock climber and he climbed without rope. I think it’s called maybe freestyle or free hand. I don’t remember, but he talked about his preparation and how he like runs the route in his head 20, 30 times, six months in advance. So we just applied his logic to his own TED talk and we photoshopped him studying the TED stage, checking the cables, making sure he understood the lighting angle, the placement of his sentences, with the same sort of anal retentiveness. So people remember his personality and remember that approach, and then instead of it being about his rock climb, it’s really about his TED talk. So you can take a thing and then juxtapose it and sort of shift it and apply that same logic to a parallel space, and that is a form of a joke.

Amantha: Nice, nice.

Baratunde: So that’s a really interesting question.

Amantha: Yeah, that’s great to hear you unpack that. I found that really fascinating and I wish we did have like another few hours to explore all the types of jokes to write. Something else I wanted to ask, that’s a lot of content to remember in a very short space of time. I’ve heard that the average TED talker has be three to six months to prepare and memorise and shape their speech. How are you remembering everything to say?

Baratunde: Yeah. Genetics maybe? I don’t … so part of the benefit is that I’ve been thinking about it … I was just about to say something that kind of undermined the point. I’ve been thinking about these all week in many cases, or three straight days, but then you remind me that these people have been preparing their lives in some cases to give these talks and there are definitely a few other speakers that are a bit annoyed at me because they’re like, “Wait, you just put that talk together this week? I’ve been practising for years for this opportunity.” So I think the way it works is, A, I am very practised at presenting in general. So I can save energy on nervousness, on what I’m going to do with my body, where am I going to put my hands. My cells are freed. My neurons are freed to not worry about any of those things.

Second, it’s in my short term memory and I have only really been in the world of TED all week and that’s important because it’s not like I’m watching a bunch of news. My girl friend’s back at home. We’re hardly in communication. It’s immersive. And when you’re totally immersed in something, I find I can recall better by cramming for a test. If you just cram like it’ll be in what I think of as RAM as opposed to longterm storage on a hard drive. I forget a lot of this stuff as soon as that talk is over because I don’t need it anymore. Then the last is I do have, I think, an above average memory essentially when it comes to just being able to recall in the short term. I’m good with names if I meet ten people in a space. I’ll remember their names if I intend to. When I do television, like talk to camera stuff, I’ll write a closing monologue that’s like 30 seconds or a minute and deliver it to camera and not have to do a tonne of takes. So there probably is some gift that I was born with that I can’t take credit for. That’s why I say genetics, that helps with something like this. And then a little bit of luck.

Then as a last is a cheat, which is I don’t have a teleprompter, but I do have the slides. I’m not memorising the talk word for word. I’m remembering the talks and the jokes. I’m remembering the transitions. If there are any computer science people listening to list, it’s almost like a compression algorithm and I don’t need all the filler. I just need some of the key signature pieces to know, oh, okay so if I remember sequence I’m good. I remember roughly what comes next, I’m good. Because as a speaker you can see what the audience sees, that’s a great reminder.
So if I see the giant Subway sandwich, the giant hoagie sandwich on the screen, I just have to remember what to say about it. It’s not that complicated. It’s not advance physics I’m trying to deliver. In this case, I’m delivering something that everyone in the room is familiar with and it’s my comment about it. So I’m riding on existing content and I’m riding on my ability to smoothly, lightly improvise around the basic ideas and bullets of the slide that’s kind of before you.

So all that adds up to make it look like oh, this dude just wrote a talk this week and memorised 20 minutes. I didn’t memorise 20 minutes, but I did know the order, and the slides helped, and my brain is a little above average good at that and I have a lot of practise. I have my 10,000 hours on something like this.

Amantha: And does that 10,000 hours also help you manage your nerves in a situation like that? Like are you getting nervous, given I guess the context that you’re presenting and what you’re presenting?

Baratunde: Probably less than, well certainly less than average or I wouldn’t be in this field. What you’ve just been talking about is probably terrifying to many people listening right now and if you are terrified by what you’re hearing, you’re absolutely normal. I’m the freak, so just don’t worry about being yourself. I’m the weirdo. I don’t get significantly nervous, but I do have nerves. This is a very big, high stakes, high sensitivity environment and once I’m in it, once I’m off and running, it’s good but there’s moments backstage, that morning, just like double checking. I’m flipping, I’m sort of half paying attention to the speaker before me, but it’s not nearly as intense as all the other sessions because I’m really using them and I’m trying to make sure I know basically what they’re talking about because if I miss a gigantic moment, that will stand out at this point. They were just there, you’re not going to talk about that? That’s weird. But mostly I’m like listening with an almost exploitative … I just need to be able to find something that I can use to prove that this is a realtime thing.

So I found Reed Hoffman, the CEO of Netflix, said something and I was like he just gave me a gift. He said something about being a lazy CEO and he doesn’t do any real work, and I already had a CEO joke, but then he became a better punchline on it. I didn’t have to redo the slide so I just used his name as a verbal overlay on what was already on the slide. Thank you Reed. I have to go back and watch his talk to see what he was really talking about, because the pressure and I’m nervous and I just needed to use him in that moment. So I’m sorry that I used a person as memes. I like violated Kahn’s categorical imperative. I’m a philosophy major. I don’t feel good about that, but it is part of the job. What helps with nerves in the moments of delivery, the audience. When once I, that first joke lands, it’s like okay, we’re good, I’m doing what I know how to do. Then I have fun because I realise I am playing with these people.

This is an instrument and it’s the words and the slides, but it’s also the reaction and the best version is that I’m present for the reaction and not just delivering what’s in my head at people and so I have to be listening in the moment. I’m still doing what I did all week, from the stage, because if someone responds in a way like they did. If you’ve ever seen or been to a TED, which is billions of people have never been to a TED talk, and certainly the big one, but the sponsors and the donors, like the high rollers, they sit right up front closest to the red circle, because they paid extra for it. It’s like VIP. There was a group of guys that all shared the same name and I made fun of them in one of my slides because I got a picture of all of them. I found one. Two of them were sitting up in the rich section. I called them out like oh, you’re sitting right here, of course you’re sitting in the yacht section.

And even calling it the yacht section, being able to listen enough to notice their response, that helped my nerves because it reminded me alright, I’m in conversation with people even if they’re not talking back. They’re listening, they’re laughing, they’re clapping, they’re sighing. And that helps with the non nervousness, plus all the practise.

Amantha: That’s awesome. Oh, gosh, that’s just fascinating hearing how that all comes together. Now I’m mindful of
I’ve only got a few minutes left and how I love to end these episodes is understanding what are the things that you are consuming right now in terms of information, because I think it’s so hard these days for the average person to know well what’s the good stuff and what’s the not so good stuff. So I’d love to finish with a few quick questions. Firstly, books. What are one or two great books that you’ve read recently?

Baratunde: I am currently reading, belatedly reading, Parable of the [Sore 00:42:07] by Octavia Butler and I say belatedly because I should have been reading this woman many, many, many years ago. She’s a black woman. She’s a science fiction writer. Afro futurism is the genre, sometimes referred to as … that was a weird format for a sentence but I think people can reconstruct what I meant by that, and I absolutely love it. Love it, love it, love it. Other books, so I have a pile of books that my friends have written. I have very literary friends and I feel badly that I haven’t gotten to fully read thee books, but there’s Molly Crabapple has a book, something of the gun. I’m going to literally look it up now because i want people to know about it. She is a graphic artist, illustrator, journalist, activist and she has co written a book with a man from Syria who was on the ground fighting and surviving in this civil war going on. It’s called Brothers of the Gun. I read Molly’s first book. I started this one. It appears to be even better than her first book, so I highly recommend that. Octavia Butler, Molly Crabapple.

Amantha: Oh, I’ll put links to that in the show notes. How about podcasts?

Baratunde: Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.

Amantha: what do you recommend?

Baratunde: So first off, I just have to say like I’m annoyed at the large amount of content in the world right now. There’s, if a friend says, “oh, you’ve got to check out this podcast.” No, no, those are my least favourite words in the english language right now. You’ve got to check out, that means hours that I have to commit. There’s a new Netflix show and a great podcast, so I’m going to be unemployed is what I’m hearing and probably homeless. So I’m selfishly listening to my own podcast. I just launched a podcast very recently and I’ve been playing it back. It’s about DNA and it’s called Spit. I sit with musicians and scientists and kind of talk on the personal front about people’s ancestry and their family stories, and then with scientists about what that all means. So a little self promotion. Hope you don’t mind it.

Amantha: Love it, love it.

Baratunde: Others, I’m literally looking through my queue right now to see. I always listen to the New York Times’ podcast, The Daily. It’s a nice dose, 20 to 25 minutes of kind of what’s going on. I listen to the Zig Zag podcast. Manoush Zomorodi used to have a podcast called Note to Self. She is a technology writer and reporter here in New York. Now she’s formed her own media company with one of her producers from the radio station where they worked. So it’s an all women run media company that somehow built on the blockchain. I still don’t understand that part but they are looking at tech and women in business, and just a great show. Remade in America by Bassem Youseff. Bassem was called the Jon Stewart of Egypt and he I came across in 2012 when I did the keynote at South by Southwest and I mentioned him in my keynote because he was using satire where things were really at risk, which they weren’t at the time, in the states. They are at risk now as well, but not in 2012. And so he now lives in the US. He’s been kicked out of Egypt for his satire and he has his own podcast where he interviews Americans who have also felt like outsiders. So he’s being remade in America, but he’s talking to other people, not just as immigrants. It’s all kinds of outsider feelings.

So those, that’s a long list but I think that’s a representative sample of newsie, political, techie. As far as the series, I’m still getting over [inaudible 00:45:52] On. I do like the mini series podcast, just like six episodes, 10 episodes, 12 episodes, and you can be done with it. Like the New York Times will not stop. They just keep making those, but something like S Town or Crime Town or Dirty John that I’m a big fan of the miniseries podcast format.

Amantha: Fantastic. And apps, like mobile apps or computer apps. I know you write so much and so amazingly about technology. What are your favourite go to apps, maybe some lesser known ones?

Baratunde: Yeah. Well, I’m looking. I’m looking on my home screen to see and thinking. Look, Gmail is a really significant app in my life. I use Evernote a lot for note taking of all kinds and meeting logs and ideas and things like that. The New York Times and Washington Post apps, I pay for those. I like real journalism so those have a prominent position in my life. The camera app is pretty key. Messaging app. Then as I look around at some of these other ones, my gym has an app. I use that a lot. Really love that one. I’ve gotta stay fit. To fight fascism, gotta be in shape.

You know, it’s obviously kind of important, I use the authenticator app, two step authentication with this code generation. So you log into certain sites, adding an extra layer of security. Sometimes they will text you a code to confirm that it’s you, that you have your phone. Using the authentication app is even more secure than a code because people can intercept your SIM cards now, so your phone number might not just be your own, so I am increasingly conscious of security and digital privacy and things like that. So those are important to me.

Amantha: That’s cool.

Baratunde: Oh, the City Bike App. I use, so a bike sharing service that we have in New York. It’s called different things in different cities, but I use that multiple times a day to get around. Our subway system is in shambles. It’s an embarrassment and it’s going to ruin the city if the don’t fix it, but the city bikes are working pretty well.

Amantha: Awesome. That’s great. That’s very interesting. I want to say I love the article that, I think it’s possibly a two part article, for medium around what Google and Facebook know about you and just the authenticator app reminded me of that. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes because I thought that was just brilliant

Baratunde: Thank you, thank you very much. A lot of work to write that. The medium app. I should go ahead and promote my part in The Medium. I actually like what they’re doing and I apy for it. Again, the thing that we didn’t do right now that 1.0, it’s starting to happen where you charge for quality service as opposed to sell yourself to be sold for average service to someone else, so thanks for reminding me of that.

Amantha: Finally, how can people find you other than by the [inaudible 00:49:04] podcast?

Baratunde: Oh, very good question. So because I have a special method. So my website is I think it always shall be thus and you can find me there. I’m active on all the social platforms as Baratunde, but I also, I’ve been experimenting with a text messaging way of interacting with people and so I’ll share my phone number. I’m about to share my phone number. Dear listener, country code +1(202)902-7949. If you text me, use the hashtag HowIWork, #HowIWork. I’ll do a custom hashtag. I’ll se this up as soon as we’re done. What I do, so you sign up for this and you share a little bit of information with me, just an email and ideally geography. So occasionally I’ll send a blast message announcing like, “Hey I have a new podcast or a big article.” If it’s globally acceptable, I’ll send it globally, but otherwise if I’m touring, I will only let people in that are now. I’ve got a gig here at the Sidney Opera House or at this comedy club or at this conference.

I also answer and ask questions. So it’s highly interactive. It’s not public. No one else can see what you say to me or vice versa, unless you’re taking screen shots and sharing them. So it doesn’t have performance angle of Twitter and it also isn’t subject to the algorithms and the sales to Russia and the things that are happening with Facebook unless I sell the stuff to Russia and I have no interest. That’s is like not a good business move for me or a civic move. So again, +!(202)902-7949. I feel like a telemarketer, but that is actually the most interesting way for people to be in touch with me. You can stop at any time if the messages get annoying, but if you have any further questions on this topic, text them and I’ll be happy to answer. Maybe I’ll roll up an addendum where I just do like a Q and A and post it to the listeners wherever you are, especially if you’re down in Australia.

Amantha: That’s so cool. I love it. I’m going to send you a text message after this interview.

Baratunde: Do it.

Amantha: Yes, I will. Well thank you so much for your time. I loved talking to you and hearing about just-

Baratunde: I love talking to you as well.

Amantha: … one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve seen, so thank you.

Baratunde: Can I ask, let me offer you, and you can edit this out if it makes no sense, if there was one other question you had, shoot. I don’t know when we’re next going to talk, but I know we’re kind of limited on time.

Amantha: I’m going to give you a choice of three questions and you can answer whatever one you like. So firstly, I can understand like the article you wrote on Medium about privacy, I was like … clearly so much work and research and so many links went into that article. I wanted to ask how do you write an article like that? Where do you even start?

My second question I know you spent, I think it was about nine months on The Daily Show starting the digital expansions team and I read a post that you wrote about that, that said, “This has probably been the hardest job I’ve ever had.” I wanted to ask why.

My final one, I read about your 25 day digital detox that you did several years ago and I wanted to know if any of the learnings or habits or insights that you did several years ago stuck to this day? So you can pick one of those questions.

Baratunde: Okay. So here’s, I’ll try to keep my answers short and try to touch on each of those, but the last one the least. But the first about writing that digital detox article and what goes into it and how I wrote it, there’s a technical answer which is I used some software, an app called Scrivener, because it helps organise big pieces of writing. Authors use it to write books and I needed something more than Google Docs or Microsoft Word to structure the different angles on this big topic. I was looking at my browser, I was looking at the ISP’s, I was looking at tracking through websites and looking at the terms of service of Google and Facebook.

What helped me structure that article is that I did go through a detox process called The Data Detox that Mozilla helped sponsor and put together. So they gave me the initial guide and I talked to my editor before I started writing it. She approved an outline so I had help. Again, it’s usually never just me, even though I’m the one who gets the byline. There’s other labour involved in this, so it’s always worth giving that credit. And I had records to draw on from my own detox, so all those screenshots I included in the big Medium piece, I was chronicling. It was like a journal. I went into it, my own detox, considering I might write about this some day, so I took extensive notes not only of what I did, but how I felt about what I did, jokes about what I was doing, rants and indignant moments on my own part. That’s on that one.

The Daily Show, I did work there nine and a half months with Trevor to help him relaunch that and run the digital. The reason that job was so hard is because it had not existing before. I was brought in to do a new thing that no one there really knew what it was. So it’s hard to do a job that is not defined, and I would advise anyone, if you’re taking a job, kind of know what that job is. It sounds really basic know what success looks like and have an agreement with your employers about what success is. So these are things we figure out along the way and that’s not ideal.

It was also hard just because of hours and time and pressure. This is a [inaudible 00:55:10], national almost international institution in many ways and so to rewire it and change it while it’s still operating is an incredibly delicate bit of choreography because you can’t stop making The Daily Show and retool it and then launch with all this new stuff. There’s too much money at stake quite frankly. So it made it hard because you’re trying to innovate in this iterative fashion, in public, with a live product. That’s, governments have to do that all the time. You can’t take down the pension payment service while you upgrade the technology behind it. People need their checks, people need their services. I’m not saying The Daily Show is as urgent as the government in terms of the service it provides. In some cases it’s maybe more so depending on the government. So that’s why that was really hard.

In terms of my own personal social media detox, et cetera, I did write that cover story for Fast Company many years ago now, 25 days without social media. What has stuck is my frustration with the companies that create the products. It showed up in the data detox piece as well. I think there’s this big power imbalance where it’s assumed that we have individual power to make choices that effect how we live in this world. That is just not entirely the case. Certainly my individual choices have an effect. I can choose to tweet or not to tweet, but that isn’t the question. The question is what happens to that tweet after, how am I exposed, what is the psychology and the manipulative neuro science that’s applied to get me to want to return to these addictive platforms. The cigarette companies the world over had to admit that they were hacking into our minds and selling an addictive product, but not calling it that. We’re at that phase now with some of our technology and os it’s not fair to just blame the victim here and say, “Well, you should make better choices.” Well, I can’t when billions of dollars of mathematics, computing power, and neuroscience are bending my will against that which is good for me.

So it’s less, to me there’s like another layer to all this and it’s a bigger question about how do we govern ourselves individually, but also collectively, without out ceding that individual choice either. It’s not fully collective, but it certainly isn’t fully individual. I don’t think we’ve found the healthy balance. I see that consistently, whether it’s addiction in social media, whether it’s what happens with our data. Mostly, it’s a question of governance. I could be talking about Twitter. I could be talking about Venezuela. There is a parallel there, how we live and operate together versus individually.

Thank you. I hope that was fast enough and didn’t take too much time.

Amantha: Awesome.

Baratunde: But I wanted to [inaudible 00:58:14]. I had a great time. I had a great time talking to you, so thanks a lot Amantha.

Amantha: Thank you, thank you so much. Thank you.

Hey there, that’s it for today’s episode. If you like it, there ar plenty of others that you might also enjoy such as my chat with Matt Mullenweg, co founder of WordPress, where we talk about how he organises his phone to create healthy habits, and my conversation with Adam [inaudible 00:58:35] where we talk about the two things he does at the start of every week to make sure he stays on track with what really matters.

Finally, it’s great getting feedback from listeners such as yourself, so feel free to give this podcast a review in iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts, and if you like this episode, make sure you hit the subscribe button so you can be alerted when new episodes are released. See you next time.