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Reconstructing Reality

My journey to giving a TEDx talk



On March 5, TEDxOhioStateUniversity hosted its fifth annual event, and for this landmark occasion, the team pulled out all the stops to create their best showing yet. From the overarching theme, “Reconstructing Reality,” to the lineup of featured speakers and performers to the stage design, this one-day symposium inspired conversations between attendees to stimulate creativity and evoke mindfulness – all while challenging concepts of science, technology, history, design and life.

This year, the live event gathered more than 1400 people in the Mershon Auditorium. No pressure, right? And, in the spirit of TED’s “ideas worth sharing,” the event went to new heights by elevating its virtual presence, with its live feed reaching over 1300 viewers from 21 different countries, from Japan to Germany and even India and Qatar. Again, no pressure! Had I known that this one presentation would reach over 2700 people, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to walk on that stage and stand on that iconic red dot.  

Courtesy of Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio


The “D” in TED stands for design – and that “D” is under-represented! So when I was nominated for one of the coveted spots, I couldn’t say no. Besides, it’s about time we start reaching out to the general public to spark a conversation about design and inspire others to not only see the world around them, but to start experiencing their environment. So I set out on my quest to be part of the TED community, to be a voice for retail design and to cultivate a culture of design thinkers. My hope was to motivate people, particularly the millennial generation, to start experiencing their world through the lens of a designer in order to forge sensorial memories.

The journey to standing on that stage was much different than I had originally pictured it. I give presentations to my classes almost every day where I talk for hours about technical topics, such as materials and lighting, which I hope to spin in an inspiring and engaging way. So how hard could it be to prepare one 12-minute talk. Well, a lot more difficult than you’d think, it turns out.

It all started back in October, when I submitted my application and was one of more than 100 people vying for 11 selected speaker positions. After making it past phase one, 33 of us were then interviewed by the TEDxOhioStateUniversity board members. And on the day before Thanksgiving, I received the call saying I had made it.

I thought for sure the hard part was over. But during the next three months, I met with a TEDx coach who helped me develop my talk to become the engaging story that all TED talks aspire to be.

The first thing I learned was that we each have something we are passionate about. We each have a story to tell; we just have to believe that it’s meaningful and can be impactful to others. That was my first hurdle: believing in myself and that I had an idea worth sharing.

So what was my idea worth sharing? And how did it relate to the theme of “Reconstructing Reality”?


In the digitally immersive world we live in today, people are all too often turning their focus inward, being consumed by their digital reality and neglecting the physical world constructed around them. When people are engrossed in their digital devices – looking downward rather than outward – they are only seeing and not experiencing.

Research shows that seeing creates a memory that lasts for three months, but smell creates a memory that lasts over a year. When people are able to step outside of their digital device, and go beyond just seeing to become aware of their physical environment, they are immersed in a total sensorial experience which creates a memory for a lifetime.

My objective for TEDx was to spread awareness of the physical environment that surrounds us, to encourage and educate people on how to step outside of their digital world and become immersed in their physical reality, and tap into their total experience of space to forge a memory of place, reconstructing the perception of their reality.

The second thing I learned during the process is very similar to what we do as retail designers. First, I needed to understand my audience: To whom was I telling my story, and who did I hope to inspire? And how do I go about telling this story? The essence of a TED talk is a conversational story, and not a scripted lecture.

From there, you build a storyboard of post-it notes and inspirational images, asking yourself what is the significance behind the message, and how do you build a story arc that draws people in and immerses them in that story? You define the message’s takeaway, and the questions you want people to walk away thinking about.

Once that was established, I reached out to other designers to collaborate and help bring it to life. Without the help of the graphic communication design students, I would never have been able to visualize the depth of the message I was trying to convey, further reiterating that it takes all different design specialties to bring a story to life.


Finally, that fateful day had come, and, without speaker notes, I took to the stage as the first speaker of the day to set the tone for the event, or at least that’s what they told me when I was informed I’d be up first. Again, no pressure, right?!

Courtesy of Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

So here’s a few things I learned from this experience along the way:

  1. Believe in yourself! For too many years, I doubted my ideas, their uniqueness and validity. I doubted my own voice, but each of us has an idea worth spreading. What’s your passion; what’s your story?
  1. Make every word, every statement have meaning. Ten minutes of poignant information can be more inspiring and powerful than an hour belaboring a topic. Research even shows that focused attention is 45 minutes max and even less with millinials, so why are most meetings and classes scheduled for an hour or more? Maybe a TED style format is our future.
  1. To be inspiring, you’ve got to have a meaningful story to tell. And, for it to be memorable, it has to be authentic and honest. This is similar to the movement behind “generous brands” and the trends we’re seeing permeating the retail landscape.
  1. Doing the impossible isn’t always fun: It’s hard, and it’s stressful and sometimes you don’t sleep for months, because you keep waking up reciting your lines. But inspiring change doesn’t come without the courage to try to do the impossible. What change do you want to inspire? Be courageous!
  1. It takes an army to reconstruct reality, not just all the people on the TEDxOhioStateUniversity team who put this event together, but every one of us to take up the charge where the event left off and carry the torch forward. Let’s all be representatives of the “D” in TED!

For more information on TEDxOhioStateUniversity, visit

For more information on what went into the set design click here. 

Rebekah L. Matheny is the assistant professor of interior design at The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio), where she teaches courses in interior finish materials, lighting design and design studios that integrate a retail brand strategy process. Matheny’s research investigates the sensory perception of interior finish materials and their application in retail design to create an emotional connection between the customer and the brand. Follow Rebekah and her journey with materials on Instagram @rebekahmathenydesign and to start a dialogue about the Sensory experience of Materials visit her web site



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