Enlighten us, but make it quick:  Ignite Asheville lights up Highland Brewery

We’ve all got something to say, but who would have thought that people would actually pay to listen to us? On a Tuesday night, 12 Ashevilleans got five minutes and up to 20 slides each to tell a packed house at Highland Brewing’s tasting room what they cared about most.

The event: the Feb. 19 Ignite Asheville.

Ignite’s inception took place in 2006 in Seattle, and it has since been adopted by cities around the world, where the events continue to draw a good crowd. The concept is idea exchange — a showcase of elevator speeches, life’s lessons, tutorials, eccentric stories and a hint of comedy, delivered slam-style. Participants have just five minutes to say what thye have to say, and 20 slides as backup.

Kicking off in Asheville at the Grey Eagle last year, the event received such overwhelming response that organizers had to turn people back due to capacity issues. The event relocated this year, accommodating the nearly 400 people who showed up at Highland’s.

So what’s the big deal? These speakers don’t necessarily have any authority, they aren’t experts and we don’t get an in-depth presentation. That, apparently, is exactly what meets the demand: a genuine, interactive community dialogue. This year, potential speakers were invited to submit their presentation ideas on the Web, where the community could review and vote on them. According to co-organizer Pam Lewis, of Venture Asheville, over 1,100 people registered to vote on the talks. “This year, Ignite is a truly community event,” she said. Ten out of the 12 talks were chosen directly by the voters.

The presentation themes selected certainly seemed to speak the soul of Asheville in a nutshell. With a healthy combination of adventure, humor, conscientiousness and entrepreneurship, the mini-speeches made it clear that Asheville has big ideas, and we are eager to share them with each other. What life lessons were taken from a woman’s 2,000- mile hike on the Appalachian Trail? What did dying for four minutes teach a man about how to achieve inner peace? What could we create if we stopped “overvaluing” money, and instead created systems of exchange based on intrinsic value? And how much more could scientists understand dolphin linguistics if they only had a better sense of metaphor? These and many other subjects highlighted Asheville’s overarching desire to communicate to each other our ideas and ameliorate the way we do life.

What is it about Ignite that makes it so popular? I asked several people what brought them out last night: “I want to build community. We need it, and that seems to be what this is all about,” one man said.

“They should have these once a month. It’s a way better option for a date than the usual suspects,” said one woman, on a date with her husband. “I was really excited to hear more about the ideas that people in thecommunity have…I’m actually thinking I might submit a talk for next year,” said another local business owner.

When we once had constant interaction with our fellows in the town square, church or the marketplace, that aspect of living is missing from modern life; the closest things we have to it are Facebook and Twitter, which increasingly take the place of conversation, social interaction and self-expression.

Though we all may find shortcomings in our digital social interfaces, we still cannot help having been rendered slightly attention-deficit because of them, which is why the five-minute format of Ignite is such a hit: We’d get bored listening to most people talk for longer than that.

Ignite events bring back an opportunity for meaningful, in-person dialogue, while accommodating our promiscuously flighty minds. Though the town plaza is extinct, and I sometimes fear that people are forgetting the importance of meaningful idea exchange, I’m glad to see that the sometimes dwindling flame for community-building is still alive, and that many of us have a stake in rekindling the fire.


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About Jordan Foltz
Exploring the subtle and esoteric aspects of what drives and inspires people to take action— including religion, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

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