NEWTON — Thursday’s TEDxCambridge talk will feature monologues from erudite professionals befitting a forum intended to deliver fresh ideas to the masses. Among those speaking are cognitive scientist Sebastien Christian, technology entrepreneur Christopher Ahlberg, and science marketer Hamid Ghanadan.
Also on the roster is 9-year-old blogger Tobias Otting.
The Newton fourth-grader will give a talk about the importance of finding your voice and sharing it. He can speak authoritatively on the topic. For the past two years, the perpetually grinning, bow-tie-loving Toby has offered his stylish point of view on his blog, the Junior Sartorialist. He’s still a long way from getting the kind of Internet traffic once generated by Tavi Gevinson, who began her blog the Style Rookie when she was 11 and went on to international fame. But Toby has a leg up on Tavi. He started when he was 8. So far, he’s had 11,591 hits on his site.
“It’s not just fashion,” Toby said, fidgeting and eating a cookie on a recent afternoon. “I like culture, too. I like dance, I like playing the drums, I like sewing.”
Toby is the youngest participant in the local TEDxCambridge talks to date, but more importantly, he’s a 4½-foot fashion-and-culture dynamo who designs clothes, enjoys high tea at swank Boston hotels, and has handily mastered the art of folding a pocket square. He shares all of these exploits on his blog.
Recent entries on the Junior Sartorialist include Toby’s participation in a charity fashion show (he walked the runway in a seersucker Joseph Abboud suit), his new eyeglasses from Warby Parker, and his freshly sculpted pompadour.
He wears a tie to school every day. The tie is not required; it’s his signature look. For his eighth birthday he asked for a subscription to Boston Ballet. For Christmas he received (and devoured) the books “Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion” and “How to Be a Gentleman: A Timely Guide to Timeless Manners.” He also has a subscription to a service called FreshNeck, a rental service that works like Netflix, but with ties. FreshNeck execs were so impressed with the fashion fledgling that they later profiled him on their website, calling him “GQ’s Style Man of the Year, 2023.”
“People kept telling him that he was fabulous and that he should write a blog,” said his mother, Laura Gassner Otting, who runs a search firm called the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group. “I said, ‘That’s a great thing. But why are you fabulous?’ and he’d say ‘Because I’m awesome.’ There was no depth. I thought if he was going to do this then there should be some substance behind what he’s doing. So he’s not just throwing out opinions and leaving them out there.”
This is how the blogging process works on the Junior Sartorialist. Toby will find a topic that he’s excited to blog about. He’ll sit with his mom, who types Toby’s ideas. She’ll begin listening. She will ask why he was excited about a new tie, or what he liked about a dinner or a sewing class. It becomes an opportunity for Toby to sharpen his critical voice.
“She wanted me to articulate myself better,” Toby said. “But she doesn’t tell me what I’m supposed to say.”
This is not a case of a parent pushing a child into an activity. Laura jokingly says that her son lives in a Technicolor universe called Tobyland. At times even she seems surprised by the things he says regarding fashion, or his interests. She is stylish and well put together, but her son is more attuned to fashion. He takes a sewing class, and one of his friends will model his tea-length dress with cap sleeves this month.
“You’re not going to tell your kids what they like or what they’re interested in, but I can be his GPS and help him get where he wants to go,” she says. “We’ll work on a post, and he’ll tell me ‘That hat was my favorite.’ So I’ll ask, ‘Why was it your favorite?’ and he’ll say, “Because it was the prettiest.’ I push him to use writing to get him to talk more about the things that he’s passionate about.”
His passion for fashion and culture was strong enough for TEDxCambridge executive producer Tamsen Webster to take notice. Webster, a friend of Laura Gassner Otting, saw Toby’s blog. She asked Laura if she and her son would be interested in speaking. Laura said it was clear from the start that Toby had no interest in having his mother onstage with him.
He went through the same multilayered audition process as any other TEDxCambridge speaker. A pool of about 30 applicants entered abstracts to give a talk, Toby was chosen as one of the final seven. The talks begin at 6:30 tonight.
For those unfamiliar with TED, the organization is a nonprofit intended to spread ideas through short talks of 18 minutes or less. It is an international organization, but there are also local city branches, such as the Cambridge group.
“Toby can’t just get onstage and say that everyone should write a blog,” Webster said. “You can look at Toby and see that there’s no gap in integrity between his idea and his passion for that idea. There are people of all ages who are unable to demonstrate all the pieces required to put together a TEDxCambridge talk. But there was never a question about Toby.”
He is required to be onstage to deliver his talk to a full house for at least eight minutes — although he anticipates that his talk will run slightly shorter. He confesses that he’s nervous, but this is a boy who regularly dances on stage for recitals, so he’s accustomed to appearing in front of audiences.
His talk will be made easier by Toby’s endless stream of ideas. Neither Toby nor his mother expected that he would still be blogging after his initial few posts (he’s now up to about 60), or that more than five or so of his classmates would ever see the posts. An exercise in writing has turned into an important after-school activity.
And then there’s the bonus of adding the TEDxCambridge talk to his list of accomplishments. But he’s not thinking about how it will look on his college application; he’s thinking about it more like an average fourth-grader.
“My teacher said she may not give me as many writing assignments because I’m doing the talk,” Toby said. “Now I just need to get out of my math assignments.”
Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.