Charts Should Prove Your Point, No More and No Less

One of my favorite blogs, 99u, recently called my attention to an excellent study conducted by Chegg and Harris Interactive. The study concluded, “there is a disconnect between students’ perceived proficiency of their soft skills like leadership, communication, and organization versus how hiring managers actually rate these critical workforce skills among recent college graduates.”  Take a look at the figure, reproduced below, and measure how long it takes you to clearly see that finding.

(click figure to enlarge)


It took me a while to see the conclusion because there is so much information in the chart.  Here, I’ll propose two alternatives that support the finding more clearly.

Alternative #1: Just Show the Gaps

Charts should prove the argument their creator is making, no more and no less, in a way that requires the minimum of mental effort by the reader.  In the original chart, I struggled to realize how the soft skills were ordered until I figured out they are sorted in descending order of the confidence of hiring managers in college students’ readiness.

A way to make this easy for readers is to just show the gaps.  As the following figure shows, the largest gap lies in “communicating with authority figures and clients.”  If I were a newly hired college student, I would focus there to stand out. Also, note that I used a color for the bars in the red family since these gaps are problematic.

(click figure to enlarge)



Alternative #2: Apply Extreme Minimalism

Averaging all 10 gaps reveals that 71% of students and only 51% of hiring managers believe the students are very/completely prepared to use their soft skills at work. That gap of 20% is the conclusive, aggregate disconnect that led the chart creator to the conclusion.  If I were presenting this data, I might simply put a large 20% on my slide or perhaps show a bar chart highlighting the gap between the 71% and the 51%.

Which approach would you take?

Meaning of Color Across Culture for Presentation Design

While I was able to find a number of excellent articles on the web explaining the meanings of colors across Western and Eastern cultures, I found most of them too long.  Here is a very simple, in some cases perhaps too simple, lookup table for using color in presentation design.  I have included primary meanings for each color and indicated the most common secondary meaning in parenthesis.

Color Western Cultures Eastern Cultures
Black Formality (Death) Masculinity (Magic)
Blue Trust (Masculinity) Trust (Femininity)
Brown Earthy (Boring) Mourning (Earthy)
Gold Wealth Wealth
Green Health (Envy) Health (Infidelity)
Grey Wisdom Wisdom
Orange Attention (Warmth) Death
Pink Femininity Femininity (Happiness)
Purple Nobility Royalty
Red Danger (Passion) Good Fortune
Silver Modern Modern
White Purity (Simplicity) Death (Birth)
Yellow Attention (Warmth) Nobility


Here are the references I used in case you want to delve deeper:


Actionable Tips From Dave Paradi’s 2013 Annoying PowerPoint Survey

With so many opinions expressed about public speaking (something I too am guilty of),  I was excited to see Dave Paradi’s fact-based survey exploring the most annoying behaviors of presenters.

With Dave’s permission, I have taken the annoyances he found and transformed them into actionable tips:


I. Content

- Have a clear, primary purpose (to inform, persuade, inspire, or entertain)

- Have a single message framed from the audience’s perspective as: To (what) so that (why/outcome/benefit). This will help eliminate information overload and ‘data dump.’

- Apply a narrative flow that supports your purpose & message

- Customize your content (at least to a degree) for your specific audience


II. Delivery

- Instead of reading text from slides, use them as a launching and landing point

- Limit the amount of time you spend facing the screen

- Rehearse to figure out what slides belong in your presentation. Delete or Appendix the rest.  Never skip slides.

- “Mute” your slide by going to black (hit the “b” key) when you want to focus your audience’s attention on you

- Use pauses to eliminate filler words

- Plan where you will stand and where you will move to (avoid standing projector’s line-of-sight)


III. Design

- Make sure text is large enough to be read easily by people seated in the back of the room

- Proofread your slides to eliminate typos

- Use short bursts of text (or bullets), not full sentences

- Use the simplest diagram possible to support/prove the message of a slide. (Tables are rarely the best choice.)

- Use a harmonious color palette and apply intentional use of contrast

- Avoid clip-art and random images that just dress-up a slide

- Use video sparingly and only when contextually relevant (and well tested in the environment/room you present in)

- Builds are fine but avoid decorative animation


IV. Odds & Ends

- Ask yourself if the topic warrants a presentation or could be handled more efficiently with an email or a conversation

- Recognize that design software can be used to create presentations or documents.  Create one or the other depending on where and how you will use it.


Try it Out!

Dave Paradi also has a couple great, free self-assessments.  Check them out at:

Best Practices for Effective PowerPoint Presentations Assessment

PowerPoint Skills Inventory

Advanced PowerPoint Design Tips From Nolan Haims

Last week, one of my coworkers watched Nolan Haims’s webinar entitled “In the Trenches: Real World Solutions to Corporate Presentation Challenges.”  Like me, my coworker is not a designer but is interested in constructing compelling presentations.  She thought this was one of the most valuable Webinars she has ever seen and urged me to watch it.

While it starts a little slow (as Webinars do), there is massive value in Nolan’s presentation.  Since there is a lot in there that is for professional designers, here is what I extracted for the rest of us:

  1. Text:
    • Use standard fonts (see:
    • Jazz up standard (vertical list of bullets) by “chunking” them into columns (note: can use multiple text boxes or column feature in single text box)
    • Strive for high contrast (ex: white text on images looks great)
  2. Images:
    • Recolor images from disparate sources to make them feel like they are part of the same family
    • Overlay gradient boxes to improve contrast and/or vignettes to improve depth on images (see:
    • Where possible use transparent (lossless) PNGs instead of (lossy) JPEGs
    • When resizing an image, maintain the aspect ratio. If you have extra space to fill, clone and stretch an unimportant part of the image
    • Bing has excellent image search
  3. Shapes & Icons:
  4. Charts
    • Use native PowerPoint charts or embed from Excel (rather than pasting as image or as link)



Killer Presentation Tips for TED Talks from Chris Anderson’s HBR Article

In the June 2013 issue of HBR, TED curator Chris Anderson shared an outstanding set of public speaking tips in his article entitled: How to Give a Killer Presentation.  Though I strongly encourage you to read the entire article to pick up the colorful narrative commentary, here are the tips he provided in paraphrased, condensed, and actionable form:


Content Tips

  1. Start with a novel idea worth spreading that is deeply insightful yet narrow in scope.
  2. Frame your talk as a journey of discovery or a detective story.  Start by stating a problem your audience knows or should reasonably know and then build to your unique solution.
  3. Make sure your audience can quickly grasp what your talk is about.
  4. Don’t over-explain; instead let your audience reach their own epiphany.
  5. Share stories about people not organizations.
  6. Sell your ideas from the stage, not yourself, your books, or your business.


Delivery Tips

  1. Strive to deliver your talk without notes or a teleprompter.  It typically takes dozens of rehearsals in front of a live audience to  internalize a talk.  Internalization is the stage you will reach beyond memorization with enough practice.
  2.  Use bullet points on note cards if you struggle with memorization.
  3. Speak in your natural conversational tone of voice (and not like a dramatic orator).
  4. Use simple language rather than jargon.
  5. Keep your lower body motionless and move to new locations if that comes naturally. However, do not sway from side to side or shift your weight from leg to leg.
  6. Make eye contact with 5 or 6 people randomly distributed throughout the audience.


Design Tips

  1. Keep your multimedia simple, or better yet, use none at all
  2. Design slides for your audience (not for your use as notes).  This means favoring vivid images over text bullet points.
  3. Build silence into your talk if you have stunning imagery depicting your work.
  4. Keep video clips to less than 60 seconds.
  5. Avoid including soundtracks in video clips.


Mindset Tips

  1. Start the cycle of devising, revising, and rehearsing six to nine months before you deliver your TED Talk.
  2. Embrace your nervousness as natural and healthy.  It gives you energy and makes you more authentically engaging to your audience.
  3. Calm your nervous by listening to the speakers before you, assuming powerful body language (see Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk), and breathing deeply.
  4. Seek feedback only from highly experienced presenters.

How Marco Tempest Delivered His “Magic Tale” TED Talk

(The following is a guest post by inspirational speaker and magician Nana Danso.  He is performing live at the Omni Hotel in New Haven, CT at 7pm on Thursday May 2, 2013.  Click here for tickets and information.)


Tip #1: Share an idea worth spreading

Marco Tempest’s idea worth spreading is: “To willingly suspend your disbelief so that you can live a more optimistic life.”


Tip #2: Encapsulate your message in a catchphrase of 10 or fewer words

If you cannot describe your message in ten or fewer words, then your message is not clear. A simple example of a catchphrase is “It’s never too late to make a difference.” Marco’s catchphrase could be something like, “There is no magic without willful suspension of disbelief.” In addition to being brief, a good catchphrase is also one that can easily be remembered. Rhyming and alliteration are very useful in catchphrases. Here is an example from Craig Valentine, the 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking for Toastmasters International. “What gets recorded gets rewarded.” Craig is encouraging his public speaking students to record their speeches in order to improve.


Tip #3: Have a call to action, even if you do not state it explicitly

The call to action refers to what you want your audience to do after your speech. You do not necessarily have to say, “When you leave here today…” However, it must be clear that you want your audience to do something. Marco wants us to believe in magic just like we do when we cheer for heroes at a football game or cry for friends we never had at the movie theater. Marco’s use of the screen is a perfect illustration of how magic works. If you were sitting in the audience and you found yourself watching Marco more than the screen, then you may need to work on your ability to see magic. However, if you watched the screen the entire time, you suspended your disbelief and enjoyed the entire experience.


Final Thoughts

Speech craft is similar to magic. When magicians perform, their spectators pay little attention the actual techniques being employed to create the illusions. In a speech, the audience may not have been aware that the speaker intentionally used certain tactics to provide a meaningful experience. However, they do know that they received an idea worth spreading.

How Charlie Todd Delivered His TED Talk

Charlie Todd currently holds the record for the largest number of views on for a speech by a comedian.  In this post, I deconstruct the factors that make his talk so popular.


Tip #1: Share an idea worth spreading

Charlie Todd’s idea worth spreading is: ‘To accept that there is no right or wrong way to play so that you can have more joy in your life.’


Tip #2: Be purposeful about when to reveal your ‘ah-hah’ moment

I help out a number of TED and TEDx speakers and one of them asked me yesterday: “Should I share my ah-hah insight at the beginning or at the end of my talk?”  The short answer is that it depends.  If you are delivering a story-driven narrative, then I recommend holding the big ‘ah-hah’ to the end to preserve the natural drama inherent in your story.  Audiences are delighted by the journey of discovery and willingly defer the gratification that the moral provides.

The location of the ah-hah moment in a logic driven narrative depends on the type of argument you are making.  Most TED Talks are built using inductive logic groups.  In a nutshell, this means the speaker has one fundamental premise and then shares  a collection of justifications that answer the audience’s most pressing question.  This collection must be described by one plural noun.  For example, if the question raised is ‘how?’, then the justifications are steps or methods. If the question is ‘why?’, then the justifications are reasons.  With inductive logic groups, I recommend putting the big reveal at the beginning and then repeating it again at the end albeit with  more emotional resonance.

In a  deductive logic chain, the speaker states a law or accepted principle and then goes progressively deeper until reaching a big ‘ah-hah’ at the end.  An example of this type of argument is the ‘chain of whys’ – think of a conversation that alternates between a parent making a statement and a child asking ‘why?’.  (Also, see how Simon Sinek’s delivered his TED Talk).  With this type of argument, the ‘ah-hah’ is automatically at the end.

Charlie Todd’s narrative was an inductive logic group in which his idea worth spreading was supported by five methods that answered ‘how?’.  However, he did not reveal his big insight until the end.  The benefit of this approach is that it builds dramatic tension.  The downside is that the audience is left to ponder what the point is until the end.  Most of the time, the drama is not worth the confusion.  In Mr. Todd’s case, it worked for two special reasons. One is that his talk was more entertaining then it was educational. When you are being entertained, there does not have to be a point.  Second, at 11.7 minutes, his talk was shorter than the typical 18 minute TED Talk.


Tip #3: Alternate between logic and proof

Charlie’s talk, like most great TED Talks, alternates between logic and proof.  First he shared a story vignette (the proof), then he shared the so-what (the logic).  He repeated this process five times for his five ‘hows.’  Here is how his talk was structured: (the numbers indicate the order of his talk)

Element Logic Proof
Introduction (none) (1) Started Improv Everywhere 10 years ago when he moved to NYC and did not have a stage for acting & comedy
Part 1 (3) By causing a scene in a public place that is a positive experience for others that gives them a great story to tell (2)"No Pants Subway Ride" video
Part 2 (5) By choosing locations that naturally attract an audience (4) "Look Up More" video
Part 3 (6) By taking advantage of assets already in the environment (5) "Best Buy Prank" video
Part 4 (8) By making the project site specific (7) "53rd Street Escalator" video
Part 5 (10) By occasionally choosing to use leisure time in an unusual way (9) 6 examples supported by slides
Conclusion (12) As adults there is no right or wrong way to play (11) As children we don't question play


Tip #4: Do not cram too much into your talk

The greatest risk that speakers face in building TED talks is not having too little content, it is having too much.  When you edit your talk, the first question to ask is whether a given part of your speech either adds to your logic or to your proof.  In the case of Charlie Todd’s TED Talk, all five parts of the body of his speech pass this screen.  The next question to ask is whether you absolutely positively need each part, especially when the number of parts exceeds the magical number of three.

Each of the first four part of Charlie Todd’s speech was nicely parallel in structure.  In general, it is good idea to keep the type of proof that you are using consistent.  Each part had a “how” supported by a video example that Mr. Todd narrated.  However, his fifth part contained a blur of six examples supported by slides rather than videos.  Since the treatment was so different, this part of the speech felt tacked on and rushed.   It was as if Mr. Todd was cramming in the portfolio of his life’s work.  The work is brilliant, but his Part 5 took away from the power of his talk.  He could have dropped the extra examples and moved the leisure time logic either up into his  introduction or down into his conclusion.

Tip #5: Add non-verbal humor to your collection of speaking skills

As you would expect from a comedian, Charlie Todd’s talk drew a stunning number of laughs – 42 in under 12 minutes.  At 3.6 laughs-per-minute, this is just below the range 4 to 6 laughs-per-minute range of professional stand-up comedy.  It is also well above the typical 1 to 2 laughs-per-minute that most TED talks elicit.   How did he do it?

Most speakers riff to crank up the laugh count.  Riffing is the practice of getting one laugh and then elaborating several more times on the same theme with escalating absurdity.  This is a mostly verbal skill though skilled comedians can get the same effect with physical comedy.

Using video examples, Charlie Todd employed situation comedy.  Take his first video.  He only had to say the words “no pants subway ride” to draw his first laugh.  From that point on, he mostly played straight-man narrator as absurd events unfolding on screen drew the laughs – a woman trying to read a book on a subway car as seven men wearing coats and boxer shorts entered the train at seven consecutive stops.


Tip #6: Set up multimedia clips as stories

Since they take attention away from the speaker, visuals of any kind should only be used if they document an experience in a way that words cannot explain.  Charlie Todd made the right choice in showing video clips of his work since it was the best way for the audience to relive his experience.  More impressively, he treated each of his four video clips as a mini-story.  For example, here is the “No Pants Subway Ride” story:

  • Act I (ordinary world to inciting incident):  A woman is reading a book on a subway car. There are two men sitting across from her having a conversation.  As the subway pulls into its first stop, the woman picks her head up and notices a man who just boarded wearing a coat and scarf, but wearing only yellow polka-dot boxer shorts from the  waist down.
  • Act II (inciting incident to climax): Six more men at six additional subway stops enter the train the same way without communicating with each other.  Ultimately, a second woman boards the train holding a Duffel bag and offers pants for sale for $1.
  • Act III (climax to new ordinary world): The men put on their pants, leave the train, and go off in different directions.

Though there was background noise, Mr. Todd’s videos were a pure visual experience.  With shorter clips, perhaps 30 seconds or less, it is best for the speaker to simply watch silently as the audience watches. For longer clips, it is wise to narrate – preferably without starting and stopping the video – as Charlie did.


Tip #7: Show videos of decreasing duration

Using even one video in a presentation can be distracting for an audience.  Having four can be ten times more distracting so it should be done with extreme caution.  Charlie Todd handled this nicely by showing videos with (mostly) decreasing duration starting with his longest at 180 seconds, followed by 65 seconds, then 77 seconds, and finally 50 seconds.  Using progressively shorter videos provides the audience with a satisfying feeling that the talk is accelerating.


Final Thoughts

Embedding videos in a presentation imposes a large degree of technical risk.  If you choose to do so, then make sure there is no other way for your audience to relive your story.  Additionally, make sure to fully test the video and the audio on the actual system prior to the performance since you will get different results on different computers with different A/V systems.

How Simon Sinek Delivered His TED Talk

Business guru Simon Sinek became a TED super-star by combining a simple yet compelling message – “start with why” – with an artful narrative.  In this post, I deconstruct the factors that make his TED Talk so powerful and viral.


Tip #1: Share an idea worth spreading

Simon’s idea worth spreading is: ‘To encourage leaders to start with why (then share how and finally reveal what), so that they can inspire others.”


Tip #2: Hook your audience immediately

Simon hooked his audience immediately in two ways.  The first is that he started with a series of compelling questions that left the audience hungry for an answer:

How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example: Why is Apple so innovative? … Then why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement? … Why him? And why is it that the Wright brothers were able to figure out controlled, powered man flight when there were certainly other teams who were better qualified, better funded … and they didn’t achieve powered man flight, and the Wright brothers beat them to it?

As I discussed in a previous post (3 Best Ways To Start Your Speech), Simon opened with not one, but an entire series of thought-provoking questions.  Importantly, he made sure that all of these questions had the exact same answer.  And, moreover, the answer to these questions was his central idea.

Simon also hooked his audience by teasing them with the delights of secret knowledge:

About three and a half years ago I made a discovery. And this discovery profoundly changed my view on how I thought the world worked, and it even profoundly changed the way in which I operate in it. As it turns out, there’s a pattern. As it turns out, all the great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world — whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers — they all think, act and communicate the exact same way. And it’s the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it, and it’s probably the world’s simplest idea.

It is important to note that in addition to hooking his audience, Simon’s introduction established the 3-part architecture of his speech.  They audience knew they would hear about Apple Computer, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King Jr. and then they would be done.

Many speakers use the heavy handed approach of ‘telling them what you are going to tell them.’  Had Simon fallen into this trap, he would have said “Today, I am going to tell you about Apple, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King.  First, let’s talk about Apple…”  Boring!  By hiding his plan inside his questions, Simon took a far more graceful approach that other speakers would be wise to learn from.


Tip #3: Weave a compelling narrative

Above all else, the aspect that makes Mr. Sinek’s speech so powerful is the way he built his logic-driven narrative.  Mr. Sinek used a ‘chain of whys’ (credit to Andrew Chiu for sharing this insight with me.)  Here is his narrative broken down:

  • Introduction: All great leaders and great organizations communicate from the inside out; they start with why, then share how, and finally reveal what.
  • Part 1: (Why is it important to communicate that way?) Because people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Therefore, you should strive to do business with people who believe what you believe.
  • Part 2: (Why should you do business with those kinds of people?) Because some of the people who believe what you believe will work for you with their blood, sweat, and tears.
  • Part 3: (Why do you need those kinds of people working for you?)  Because people who believe what you believe will attract enough like-minded people to get you to the tipping point of the diffusion of innovation that leads to mass market acceptance.
  • Conclusion: (What does that matter?)  Because it is not about the leader, it is about the people.  Leaders who start with why have the ability to inspire because the people who follow do so on their own behalf.

Simon fleshed out this logic driven narrative with supporting proof that quite cleverly used negative/positive contrasting pairs.  Speaking expert Craig Valentine refers to this concept as ‘push-pull‘ using a stuck-in-the-mud metaphor (again, credit to Andrew Chiu for pointing this out and for the link). First, you push the audience out of their comfort zone by motivating them with the fear of the consequences that will result from failing to heed your advice.  Then, you pull them to act on your advice by motivating them with the benefits they will realize.  Here is Mr. Sinek’s supporting proof including his push-pull examples:

  • Introduction: Series of questions introducing Apple Computer, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King.  (No push-pull here).
  • Part 1: The push-pull is ‘anti-Apple’ that starts with what versus Apple that starts with why.  Simon also argues that the inside out communication approach he calls the ‘Golden Circle’ is supported by brain biology and function.
  • Part 2: The push-pull is Samuel Pierpont Langley versus the Wright Brothers.
  • Part 3: The push-pull is Tivo versus Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Conclusion:  The push is that today’s politicians have power and 12-point plans filled with ‘whats’, but they do not inspire.  The pull is his concluding logic – again that leaders who start with why have the ability to inspire because the people who follow do so on their own behalf.

Tip #4: Translate your message into viral catchphrases

Simon is a master at revealing and then repeating viral catchphrases. The best catch phrases are short (typically less then 10 words), action driven, and rhythmic   He uses two in particular: (1) “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” (2) “[sell to, hire, and attract] people who believe what you believe”.  He uses the first phrase seven times and the second phrase, with its various verbs, six times.

It is noteworthy that Simon shares his most powerful catchphrase, the one that has come to define him, “Start With Why” only once and in his very last sentence:

And it is those who start with why that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.

I have to imagine that if Simon had realized the phrase would become so viral, he would have used it six or seven times too.


Tip #5: Match your delivery to your message

Throughout his speech, Simon has an earnestness of both verbal and non-verbal delivery that matched his passion for transforming the way that leaders communicate.  His voice, a blend of British and South African accents, is crisp with clear annunciation.  He punctuates his sentences with dramatic pauses for one beat at commas and two beats at periods.  He extends those pauses a bit longer after conveying important points.

Mr. Sinek’s non-verbal delivery also reflected controlled passion for his subject. In particular he often leaned his head slightly sideways – a body language signal that tests for understanding.  Additionally, he leaned his torso forward on numerous occasions, often in concert with pauses, to underscore key points.

Simon’s serious delivery was also reflected in his limited use of humor – he elicited only 3 laughs in 18 minutes and his first laugh did not come until eleven minutes and eighteen seconds into his speech.  Though he delivered an amazing speech, I think it would have been more powerful if he had increased the laugh count to one per minute by riffing during opportune moments.


Tip #6: Stay ‘in the zone’ by letting distractions wash over you

Many lesser speakers get distracted by technical hiccups or by external disturbances.  In Simon’s case, he was holding a wireless microphone for a good portion of his speech. All of  sudden, an event organizer walked up to him and handed him a wired microphone.  Through this interruption he held his line of reasoning, never missing a beat.  (Though it does not appear to be the case, it is possible that the video was edited in post-production to make everything seem smooth.)

Besides the technical issues, Simon was facing a significant amount of background noise. In fact, if you listen closely enough, then you will hear a loud airplane passing by just has he starts talking about the Wright Brothers.  He certainly could have gotten a big laugh out of this by calling attention to this elephant in the room, but he made a good call to maintain his tone.  (However, speakers should call attention to very large distractions in order to release audience tension and then move on.)


Tip #7: Try drawing as a substitute for using slides

I have a strong opinion that slides are overused in TED Talks.  There are two good times to use slides. The first is when the slides are photographic documentation of people, places, or things that are challenging to visualize or that have more emotional power when shown than when imagined.  The slides in Bunker Roy’s TED Talk are a good example of this.  The second good time to use slides is for the visualization of complex concepts and data – and again, only in circumstances where imagination does not do justice (see Hans Rosling’s TED talk for an example of this).

Simon wisely did not use slides.  Instead, he drew out his ‘why->how->what’ concept that he calls The Golden Circle.  It probably would have been sufficient for him to stop with that, but he also drew out the diffusion of innovation curve (also known as the technology adoption curve).

If I could pick one minor nit, it is that Simon held is pen throughout the duration of his talk.  Like any prop left exposed for too long, the pen can become distracting.  It is a particular issue since audiences subconsciously expect a speaker holding a pen to be about to write or draw something even if the speaker is done with doodling.


Final Thoughts

In addition to his core idea, a large part of the power of Simon’s talk is grounded in how he constructed a deductive logic ‘chain of whys.’  For contrast, check out how Rory Sutherland delivered his TED talk using inductive logic groups.

How Rory Sutherland Delivered His TED Talk

Since TED frowns heavily on commercial promotion, the organization rarely selects speakers from traditional corporate backgrounds who talk about what they do.  Moreover, given the conventional wisdom that all advertising is evil, one would not expect to see the Vice Chairman of one of the world’s largest marketing agencies on the main stage.  Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy & Mather UK broke through by promoting ways to use advertising for good.

In this post, I deconstruct the factors that make his TED Talk both powerful and viral.



Tip #1: Share an idea worth spreading

Rory challenged the conventional wisdom that all advertising is evil with the following idea worth spreading: ‘To encourage people to embrace intangible value so that we can increase our perceived wealth and conserve our limited resources.’


Tip #2: Plant and then answer your audience’s next most pressing question

When constructing a talk, speakers can either develop a story-driven narrative or a logic-driven narrative.  Regardless of the choice, planting and then answering your audience’s next most pressing question is the key to keeping the whole thing flowing smoothly.  Story-driven narratives typically focus on a single story from start to finish.  Most are told in the first person, but there are compelling exceptions such as Malcolm Gladwell’s who tells the story of food scientist Howard Moscowitz.  Perhaps a more apt description is that story driven narratives are really story dominated since speakers do step out of the story to interpret what is happening or to follow important tangents.  Using the body metaphor that I am so fond of, the idea worth spreading is always the spine.  In a story-driven narrative, the story is the ribs and the flesh is logic.

Conversely, reasoning is the ribs in a logic driven narrative.  The flesh is filled in with proof such as independent story vignettes, quotes, statistics, and examples.  Even with a logic-driven narrative, speakers retain a lot of flexibility.  The main decision, though, is whether to use a logic group to break up the parts of their speech or a logic chain.  (Mathematicians will recognize logic groups as inductive reasoning and logic chains as deductive reasoning but applying the academic definitions of these terms too exactly does not provide enough flexibility for building great speeches).  To make things even more complicated, many speakers use a logic group to break up the parts of the speech.  But then, inside  a given part, they might use a logic chain to make an argument.


Hang with me for just a little more theory and then we will get back to Rory Sutherland’s speech as an example.  First, let’s examine what it means to structure a speech using logic groups.  Imagine that you have a speech with an introduction, three parts, and a conclusion.  In the introduction, you state your main recommendation, your idea worth spreading.  Depending on their prior knowledge of your subject and their degree of confidence in your idea, the audience will immediately ask either why, how, what, when, where, or who.  When your idea is counter-intuitive or controversial (as the best ideas often are), then you need to start with why.  In that case, the three parts of your speech can all be described by the plural noun ‘reasons.’  When the audience readily accepts your idea, their most common question is ‘how?’ and the three parts of your speech should be steps, methods, or actions.  The other questions are less common but you will know when they are the most pressing given your idea.

Logic chains are actually pretty rare on the TED stage.  In a logic chain, the speaker starts with a sweeping generalization in the form of a law, rule, or broadly accepted principle and applies it to increasingly specific conclusions until they get to the point they set out to prove.  The first generalization is known as the ‘major premise’.  The speaker may then mix minor premises in with the intermediate conclusions along the journey.  Logic chains in real world speeches are often a bit sloppy and therefore notoriously difficult to detect.  If it feels like the speaker is drilling or spiraling down an increasingly narrow path, she is probably using a logic chain.  Also, if you cannot describe the major parts of the speech using a plural noun, then she is probably using a logic chain.

Now, at last, to Rory’s speech.  He used a logic group but you have to listen a few times to see it.  I’ll save you that effort and show you what he did:

  • Introduction:  Rory started with his idea worth spreading -’ To encourage people to embrace intangible value so that we can increase our perceived wealth and conserve our limited resources.’  That seems like a pretty reasonable statement, so you are probably saying ‘Alright, how?’ and expecting the parts of the speech to be steps, methods, or actions.
  • Part 1: He shares his first ‘how’ in Part 1 as expected – ‘By exploiting the fact that value is subjective and relative to alter the perception of value.’  He adds flesh to the logic with a number of examples including: placebo medicine, placebo education, royal potatoes, compulsory veil wearing, and orange juice.  That is a lot of examples, but the audience enjoyed how Rory examined the implications of this first ‘how’ from many angles.
  • Part 2:  At this point, Rory had a choice to make.  He could either reveal another ‘how’ and thus adopt the logic group approach.  Or, he could proceed with a logic chain by drilling deeper on the implications of altering the perception of value.  In fact, he did neither! Instead, he delivered his first “why” in support of his main idea.  The why is because persuasion is better than compulsion.  The flesh here was the example that radar speed signs are a less resource intensive and equally effective way to get people to slow down as compared to handing out speeding tickets.
  • Part 3: Next, Rory gives another ‘why’ which is that embracing intangible value allows us to conserve our limited resources.  He supports it with with another four examples of where value was created either by scarcity or ubiquity: Prussian jewelry, Shaker minimalism, Denim clothing, and Coca-Cola.
  • Part 4:  In Part 4, he presents his third and final ‘why’ – because the new media ecosystem allows massively decentralized value creation that can be used for good.  To support this reason, he draws on a couple food and drink examples as well as putting a big red savings button in your home.
  • Part 5:  Mr. Sutherland takes a step back and shares another ‘how’ – by appreciating the value in what already exists.  His supporting examples here were Shreddies cereal and low-priced wines.  (Shreddies are sold in the United Kingdom and Canada by Post Foods.  If you live elsewhere, picture General Mill’s Wheat Chex.)
  • Conclusion:  Whereas Part 5 looked at finding intangible value in tangible goods, Rory concluded by urging people to appreciate the intangible value of intangibles like health and love.  Technically, this is the next link in a logic chain from Part 5.  Though yet another shift in construction, this emotional twist on this idea worth spreading was an elegant and uplifting way to close.

Rory’s many, many examples make his speech entertaining.  His logical argument would have been stronger if he had done one of the following:

  • Stated one big “why” in his introduction and then used the parts of his speech for how’s
  • Built each part of this speech as why->how pairs (or how->why pairs)
  • Constructed the entire speech as a logic chain

In the beginning of this tip, I mentioned two types of narrative construction and two types of logical construction.  These are intended to be loose forms to use as a starting point and not rigid frameworks.  One is not inherently better than the other.  The choice of which to use is predicated first and foremost on the form that will make it easiest for listeners to absorb.  If that factor is a tie, then the second consideration is which form fits better with the speaker’s style.  Also, note that these forms can be mixed in a single talk as Rory did multiple times.  Just remember, the more you mix, the more at-risk you are of sacrificing the strength of your logical argument.


Tip #3: Use a consistent form of proof to support your logic

As mentioned previously, there are many forms of proof that can be used to support a logical argument including story vignettes,  quotes, statistics, examples, metaphors, and more.  It is  best practice to use a consistent form of proof.  For example, if you use an academic study in to support Part 1 of your speech, then keep using studies in the other parts.  If you use personal story vignettes, then continue to do so.  To his credit, Rory consistently used examples from recent and historical popular culture which had the effect of keeping the audience engaged.


Tip #4: Keep them laughing

Rory got his first laugh just seven seconds into his talk with self-deprecating humor poking fun of advertising executives:

This is my first time at TED. Normally, as an advertising man, I actually speak at TED Evil, which is TED’s secret sister that pays all the bills. It’s held every two years in Burma. And I particularly remember a really good speech by Kim Jong Il on how to get teens smoking again. 

As in his opening laugh, Rory consistently riffed on his material to garner laughs in clusters.  In the end, he elicited laughter 40 times which worked out to an impressive 2.5 laughs-per-minute.  That is on par with the funniest TED talks and just below the 4 to 6 laugh-per-minute standard of professional stand-up comedy.

Tip #5: With image-rich slides, try not to turn around too often

Nearly every time Rory changed one of his 22 slides, he turned around to look at the screen behind him.  Since you are turning your back to the audience and taking their focus away from you, this is considered inelegant.  If you are using image rich slides and have a confidence monitor on the floor, then just change the slides and keep making eye contact with your audience.  The exception to this rule if you use a complex, data-rich slide that needs to be explained (see Hans Rosling’s TED Talk for what great looks like with this style of presenting). If you do not have a confidence monitor on the floor, then you may wish to make sure that the slide advanced.


Tip #6: Gesture frequently to support your talk track

Most TED talkers let their arms drop comfortably to their sides as their base position and then gesture naturally and frequently above their waist and below their neck.  This is what people do in natural conversation with friends and family.  Rory adopted a slightly more formal approach with his arms bent and hands separated at navel level as his base position. However, he did gesture naturally and frequently to support his talk track.

Tip #7: Keep video clips short

In addition to his 22 slides, Rory also used two videos.  The first is a 30 second commercial ending with the voice-over: “New Diamond Shreddies cereal.  Same 100 percent whole-grain cereal in a delicious diamond shape.”  The video was short and sweet and led to a big laugh as the audience absorbed the irony that diamonds are just squares rotated by 45 degrees.

After a few remarks he showed a 65 second video of focus group participants responding to the new cereal in a market research study.  Though at times hilarious, this video felt a little long.  Either through nature or nurture, humans are accustomed to watching video interruptions in thirty second segments.  Rory could have either dropped this second video or cut it in half.


Final Thoughts

Armed with your new knowledge of story-based and logic-based narrative construction, try watching another TED Talk and see if you can detect how it was assembled.  Again, remember that you likely to see a speaker loosely adhering to a form or even mixing forms.  For a particularly interesting challenge, check out Karen Thompson Walker’s TED talk which weaves story narrative and logic narrative together.

How Bunker Roy Delivered His TED Talk

Bunker Roy is a social activist whose work has lifted the fortunes of the rural poor throughout India and beyond. In this post, I deconstruct the factors that make his TED Talk both powerful and viral.


Tip #1: Share an idea worth spreading

Every great TED Talk is based on a single big idea.  Interestingly, Bunker Roy begins his talk with a different theme than the one that ultimately emerges as his core message.  By sharing his motivation for becoming an activist, the listener briefly thinks that Mr. Roy will try to persuade the audience that serving others is a higher calling than pursuing a comfortable future.  Though that remains a subtext, he quickly shifts into his primary message: ‘To empower rural women with knowledge so that they can improve the living standards in their communities.’


Tip #2: Inspire people with your personal story

Bunker Roy’s talk is dominated by his compelling personal story.  Stripped down to its bare bones, here is the narrative structure:

  • Introduction (“Ordinary World”): After graduating from the best schools forty-five years ago, I was set up for a comfortable future. But I got curious what it was like to live and work in villages.
  • Part 1 (“Inciting Incident”): So, I dug wells in rural India for five years and dreamed of starting a “Barefoot College” to empower the poor to share traditional knowledge and skills.
  • Part 2 (“Climax”): Until one day in 1986, we ultimately built the “Barefoot College” to provide education, food, shelter, electricity, and medical care.
  • Part 3 (“New Normal”): And our approach was so effective, that we spread the methods to women across India, Africa, and Afghanistan.
  • Conclusion: (no story elements)

Mr. Roy used a wide variety of supporting examples that demonstrated the ingenuity and impact of empowered villagers of all ages, genders, and ethic backgrounds.  In many instances, he brought these individuals to life with emotional, dialogue-rich vignettes supported by photographs.


Tip #3: Build a compelling logical argument

Since Bunker’s talk was almost all story, the listener had the infer much of the logic in his speech.  Here is his logical structure:

  • Introduction: There is more to life than comfort.
  • Part 1: The knowledge of traditional village professionals has incredible value beyond the confines of their communities.
  • Part 2: If you empower villagers with even more knowledge, then they can improve lives in their communities.
  • Part 3:  The best practices of rural villagers are transferable within and between countries.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the people on the ground have all the solutions they need at their fingertips.

Structurally, this is a classic inductive argument that takes the specifics of Part 1, 2, and 3, and draws the general inference he shares explicitly in the Conclusion.  As with most generalizations drawn from inductive reasoning, there is some room for doubt – namely, that the rural poor may benefit greatly from knowledge and resources beyond their immediate grasp.


Tip #4: Use shifts in vocal variety to highlight important points

Though there are others, the primary elements of vocal variety that are easy for speakers to control are volume and pace.  Bunker Roy’s general style of communication is low and slow which has the effect of projecting calm and tranquility.  However, there are moments in Mr. Roy’s speech where he amplifies his words to express more passion.  This is most evident when he delivers the following passage with steadily increasing speed and volume:

And we thought that these people should come into the mainstream and show that the knowledge and skills that they have is universal. It needs to be used, needs to be applied, needs to be shown to the world outside — that these knowledge and skills are relevant even today.


Tip #5: Embrace the rule-of-three

Humans are accustomed to accepting information more readily when grouped in threes and Bunker Roy embraced this principle throughout his speech. Some notable uses include:

  • I saw starvation, death, people dying of hunger, for the first time.
  • Who is a professional? A professional is someone who has a combination of competence, confidence and belief. A water diviner is a professional. A traditional midwife is a professional. A traditional bone setter is a professional. These are professionals all over the world. 
  • It [knowledge] needs to be used, needs to be applied, needs to be shown to the world outside.


Tip #6: Build in circular references (or call-backs)

Circular references, also known as call-backs, are emotionally satisfying to listeners.  The best practice of most speakers who use this technique is to bring a key piece of information from the introduction into the the conclusion   Though not in his introduction, Bunker Roy references Mahatma Gandhi early in his speech as a model for the design of the Barefoot College in the following passage:

So the college works following the lifestyle and work-style of Mahatma Gandhi. You eat on the floor, you sleep on the floor, you work on the floor.

In his conclusion, Mr. Roy closed the loop by citing the civil rights leader as follows:

I’ll end with a quotation by Mahatma Gandhi. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

This call-back was moderately effective, but would have been more so if it had tied more closely to his central theme of empowerment.  Though not quite perfect, the following Gandhi quote would have been more on point: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”


Tip #7: Control your nerves

Bunker Roy’s contributions to humanity and his inspiring content make minor technical flaws in his delivery seem rather insignificant.  However, it is useful for other activists, not accustomed to public speaking, to understand the following improvements:

  • Rather than rocking his body by shifting his weight, Mr. Roy should have firmly planted his feet.
  • Rather than keeping his hands behind his back, Mr. Roy should have let his arms fall naturally at his sides when not gesturing.
  • Rather than looking at his notes, Mr. Roy should have relied on the confidence monitor that was on the floor.


Tip #8: Use vibrant, emotional, image-rich slides

Most TED Talks are more effective without slides.  The exception is when the images present a first hand account of the story the speaker is sharing.  This was the case for Mr. Roy who shared 36 slides including before and after photos of the Barefoot College site, villages he helped transform, and women who were the subject of his vignettes.  With few exceptions, each slide was a vibrant, full-bleed image devoid of text.  This style provides visual support without taking too much attention away from the speaker.


Tip #9: Use a single, contextually relevant prop

Contextually relevant props are a great way to mix things up during a presentation.  Unless absolutely necessary, strive to use a single prop since using many props can get gimmicky.  During his speech, Mr. Roy dons a hand puppet, when sharing how he uses it to solve problems in the villages he advises:

Where the percentage of illiteracy is very high, we use puppetry. Puppets is the way we communicate. You have Jokhim Chacha who is 300 years old. He is my psychoanalyst. He is my teacher. He’s my doctor. He’s my lawyer. He’s my donor. He actually raises money, solves my disputes. He solves my problems in the village. If there’s tension in the village, if attendance at the schools goes down and there’s a friction between the teacher and the parent, the puppet calls the teacher and the parent in front of the whole village and says, “Shake hands. The attendance must not drop.” These puppets are made out of recycled World Bank reports.

Mr. Roy kept this hand puppet on a nearby lectern.  Following best practice, it would have been somewhat more effective had he hidden the prop before and after using it.  Many TED speakers have an assistant deliver and remove a prop.  Alternatively, he could have put the puppet in a small, nondescript box to keep the audience from being mildly distracted by it.

It is also notable that Mr. Roy not only used the hand puppet, but also had slides of the puppet being used in village settings.  I found this to be a novel and clever combination.


Final Thoughts

If you have not seen it, please check out Bunker Roy’s TED Talk below.


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