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