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.
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.