Visuals can tell a story


50 years later. Same place. Same ship. On the left, my dad and me in 1962 on deck somewhere in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the way to beautiful Victoria, British Columbia. On the right, my son and me last week on the same deck. The 1962 version of me, and my son today, are about the same age, one. My dad died when I was 13. Much too young and too soon. In the picture he is 35. I am currently 51. Different world. Different time. Both images are actually stills from motion picture cameras. On the left from an old Bell & Howell 8mm film camera; few people had a movie camera then. On the right from a smart phone; everyone on board had one. A lot of water has passed through the strait since my dad held me on the same ship 50 years ago. A lot has changed. Who would have believed in 1962 that I would be taking higher quality movies of my future son on the same ship using only my phone, and that the movie we shot would be instantly viewable...for free. Crazy. I'm putting together a family home movie blending our 8mm motion pictures from the '60s with footage we are taking today of our young family. I hope that someday my son will pose for the camera with his one-year old child on the ship to Victoria. What a cool image that would be, and what a great story it would tell.

My oldest brother took the shots of us last week. He was somewhere just behind the camera 50 years ago as well. Time marches on...but we're still kicking.

A fascinating look at the history of aspect ratios

If you work in filmmaking or other forms of visual storytelling you are already comfortable talking about aspect ratios. But for many people it is still a bit of a mystery. An aspect ratio of a screen, for example, simply describes relationship between its width and its height. Not all that long ago TVs had screens that were 4:3. These days, of course, your TV screen at home or in the conference room has an aspect ratio of 16:9. Movie screens in theaters display even much wider images. In the world of presentations today, slides (which can include HD video) can be created typically in either 4:3 or 16:9. In Keynote, for example, you can choose a 4:3 aspect ratio with a resolution of 800x600 or 1024x768. Or if you want a more cinematic look in 16:9 you can choose 1280x720, 1680x1050, or 1920x1080. Many people still use slides in 4:3, but the trend is moving away from that aspect ratio. Large conferences and other events such as TED/TEDx, etc. will ask presenters to prepare slides (if they use slides) for a 16:9 screen. But how did 4:3 and now 16:9 (and other wider cinematic dimensions) get to be standards? Even if you are well-versed in this subject, you will find the two presentations below by filmmaker John Hess  from interesting and informative. I also think these are brilliant examples of good presentation.

The Changing Shape of Cinema: The History of Aspect Ratio

Composition Techniques for Widescreen Aspect Ratios
Although the discussion in the presentation below concerns cinema and filmmaking, the lessons should be of interest to anyone who works and designs for screen displays. There is even a discussion of the Golden Mean and rule of thirds which I talked about in 2005 in this post From Wabi-Sabi to Golden Mean and here in From Golden Mean to Rule of Thirds.

Composition Techniques for Widescreen Aspect Ratios from

4:3 example.
This is in the Apple Store Shinsaibashi (Osaka) just after they opened in 2004. The back-lit screen behind me has an aspect ratio of 4:3. Many Apple stores still have 4:3 screens in their theaters, but some have been replaced and I hear others will be eventually changed to 16:9 screens.


16:9 example.
In this presentation at the Creativity World Forum 2011 in Belgium, my slides appeared at four different spots on a screen that wrapped around the audience.

A remote control can set your presentations free!

You do not have to use multimedia in a live talk to be successful, but if you do choose to present with the amplifiying power of multimedia, then a small, remote control device is a necessity. Today we still see too many business people, academics, and students, stuck behind lecterns with their eyes fixed on their laptops as they try to make their case, report their findings, or pitch their ideas. If you want to make a connection with the audience and engage them in your content, then you need to remove the physical barriers and move closer to the audience. A good remote allows you to get away from the lectern and your laptop.

A few of my favorite remotes for presentations
In the video below I discuss a relatively new kind of remote, the ring-style remote.

Links to the remotes mentioned in the video
A favorite of mine is the Easy Presenter Presentation Remote by Keyspan. This is a rather old model, but I love it. I like the way it fits in my hand; it's not at all bulky. (alternative link on Amazon). The newer Keyspan PR-PRO3 Presentation Remote Pro is not one I have used, but it also has audio controls, and I've heard good things about it. Another model I have is the Logitech Professional Presenter R800 with Green Laser Pointer. This too is an excellent remote with a built-in timer and a great range, but I simply prefer the lighter feel of the Easy Presenter.



(A) Genius Ring Presenter - Black Finger Mouse with Laser Pointer (Amazon 日本). (B) Genius Wireless Ring Mouse (Amazon 日本). The latest version appears to be the Genius Ring Style Laser Pointer. It's cheaper and has a button that sets the screen black. The mouse funtion is said to be better (more info on this latest model on the Genius homepage). The ring-style remotes are great, but the range is only about 10 meters or so, significantly less than the others mentioned above, but for most people 10 meters (or 30 feet or so) is good enough. In the video above, the MacBook was about 9-10 feet away (about 3 meters). The minor difficulties I had with the slide not advancing in the video was not a range issue but a matter of me not hitting the button solid enough.

"The Secrets of a Great WikiTalk" by Phil Waknell

Phil Waknell founded the company Ideas on Stage with designer Pierre Morsa (see entire team here) just a few years ago. Before making a splash in the presentation space, Phil was an experienced manager at Procter & Gamble and at Hewlett-Packard. I met Phil three years ago when he and Pierre invited me over for an event in Paris. Since then they have hosted three seminars for me in Paris and in London. Today we were chatting about WikiStage events and that's when I learned that Phil made a great presentation entitled "Secrets of a Great WikiTalk." It's excellent and full of good advice in just 15 minutes. Watch it below.

I recorded most of our conversation today in this 39-minute video. If I had more time I'd make it much shorter. But here it is below in all it's raw, unedited glory.

An interview with Phil Waknell. Recorded June 24, 2013.

• Phil's blog post with more info on WikiStage

TED Talk: Mastery & the Passion Imperative

I asked Patrick Newell below for an example of a Japanese presenter he had worked with who greatly improved over the years. His answer was BLACK, a former salaryman and engineer turned professional yo-yo performance artist whose talent was impressive enough to pass the auditions for Cirque du Soleil, and got him an invitation to perform and tell his story at TED in Long Beach earlier this year. BLACK has a great story of personal transformation to tell, but telling it on the TED stage — let alone telling it in a foreign language — took some work. Before auditioning for TED at the Worldwide Talent Search in Tokyo, BLACK had presented for TEDxYouthDay and TEDxTokyo.

The point of his story at TED is not about the yo-yo. His story should resonate with anyone who is in a situation where they feel deeply disastified — "I felt my passion, heart and soul, had left my body. I felt I was not alive anymore," said BLACK. "What I learned from the yo-yo is, if I make enough effort with huge passion, there is no 'impossible'." There's the lesson right there.

I have spoken with BLACK a few times while in Tokyo and he is one of the nicest and most humble young men you'll ever meet. A real gentleman...who found his passion. Checkout his performance at TED below.

• BLACK's official Website in English and 日本語

Interview with Patrick Newell from TEDGlobal 2013

Patrick1_tedThe TED organization provides many lessons in 21st-century presentation approaches. I first featured TED Talks on the presentationzen website way back in 2006, just after TED made some of its talks available on line for the first time. I attended my first TED Conference in 2009 in Long Beach and have learned a great deal from my involvement with TED/TEDx over the years. Many people have been inspired and influenced by TED since the organization broadened its reach in 2006. One of those people is Patrick Newell, founder of the Tokyo International School. Patrick is a TEDster and cofounder of TEDxTokyo, the first TEDx event ever held outside of the USA. As someone heavily involved in the TED community who has worked with hundreds of people aspiring to give talks on the TED/TEDx stage, Patrick is a good person to turn to for advice on presenting a TED-style talk.

Last Friday I spoke via Skype with Patrick who was in Edinburgh, Scotland for TEDGlobal 2013 at the time. Below I include the audio track on YouTube from our short conversation (the video was buggy and out of sync). Here are some of the questions I asked Patrick in our 12-min interview. If any of these questions seem interesting, you may want to watch listen to the interview.

• What makes for a good TED talk?
• Do you have an example of a TEDster who greatly improved their talk?
• What makes for a really bad TED talk?
• How do you deal with someone who does not think they need to improve?
• Do you think there is a real value to the short-form, "TED Style" talk?
• Any advice for someone who wants to organize a TEDx event?
• Any tips from Chris Anderson's presentation seminar at TEDGlobal 2013?

Links from the interview
TED presenter "BLACK" from TED 2013 - an inspiring 10 minutes
How to Give a Killer Presentation - a great HBR article
Patrick Newell's website

TED Talk: 9 ways to live better, longer, happier

Beachwalk This TED presentation below is one I've pointed to before, but it's worth repeating. The message is important no matter who you are or what kind of work you're engaged in. In this TEDx talk , National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner shares what the world's longest-lived peoples have in common. Buettner condensed the findings into nine easy-to-remember lifestyle habits. The presentation is good in terms of content and delivery; Buettner is an engaging figure. Visually, the presentation would be even better if he ditched that typical PowerPoint template in favor of slides with a background that fit the feel of his other visuals. However, except for that I really like the way he effortlessly mixes in high quality images and video to augment his narrative. You are starting to see more and more people now mix in full-screen video clips (with the audio removed) with other images while they tell their stories or share their evidence.

Dan Buettner: How to live to be 100+

 Longevity_slide2  Longevity_slide_video
I'm not crazy about the typical PowerPoint template used in a few of the slides, but most of the time the screen was filled with full-screen images (Left) or video clips (Right) that were a good complement to the talk.

In Sum
What are the common denominators running through the different cultures they studied? If you do not have time to watch the video, I summarized them below in my own words. You can go to the Blue Zones website to get all the details.

Move Naturally
(1) You don't need a formal, rigorous exercise plan. We're talking here a change in lifestyle that is fundamentally active. We're designed to move. We've not meant to drive 100 meters in a car to pick up chips at the local store. Walk, do yard work, whatever. Do exercises/activities that you enjoy.

Have Right Outlook
(2) Slow down. When you're constantly in a hurry and stressed out, this has a negative impact on your health. Limiting negative stress is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.
(3) Have a clear purpose. The Japanese call it "ikigai" 生き甲斐 (lit: life + value, be worth while). You must have a passion, a calling, a purpose. There's got to be a reason to get out of bed every day.

Eat Wisely
(4) Drink a little (wine) everyday.
(5) Eat mainly plant-based foods. Small amounts of meat and fish are OK.
(6) Hara Hachi Bu: Eat until 80% full. Do not eat eat until you're stuffed. (I've talked about this many time before in the context of presentation.)

Be Connected with others
(7) Put family, loved ones first.
(8) Belong to a community. Many in his study belonged to faith-based communities.
(9) Belong to the right tribe. That is, hang out with people with healthy habits, physical and emotional ones.

How to live a long, healthy life in one slide
Even nine recommendations can be hard to remember, so I simplified the advice down to five in this Keynote slide that capture the essence of the tips from Dan Buettner's good TEDx talk.

(Click on image of slide for a larger size.)

No excuse for boring an audience: Advice on giving technical presentations

Conference_prezo_1Long before "death-by-powerpoint" or vertigo-by-prezi, there were bad presentations. Really bad presentations. So don't blame the software. The genesis of painfully dull or muddled presentations predates the computer. No one knows this better than scientists, researchers, and academics, who have long been required to attend numerous conferences each year, conferences which typically feature a keynote speaker and scores of shorter presentations by others in their field.

Over the years I've heard from many people with technical backgrounds about what is a good presentation and what is not. I've heard from many of you — doctors, researchers, scientists, programmers, etc. — and your comments have been very helpful. I've read several presentation books over the years specifically designed for scientists and others who need to give more technical presentations. Here are five:

The Craft of Scientific Presentations
Trees, Maps, and Theorems
Scientific Papers and Presentations, Second Edition
Communicating in Science : Writing a Scientific Paper and Speaking at Scientific Meetings
Designing Science Presentations: A Visual Guide to Figures, Papers, Slides, Posters, and More (New)

The book  Designing Science Presentations on the list above was published this year. The author Matt Carter is a young scientist who has teaching awards from his years at Stanford. Matt sent me a copy of his book a few weeks ago and said that he had been following my work for years. His book is very visual and very detailed. I recommend it for any one in a scientific field, although it is on the expensive side.

Scientist offers his presentation advice

Scientific_papersA few years ago, while on the train to the office, I found a wonderful essay in the appendix section of "Scientific Papers and Presentations." This editorial essay was written by Dr. Jay H. Lehr, an engineer and scientist with a Ph.D. in Ground Water Hydrology who has attended scientific presentations since the '50s. The title of the essay, which appeared in Ground Water in 1985, is "Let there Be Stoning!" This should be required reading for all academics and business people, especially those who are to present at a future conference. And perhaps proof that there is a God, this 28-year old essay is available for download (here) from the Western Washington University website. So spread the word.

As you read the editorial, please keep in mind that it was written by a professional with an engineering and scientific background, not by a "right-brain creative type"  who knows more about design and communication than about scientific investigation and processes for evaluating empirical knowledge. Here are just a few highlights from Dr. Lehr's editorial:

On dull conference speakers:

"They are not sophisticated, erudite scientists speaking above our intellectual capability; they are arrogant, thoughtless individuals who insult our very presence by the lack of concern for our desire to benefit from a meeting which we choose to attend."

On the importance of presenting well at technical conferences:

"Failure to spend the [presentation] time wisely and well, failure to educate, entertain, elucidate, enlighten, and most important of all, failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning. There is no excuse for tedium."

On reading a conference paper:

"There is never an excuse to read a paper.... Better to lower the level of verbal excellence and raise the level of extemporaneous energy."

On using slides:

"They must be brightly lit and convey a simple thought. If you need a pointer to indicate an important concept or location on a slide, it is probably too crowded or difficult to comprehend."

On showing enthusiasm

            "Be enthusiastic! I studied astronomy under a dullard and thought it
             was a dead science. Carl Sagan taught me differently.
Please read the whole editorial when you get a chance. And if you have any success stories or details of great presentations you've seen at technical conferences, please feel free to share your wisdom
here. I'd love to hear your stories.

Related posts
How to run a useless conference by Seth Godin.
How to kick butt on a panel by Guy Kawasaki.
• "Slideuments" and the catch-22 for conference speakers, Presentation Zen.
How to lecture and keep 'em engaged, Presentation Zen.
Really Bad Powerpoint, Seth Godin

TED Talk: A story of survival, resilience, and hope

Hyeonseo_LeeHyeonseo Lee's 2013 TED Talk describing her escape from North Korea is one of the most compelling and inspiring talks I've seen on the TED stage in quite a while. I'm not saying it's technically the best TED talk ever, but it's certainly one of my personal favorites. I showed the talk a few times here to my students in Japan and they were amazed and inspired by this young woman's experience and her remarkable story.

There are storytelling lessons to be learned by examining these kind of true-life personal narratives. In the book Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, author Jack Hart reminds us of what story is: "at its most basic, a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions—the actual story structure—to overcome them." And Hyeonseo Lee has overcome a lot. Watch Hyeonseo's talk below or here on the TED website.

Plotting the flow of story
A 14-minute live presentation on stage is different than a 2-hour movie, but many of the same elements and basic structure can be seen. One of the best books on storytelling structure in the context of screen writing is Jeffrey Alan Schechter's My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Ten Ways to Toughen Up Your Screenplay from Opening Hook to Knockout Punch. I was cautious about the book (there are a ton of books on screen writing—and I have 'em all), but it's one of the most concrete and helpful storytelling books on the market. No surprise that Schechter's framework was used to design the contents for the Contour story app (which is a very good learning tool).

In a cafe in Nara the other day I watched the TED video again while sketching out the flow of her narrative. My first sketches were very detailed and moved from a state of perfection (SOP) to a state of imperfection (SOIP) and then back to the beginning (see Kal Bashir's site for detail on the monostory model). The rough sketch below, however, is much simpler than my original and is an adapted version of the classic three act structure for a protagonist-complication-resolution model for story. This, of course, is too basic and lacks detail but it provides a simple way to look at the flow of Hyeonseo's story. If we define plot point, for example, as an event that sends the story spinning off in a new direction, then certainly we can see the decisions to escape to China, and then to South Korea, and then back to rescue her family to bring them on the long complication-filled journey back to South Korea as plot points.


YES/NO reversals
In My Story can Beat up Your Story, Schechter suggests that the plot points in Act II (confrontation/complication) "alternate between answering the central question first yes and then no." These are what he calls yes/no reversals. "Any situation that brings the hero closer to his or her goal is a 'yes.' Anything that takes the hero further away is a 'no.'" In the simple sketch above, the squiggly up/down line that follows the arc of the story is how I visualized the many yes/no reversals in Hyeonseo's story. Her short story is filled with yes/no reversals that propel the story forward. For example:

• (YES) "We made it all the way to the border of Laos..."
• (NO) "...but even after we got past the border, my family was arrested and jailed..."

• (YES)  "After I paid the fine and bribe, my family was released in one month,"
• (NO) "but soon after, my family was arrested and jailed again...."

It is unavoidable to cut many important details out of a story like this in order to collapse time, but I think this story could be even more compelling and informative if another 1-2 minutes were added in order to make room for just a few more descriptive details about both her physical journey and her inner journey. For example, in this Wall Street Journal article, Hyeonseo said this about starting out in South Korea:

"Four months later, after I had been through my orientation for life in South Korea, I entered the house where I would be living. I found nothing; no TV set, no furniture, not even a spoon, I felt empty. I started out with mixed feelings of fear and excitement, but settling down turned out to be far more challenging than I had expected."

Many of the best stories are about incredible transformations, and Hyeonseo's journey is certainly that. But there is another transformation here as well—her transformation as a public speaker. Hyeonseo Lee was discovered at last year's TED global talent search held May 23 at the Samsung theater in Seoul. According to TED curator Chris Anderson, they saw something special in her. "She was nervous, but it was clear there was a fierce spirit there," Anderson wrote on the TED website. "We're so impressed and proud at the preparation she put into this talk, and her willingness to share it with such grace and vulnerability. It's thrilling now to be able to share her story with the world." Watch the YouTube video of Hyeonseo's first go at the same talk which she would refine and deliver to a standing ovation some 8-9 months later in Long Beach. What a difference.

Should we be suspicious of stories?

StorycampfireWe are wired for stories. “Evolutionary biologists confirm that 100,000 years of reliance on stories have evolutionarily hardwired a predisposition into human brains to think in story terms,” says research scientist and engineer Kendall Haven in his book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. “We are programmed to prefer stories and to think in story structures.” Stories are ubiquitous in our lives. Jean-Paul Sartre said, "A man is always a teller of stories. He lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people. He sees everything that happens to him in terms of stories, and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it." Most people agree that stories—for better or worse—have a special ability to engage an audience, to hold their attention, and impart a message. Sometimes stories merely entertain us in the moment and then quickly fade from memory. Other stories inform and persuade and educate the listener. Many stories inspire the listener to make a change and to take an action. Stories have great power to communicate and to influence, and because story has this great power, it is reasonable to ask whether or not we should be suspicious of story.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the economics blog Marginal Revolution. In his TEDxtalk he says that we should be suspicious of stories. Watch it on the TED site or watch the YouTube version below.

I point to this talk above because it's just provocative enough to get people thinking and questioning. That's a good thing. But what would have made the talk better would have been a clear definition of what story is, or at least what definition he was using. We have to assume he was using the term story rather generally for things which may be factual, based on facts, or completely imagined. But even things which are completely made up (many of the ancient myths, for example) while not serving as reliable historical accounts, nonetheless are instructional, illuminating or inspiring for the listener.

I think of the meaning of "story" not in terms of content but rather in terms of a shape or structure. Story, then, in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Elements of story structure, such as Syd Field's version of the classic three-act structure, can be applied to many (but by no means all) of the narratives we wish to create. In the talk above, Cowen seems to be suggesting, at least in part, that stories include anecdotes and personal testimony regarding events and ideas, etc. If so, then he is certainly correct that we need to be very suspicious indeed of this kind of "storytelling." Story structure backed by honest research and supported with evidence and concrete examples can be clear and transparent and relatively trustworthy. But personal testimony alone, while often engaging depending on the speaker, is the least reliable form of evidence (assuming evidence is what we require).

Rather than offering a convincing critique on storytelling per se, Cowen seems to be offering a critique on the reliance we place on anecdotal evidence today. And this kind of "story" is indeed something of which we should be very suspicious. We should always maintain a healthy does of skepticism and suspicion. Surely an important aspect of being an educated person, whether we went to school or not, is having a critical mind and a reasonable approach to obtaining information and to inquiry.