When I wrote the first edition of Presentation Zen back in 2007, I said that presentations are better when they are prepared and delivered in the spirit of truly wanting to make a difference and a belief in the power of sharing ideas. The secret to this spirit or approach is contribution. This is a key part of Presentation Zen. It's not about showing off. It's not about impressing. It's not about winning (or losing). I quoted the incredible Benjamin Zander who said this when speaking to a group of remarkably talented young musicians:
“This is the moment — this is the most important moment right now. Which is: We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”
— Benjamin Zander
Contribution is key. This is what I always say. I harp on it constantly. It's the fundamental element to effective communication, collaboration, and learning. We would not have come as far as we have as a species if every time we learned something new we kept it to ourselves. Collective learning is what we are all about. When we inquire, explore, and discover, we want to share it. If not with the world, then at least with our in-group. When you share it—that is, when you explain what you learned through narrative—you reinforce your own understanding. When you share it you understand it even more deeply than before. But contribution is more than that, it just may be the secret to living a meaningful life as well.
It's a simple idea. Contribution is voluntary. It's not something that can be forced. Contribution is not about being a hero or becoming famous or receiving awards or impressing others. The world is filled with people who have ticked every one of those boxes but still feels empty. On the other hand, doing something that matters and allows us to make a small contribution day in and day out will give us meaning. It could be as simple as a sincere compliment that makes someone's day. Or working hard on a project that benefits the team. Or a student completing a presentation that actually engaged the audience and taught them something important.
Being a contributor...more important than being a hero I began thinking about this again after I stumbled upon a wonderful 60 Minutes (Australia) interview with Robert Plant. The reporter asked the legendary rock star if his aim was to become famous back in the day. Plant replied that it was not really about wanting to become famous. "I don't think fame was the term for it," Plant said. "We were part of a huge youth movement that was going to change the world."
"So it was the right time for LED Zeppelin," the reporter asked. "It was the right time for us all," Plant said. And this is the line that resonates the most. This is the takeaway line:
"Being a contributor in any form was way more important than being a hero." — Robert Plant
It does not matter what your job is or what your dreams are. It matters not if your goals are big or small. It does not matter if you are the best at what you do or are just starting out. In the moment it only matters that you are fully present and sharing, or teaching, or collaborating in the spirit of contribution. This is the key to making a difference, no matter how small, day in and day out. Sure, the world still needs heroes. But every day when we get out of bed in the morning and face the challenges ahead, it may just be more important, as Plant says, that we be a contributor in any form rather than be a hero.
Just because a chart is correct, it does not mean it's not misleading. Here's an example: Back in the USA, on March 12, US Senator Ted Cruz and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden went head to head at a hearing on the President’s FY2016 budget request arguing as to what they thought NASA’s priorities are today. Sen. Cruz is known to be a climate-change skeptic and has often said that NASA should focus on space exploration and leave earth science to other agencies. Although Cruz and Bolden disagreed strongly, reports are that the hour-long meeting was nonetheless cordial. The interesting part of the hearing for me was the ridiculous bit of chartsmanship that Sen. Cruz employed to kick off the meeting. A few minutes into the hearing, Sen. Cruz had an aide lumber over to the poster stand to display the large printed poster board pictured below.
Chart displayed at the hearing on the President’s FY2016 budget request on March 12, 2015. Typically, bars are arranged in ascending or descending order, but here it seems they were trying to contrast Earth Science vs. Exploration & Space Operations. Note the Earth clip art added to emphasize the answer to their own question.
As Sen. Cruz looks at the chart he says, "In my judgement [this chart] does not represent a fair or appropriate allocation of resources. That it is shifting resources away from the core function of NASA to other functions." Later the senator says, "the chart does not suggest that the investment of budgetary resources is going where it should." The implication is that money previously used for space exploration has been reallocated to earth science. It seems that senator Cruz feels this chart is the smoking gun to support his idea that NASA has lost its way by focusing on earth science rather than remaining focused on space exploration. (Watch a 9-min clip from the beginning of the hearing.)
You can fool some of the people... A lot of people may find this kind of data display convincing today. In fact, you could imagine a newspaper headline which read "NASA Shifts Priorities from Space Exploration to Earth Science" accompanied by this kind of chart. At first glance, the visual of a dramatic increase in earth science allocations while showing a decrease for space exploration may feel like it supports the Senator's claim. This kind of chart may work in a TV infomercial or a cable news talk show where viewers do not pay close attention and are easily fooled by fast-pitched unfounded claims and spurious relationships, but in a setting like this, the chart was utterly unconvincing, especially to the retired United States Marine Corps Major General, and former NASA astronaut Administrator Bolden. (Update, apparently you can fool some of the people.)
The figures in the chart are correct, but they're terribly misleading. The two major problems with the chart are that (1) showing only percentage increases over the last seven years says nothing about the actual dollar amount being allocated to each category nor its relative percentage to the entire NASA budget. (2) Even if we were to agree that percentage increases or decreases of allocations necessarily translated into relative importance or priorities, we do not know what was even included for the the category of Space Exploration. Depending on what you include, you could actually show that there was a percentage increase for space exploration. More importantly, since 2009, the Space Shuttle program retired. The Space Shuttle was obviously expensive so if you remove it—sometime after 2011—then that would surely impact the budget for exploration. Also, allocations for earth science research were cut significantly during the previous US administration, so an increase since 2009 would not be surprising. Yet, as a percentage of the entire NASA budget, the earth science allocation in 2016 is actually less than in the year 2000. This also does not support the idea of a “disproportionate increase” in earth science.
Additionally, Bolden stated that NASA was intentionally aiming to reduce the cost of space exploration. But a slight reduction—even if it were true—would not mean space exploration was any less of a priority or that funds were being diverted from exploration to earth science, something Sen Cruz was implying that the chart showed. After vigorously defending the earth science programs, Administrator Bolden said this:
"You asked me about your chart. There's a lot of chartsmanship [in that chart]. I'm not sure what you include in Exploration, so by my statements I was not acknowledging that I agree with the numbers in the chart. I don't want anyone to say that I accept the numbers on the chart."
Another way to look at it Although Sen. Cruz's chart was not incorrect, it was still be terribly misleading. So using the same categories that Sen. Cruz used in his chart, which does not include all of the budget request categories, I made two versions of a similar bar chart. But by focusing on the actual numbers requested, this slide suggests a different story and supports the idea that NASA's budget is focused on exploration and space operations.
Instead of a poster board on an easel, why not equip the hearing room with large digital displays where data can be accessed and easily displayed. In this case, the NASA Administrator could have shown his own charts to show a clearer picture.
This shows that Exploration & Space Operations is by far the biggest category. Two colors for the bars were chosen directly from the photo of Jupiter which was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The photo and Cassini being examples of exploration or "focused outward."
In this example of the same chart the bars are arrange horizontally. The colors were taken directly from the NASA logo. The emphasis is on Exploration & Space Operations, and the red color—and the much greater length—make the top bar pop.
Does not get much simpler than this. Even though funding for Earth Science is crucial, this chart suggests it hardly holds a "disproportionate" slice of the NASA budget pie. An even better graph would be of a line chart that showed the 10.5% of 2016 is actually down from around 12.4% in 2000.
A good book I often recommend is: Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini et al. I first read the book when it came out in 2008. The book is designed for professionals who are interested in becoming better at understanding how to persuade or influence others. The book may also help you understand why you decide to do the things you do. Even if you are a researcher or teacher or a medical doctor, and so on, and not a business person, it's still important to understand how people are (or can be) influenced and persuaded by your words and behaviors. Each chapter focuses on a single question and is no more than 3-5 pages long. If you want to go deeper you can checkout the sources for each chapter in the Notes section.
"Yes!" is not a textbook, and it may not go deep enough for some, but for extremely busy professionals, this is a useful book with many clear, quick lessons that will get you thinking.
Above: The book on my desk. Each chapter focuses on a question such as what common mistake causes messages to self-destruct, how sticky notes can make your messages stick, etc. Checkout the table of contents here to see all 50 chapters at a glance. If you want a little more depth, I suggest Cialdini's other huge bestsellers Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Influence: Science and Practice. These books have sold in the millions by now. Some people may be skeptical about the ethics of trying to persuade and influence others, but remember, it's not just about marketers trying to influence someone to buy something they do not need with money they do not have. Persuasion can be used for good just as it can be used for ignoble reasons. For example, a medical doctor often needs to be effective at persuading patients to comply with her recommendations. Facts, data, and argument are usually not enough to influence a change in behavior.
If you do not have enough time to read the Influence books yet, the 12-minute video below will give you a good idea as to the key findings in Cialdini's research. The video presentation covers the six universal principles of persuasion which are scientifically proven, according to the author, to make you more effective at influence and persuasion. (Watch below or on YouTube.)
Principles of Persuasion at a glance In an ideal world people would use reliable information and sound logic to guide their thinking and decision making, but the reality is people use shortcuts or "rules of thumb" to make decisions. The six shortcuts below, according to the author, are universal rules of thumbs that guide human behavior. The key is to understand these shortcuts and use them in an ethical manner to persuade others. There are many examples in the books, but in the video they can only give one or two. Here are the six principles in brief.
(1) Reciprocity. The obligation to give back when you have previously received. The key takeaway: Be the first to give and make it personal and unexpected.
(2) Scarcity. People want more of those things which are perceived to be rare or in short supply. It's not enough to tell people about the benefits they will gain, you must also tell them what they stand to lose or miss out on if they do not adopt your idea (or buy your product, or choose your school, etc.).
(3) Authority. People will follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts. In the presentation space, it's highly desirable to have someone give a short and concise introduction of yourself which highlights why you are an expert worth listening to.
(4) Consistency. Asking for small commitments that can easily be made. Then going back and asking for larger commitments later. Sometimes this is called "getting a lot by first asking for a little." People want to be consistent, according to the principle, so if they said yes to you previously they are more likely to do it again.
(5) Liking. People prefer to say yes to the people they like. There are three factors in determining whether we like someone (a presenter on stage, for example). We tend to like people (1) who are similar to us, (2) who pay us compliments, and (3) who cooperate with us. For presenters it's important to really know your audience so that you can touch immediately on something shared and personal with the audience.
(6) Consensus. People often look to the actions of others to determine their own. So rather than simply hitting people over the head with your logic and data trying to persuade them to accept your idea, you can also elaborate on all the other people who have already accepted your proposal.
Shuichi Inoue, the "Sushi Maestro," gave a beautiful, heartfelt presentation at TEDxKyoto last year about his passion and dream to spread the innovative approach of his art to the world. Yesterday, tragically, Shuichi's life was cut short by a careless driver on a Japanese freeway. All of us in the TEDxKyoto community are in a state of shock right now. Both Shuichi and I presented in the same session at TEDxKyoto last Fall. I met him in the green room back stage. He was gracious, humble, and all smiles. Shuichi was the nicest guy you could ever meet. I can't believe he's gone.
I'm sorry that I have no elegant words to describe Shuichi or the pain that we all feel today. All I can do is share one of his last recorded moments below. I hope the whole world can see his TEDxKyoto talk. Please watch the video below. English subtitles are available (thanks to the TEDxKyoto team), so please click the CC button if they do not display automatically.
Japanese culture is deep and wide with many lessons for us all, and Shu was on a mission to share it with a creative spirit and an open, humble heart. The last part of his TEDxKyoto talk above touches on his dream and his optimistic approach to the future. These words are hard to hear today. Our hearts are terribly heavy, but I hope that if you have any interest in Japanese culture and the art of sushi that you'll pass Shu's TEDxKyoto video on to others and share his work and his innovative spirit. Here's a bit of his talk:
"I want to continue on a journey to share Japanese culture to the world through sushi and also hope to use what I have learnt from being exposed to other cultures in evolving sushi further. Sushi has infinite possibilities. With the ingredients that will bring out these possibilities, with Japanese traditions, and other cultures of the world, I will continue my adventure. I hope to shed light on these hidden values, mold them into shape, and deliver them to you. People have yet to realize the possibilities and attractiveness hidden in sushi. It's not only about consuming fresh fish, but being able to experience the crystalization of painstakingly acquired skills and art in one single moment. This moment, I believe, is the greatest luxury one can experience and is essentially, the aesthetics of sushi. I'm lucky to have been born in a well off country like Japan and I'm truly happy I am able to be a sushi chef. I have embarked on a journey to continue to fuse diverse things, challenge Japan and the world, and I hope to continue to shed light on hidden possibilities, shape them, and deliver them to people all over the world."
Here's the video from his website which was shown in the presentation.
There are a ton of storytelling-related books and websites in the cosmos. And there is no shortage of people giving story advice and tips. Much of the advice is helpful, but the enormous volume of information related to writing or telling better stories can be overwhelming. Therefore, when someone credible comes along who offers free, insanely simple yet effective advice for improving one's story, he will find a very large audience indeed. This is exactly what happened just a few years ago, all quite by accident it would seem.
In 2011 Comedy Central began shooting a documentary about the process behind the creation of a typical South Park episode. The short film—"Six Days to Air: The Making of South Park"— focuses on the co-creators and lead writers for the show, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, as they and their team brainstorm ideas, write, rewrite, record dialog, and finally animate one entire show in just six days. The documentary begins as Matt and Trey return from New York City where their first Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, had just opened to rave reviews. Now back in Colorado, they find themselves with no ideas for the next episode of South Park and with the pressure of producing a show that will air in less than a week. This, they say, is all quite normal for them. The process is intense and the pressure is palpable, but without the crazy deadline, says Trey Parker, the episodes would never get finished. At first, Matt and Trey and a few other writers and producers sit in a room with a large whiteboard and bounce ideas around. Often Usually the ideas are absurd, but if it makes others in the room laugh, then they may be on to something. "For every good idea we get, there are a hundred not so good ones," Matt Stone says. (You can find the Six Days to Air documentary as an extra on the complete 15th Season of South Park DVD.)
Therefore & But The entire documentary is insightful, but there is one 45-second bit that popped out to anyone who is interested in writing or telling stories. When talking about the frantic rewriting process of their script, Trey reveals his simple rule for rewriting and improving the story. "I call it the rule of replacing ands with either buts or therefores." Trey says that a common trap a lot of writers fall into is describing actions and events in a typical "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened...." This kind of X and then Y and then Z progression—similar to creating a list of things—is not engaging. This approach to writing (or speaking) is dull and does not generate momentum, let alone sustain it. Therefore, Trey says, "whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to "this happened, therefore this happens. But this happens..." In other words, says, Trey, "Whenever you can replace your 'ands' with 'buts' and 'therefores,' it makes for better writing."
Later that year in 2011, Trey and Matt surprised a “Storytelling Strategies” class at NYU as part of a mtvU series and offered up story advice, once again explaining the "Replacing ands with therefores and buts" story structure tip. Watch the 6-min clip below.
Here's the transcript from the key part of the video above where Trey Parker explains their simple but oh so effective rewriting tip.
"Each individual scene has to work as a funny sketch. You don’t want to have one scene and go ‘well, what was the point of that scene?’ So we found out this rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it. But we can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline. And if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats… you’re f****d. Basically. You got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word 'Therefore' or 'but,' right? So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea and it’s like ‘okay, this happens’ and then ‘THIS happens.’ No no no. It should be ‘this happens’ and THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ BUT ‘this happens’ THEREFORE ‘this happens.’ … And sometimes we will literally write it out to make sure we’re doing it. We’ll have our beats and we’ll say okay ‘this happens’ but ‘then this happens’ and that affects this and that does to that and that’s why you get a show that feels okay."
But, there's more... Right, I'm sure you've got it, but here's one more explanation of the Trey Parker story tip. Below is a wonderful video essay by Tony Zhou where he explains how important Buts and Therefores are in creating a tight, well structured story. As Tony says, as much as possible, we want to avoid the dreaded "and then, and then, and then..." Tony also touches on Alfred Hitchcock's story structure technique called "Meanwhile, back at the ranch." This is where you have two (or more) things going in parallel. When you reach the peak of one then you can move to the other. You see this in films a lot. Tony Zhou is a remarkable video essayist. Checkout all of his video essays. He's a great teacher.
I first came across this therefore/but story structure tip in a great screenwriting book called Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk! This is one of the freshest screenwriting books I have ever read (and there are a gazillion screenwriting books). In the book, Hulk talks for a couple of pages about the Trey Parker and Matt Stone simple tip of changing ands to therefores and buts. After reading this I went out and purchased the South Park season 15 DVD just so I could get the documentaries which are included as extras. It was worth it.
Remember, there are no panaceas, but looking again at your writing—or your presentation structure—and going back and changing your 'and then' to a 'but' or 'therefore' can make a huge difference as you continue to tighten your story, giving it tension and momentum.
I've long been a fan of Norm Macdonald. He's always seemed to be the most genuine of standup comedians. He never became a household name, though he is certainly successful by any definition. The comedian from Ottawa may best be known for his five years as an SNL cast member and anchor for Weekend Update. Clearly the standup community respect and admire him. As with standup, so it is in life: the most genuine and the most authentic people are the ones who touch us the most and are the ones we remember.
One of the greatest storytellers of our time has died. B.B. King passed away today in Las Vegas. The legendary blues musician was 89. Please allow me to quote from presentationzen.com. This excerpt is from a post I wrote ten years ago called Presentation, blues, and tapping into your creative soul:
B.B. King is a legend. No one does it like he does. He's not flashy and he doesn't try to impress with speed or technique. That's not what it's about. That's not what the blues is about. It's about telling a story and making a connection in a way that can not be duplicated by anyone else. If you are being true to yourself and the audience, if you are authentic, how could it possibly be duplicated?
Many people can play good technique. With study, technique is not too difficult for many people. Computers, for example, can play "perfect technique." But even with perfect technique, computer-generated blues would lack substance and would seem empty. It would seem empty because there is no "feel" to it. To me "feel" is that kind of perfectly imperfect human quality that conveys emotion and the spontaneity of the time. That one moment in time that can not be repeated the same way again. And that's beautiful.
Five hundred years from now—a thousand years from now—they will still be playing B.B. King songs and paying tributes. B.B. King masterfully told stories with his songs, but rather than link to one of his legendary hits here, please take a look at this short video featuring B.B. King sharing a story from his younger days, with another legend Buddy Guy. It's beautiful.
The Thrill is Gone Here's B.B. King from 1993 storytelling through one of his classics. Put the headphones on and crank up the volume. It's wonderful. As Jimi Hendrix said, "Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel." Is there anyone who played and sang more evocatively than B.B. King? He was the true master of communicating feelings.
Last November I dined in Tokyo with a friend who was here in Japan on business from California. My friend is the CEO of a multi-billion dollar tech company with offices worldwide, including in Japan. He's someone I greatly admire and look up to for advice, wisdom, and inspiration. He's a powerful leader, a successful business person, and a nice guy to boot. So when he said that he was absolutely shocked that I had not seen the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I felt ashamed of my failing and placed an order for the DVD immediately on Amazon. "I can't believe you have not seen this movie!" he said. "I must have seen it 5-6 times by now and there's always something to learn." Here it is a few months later and in that time I too have seen the movie 5-6 times. My friend was right, there are many valuable lessons in this documentary. I recommend the movie to anyone who is interested in a beautiful visual narrative that is a mix of innovation insights and inspiration.
Shokunin Kishitsu Shokunin kishitsu (職人気質) translates roughly as the “craftsman spirit." The movie, in spite of its title, is not about sushi, it's really about how to be a master shokunin, how to become truly great as a master craftsman. Yes, if you like sushi—and beautiful cinematography of sushi—then you'll not be disappointed. But even if you have zero interest in sushi, you will be motivated and inspired by this film. The film is not perfect, of course. For example, the narrative could use more objectivity and a more critical eye. There are surely more downsides to Jiro's approach (not to mention the issue of over fishing which is touched only very superficially). Yet, on the whole, it's a wonderful documentary. No matter your job or your dreams, there may be a valuable lesson or two in this gem of a film that will help you in your pursuit of mastery. Checkout the trailer below for the feel of the film.
Five elements of Mastery There are many lessons from the film, but I will focus here on five main points that the film makes early on. Food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto speaks of what makes Jiro a true master at his art. "He sets the standard for self-discipline," Yamamoto says. "He is always looking ahead. He's never satisfied with his work. He's always trying to find ways to make the sushi better, or to improve his skills. Even now, that's what he thinks about all day, every day."
What does any of these points below have to do with presentation? Well, public speaking, including presentation given with the aid of multimedia, is an art. It may be a big aspect of your life and career, or it may play a very minor role. But the art of presentation, and the art of communication in general, is something worthy of an obsessive pursuit of excellence. No matter how good you are today, you can get better.
Below are the five attributes, according to Yamamoto, that are found in any great chef. Think about how you—or your team—can apply these to your own work (art).
1. Majime (真面目). A true master is serious about the art. He or she strives for the highest level possible always. The commitment to hard work is strong. The level of dedication is constant. As Jiro's older son says in the film, "We're not trying to be exclusive or elite. The techniques we use are no big secret. It's just about making an effort and repeating the same thing every day." Their approach may be simple but their dedication and execution is what sets them apart.
2. Kojoshin (向上心). Always aspire to improve oneself and one's work. There is an old Zen adage that says once you think you have arrived, you have already begun your descent. One must never think they "have arrived." One of the shokunin at the fish market touches on this theme in the film while searching for the perfect fish. "...Just when you think you know it all, you realize that you're just fooling yourself," he says. One must always try to improve. "I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit, says Jiro. "There is always a yearning to achieve more."
3. Seiketsukan (清潔感). Cleanliness, freshness. "If the restaurant doesn't feel clean, the food isn't going to taste good," Yamamoto says. One can not prepare and perform well if the environment is cluttered, messy, or dirty. Some people say that a disorganized work space is liberating. I am not in that camp. For me at least, a dirty, cluttered office decreases my creativity and increases my anxiety. I am not a neat freak by any means, but when my office is cluttered, my mind is cluttered too (and often vice versa). This article touches on this issue outside the kitchen (A Tidy Office Space is the Key to Creative Thinking.)
4. Ganko (頑固). Stubbornness, obstinacy. The fourth attribute is...Impatience, Yamamoto says. "They are better leaders than collaborators. They're stubborn and insist on having it their way." Jiro is an individualist in pursuit of excellence rather than a team player in search of consensus. This does not mean he does not rely on his team or listen to them, but his team is hand picked and trained by him. In the end it is his vision and his responsibility.
5. Jyonetsu (情熱). Passion, enthusiasm. From the very first moments of the film: "Once you decide on your occupation...you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success...and is the key to being regarded honorably." No passion, no art.
Your work, your art The spirit of the shokunin is the pursuit of perfection. The pursuit is hard and the journey long, never ending in fact. But you love what you do in spite of the hardships. The work is not at all about the money. "Shokunin try to get the highest quality fish and apply their technique to it," Jiro's oldest son says. "We don't care about money. All I want to do is make better sushi."
Remember that the shokunin lessons here are not only for chefs or artists such as painters, musicians, dancers, etc. In the book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? famed business guru Seth Godin makes the case that many dedicated professionals are doing art: “Art isn't only a painting. Art is anything that's creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator." An artist, says Godin, "is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artists takes it personally." You must throw yourself into it, suggest, Godin, "Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.”
"I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top...but no one knows where the top is." — Jiro Ono
The final few lines from the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi sum up the lessons from the master shokunin.
Always... look ahead and above yourself. Always try... to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That's what he taught me.
The Star Wars storytelling universe has always provided many lessons for storytellers of all kinds. Over the years I've often referenced characters from the series or story advice from George Lucas (here, and here, and here, for example). Obviously we are all very excited about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, coming to theatres this December. On April 16, the second trailer to Star Wars VII was released and was viewed a staggering 88 million times in the first 24 hours. When the trailer was shown live to the audience at the Star Wars Celebration event that day in California, the crowd went nuts, according to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. "When Harrison [Han Solo] and Chewie come on screen and he says 'Chewie, we're home!' and the entire room of almost eight thousand people just leapt to their feet and roared, I mean I can't think of anything I've ever been to—other than a rock concert—that felt quite like that." I also got a big kick out of the trailer and have seen it now dozens of times. One reason the trailer is so good, I think, is because it is laid over a clear organizational structure. So yes, even a 2-minute movie trailer can teach us a thing or two about organizing and presenting information. I'll deconstruct the trailer just a bit below, but first take a look at the trailer if you have not seen it yet (and once more even if you have).
The art of tapping emotions Shortly after the trailer was released this month, the internet was abuzz with this clip below of Catholic priest and Star Wars über fan Father Roderick who decided to film his reaction to watching the much-anticipated clip for the first time. His reaction is beautiful, heartfelt, and honest. When we see authentic joy like this, we can't help but feel that joy ourselves. Emotions, good or bad, are contagious (see mirror neurons). I have shown this clip to two classes of Japanese college students, and both classes were filled with uproarious laughter of delight as they were moved by the pure childlike joy of Fr. Roderick.
Lessons from a trailer Trailers often follow the traditional three-act structure of traditional storytelling. Act I provides the setting, and the set-up or premise. Act II reveals a bit of the conflict including the element which the hero must struggle. Act III of a trailer usually is an upbeat, dynamic mix of climax elements, characters, chaos, rich sounds, etc. that hint of the excitement in the film without ever giving the story away. In the six-minute video presentation below, Father Roderick does an excellent job of deconstructing the trailer and hints at some lessons that we can apply to our own presentation or storytelling projects. As Father Roderick notes, the latest Star Wars trailer is not just a collection of random cool images. Instead, he says, "there is a very deliberate structure and narrative to this trailer—that's why it's so good." He breaks the trailer down not into the three parts of exposition/conflict/resolution, but instead he looks at how the structure of the 2-minute visual narrative takes us from the familiar to the new, from the new to the familiar, and then home. Father Roderick's presentation and delivery are excellent and well worth a look. Following the video I highlight some of his points and add some of my own.
ACT I: Setting. (Familiar, but a new time) Familiar elements such an X-wing fighter and a Star Destroyer. While they are familiar, they have crashed a long time ago, suggesting the passage of some time. The planet looks like the familiar Tatooine, but it's not (there must be many planets with harsh desert climates in the galaxy. Why not?).
This scene pans to pull off a beautiful slow reveal. The novice presenter is similar to the novice writer in that both will tend to reveal too much too quickly. A slow reveal spurs questions, questions create tension, and tension is a key element of the conflict. Though this scene is only a few seconds long, the slow pan brings us in, then surprises us. "Oh wow!" is the usual reaction to this bit.
Darth Vader's mask is again a familiar element but it's burnt, a relic from another era. We even hear the faint sound of Vader's breathing. What could this mean?
R2-D2 and what appears to be Luke Skywalker. Luke's bionic hand lacks skin and the scene is unsettling. It feels familiar, but clearly great changes have taken place. These are new times. All of this stimulates our curiosity and makes want to know what this is all about.
The passing of the lightsaber, symbolic of transition from the old to a new mission and a new generation (remember than Luke received what appears to be the same lightsaber from Obi-wan Kenobi).
ACT II: Conflict (New, but also familiar) Introducing the new characters, new protagonists, new antagonists, and elements of a new conflict. These are familiar archetypes and the familiar age-old battle of the little guy standing up to the powerful. Father Roderick calls it the old David and Goliath battle. Weak vs. the powerful, the oppressed vs. the oppressor, the rebels vs. the empire.
Familiar X-wing fighters but with slight modifications.
Again, a familiar element of a pilot in an X-wing fighter, but it's a new character.
Rey, Finn, and BB-8. Young, small, fragile vs. powerful explosion and TIE Starfighters in pursuit. Great example of contrast.
An antagonistic force. Kylo Ren, the force that will try to prevent our heroes from reaching their objective.
Another projection of the power that our heroes are up against. An amazing shot with great visual contrast.
Another example of great Contrast. A close up of Rey. A lone, young individual is a stark contrast to the preceding images of the evil power of a menacing army. A wonderful juxtaposition.
Rey's image is contrasted again with the projection of power from the Empire in the form of a battle scene.
A threatening, chrome trooper. All slick, clean, and menacing.
A great contrast from the chrome trooper scene. The grimy insides of the Falcon, and the tiny, innocent looking BB-8.
An important symbolic image. Rey reaching out to Finn. How will the weak beat the powerful? Fr. Roderick speculates that it is the force of friendship that helps them defeat the enemy. While the Empire is based on fear, the resistance is based on something far stronger.
Classic David vs Goliath. The Falcon vs. massive Star Destroyer (with a TIE fighter on its tail).
ACT III: Climax (New, yes, but don't worry, we're coming home.) Returning home. While the prequels were often sterile and filled with soulless CGI, coming home here can also mean that the movie will a return to the original, more lifelike, imperfect, grimy world, symbolized by the Falcon.
Talk about saving the best for last. Just as you think the trailer is over as the screen fades to black, they hit you with this. "Chewie, we're home." This reminds me of Steve Jobs's "One more thing." Not only is it the climax, it is also a clear theme to the trailer. That is, this is a new Star Wars, but it's also the old Star Wars that the fan base so dearly loves. Take a look at this compilation of fan reactions to this last scene. Clearly the fan reaction is positive, to say the least.
When viewers are at their peak excitement—bam! The familiar Star Wars logo and music.
Restraint While most trailers today are filled with so much detail from the story that you often feel deflated, feeling that you now have no reason to go see the film, this Star Wars trailer shows great restraint. Although it's based on a clear structure and builds excitement with each clip, it leaves the audience both satisfied *and* desperately yearning to see more. A quintessential teaser. December can't get here fast enough.
TEDxKyoto has emerged as one of the premiere TEDx events in the world. I've attended every one of the Kyoto events (and spoken at two), and I am blown away by the outstanding job they have done. Superbly organized, professional, and inspiring. TEDxKyoto was founded in 2011 by Jay Klaphake, a TEDster and Professor at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Through his leadership and the incredible hard work of a dedicated all-volunteer staff numbering in the hundreds, TEDxKyoto has become a very hot ticket indeed. Although TEDxKyoto has held only a few major events so far, already two of its talks have been picked up by TED and featured on the front page of TED.com. The first TEDxKyoto talk picked up by TED was the special presentation by George Takei. And last week architect Takaharu Tezuka's 2014 TEDxKyoto talk was placed on the front page of TED's website. Tezuka's presentation was one of my favorites last year, although all of the presentations were fantastic.
Everyone will probably find the talk below interesting, but it is surely of special interest to educators and parents and anyone interested in the design of spaces for living and learning.
Below are some of the more salient points in Tezuka's talk from my point of view.
Silence is not always golden In the 21st-century we are still using classroom designs that were essentially formulated in the 19th century. Many classrooms today are just boxes in which children are suppose to sit and play or listen quietly.
"This kindergarten is completely open, most of the year. And there is no boundary between inside and outside....also there is no boundary between classrooms. So there is no acoustic barrier at all. When you put many children in a quiet box, some of them get really nervous. But in this kindergarten, there is no reason they get nervous. Because there is no boundary."
"...our [human] kind grew up in the jungle with noise. They [children] need noise.... You are not supposed to be in silence."
This reminded me of my own college experience (I'm afraid I can not remember much of grade school, let alone kindergarten ). In my first year as an undergraduate, I had a real problem trying to study. Often I would sit in the massive library at the university for hours trying to concentrate, but I always ended up feeling nervous and anxious, unable to focus well. The library was dead quite, except for the very slight hum of the florescent lights. This was not a soothing hum, by the way. The library then had little natural light (they have a much better library now). I was very unhappy studying in the library, but one day I went to the cafe called The Beanery. This was before Starbucks, but the cafe was like a Starbucks except even more comfortable, earthy, and the coffee was better too. The cafe was always abuzz with students and professors. But in the cafe I could be alone among many and I could concentrate in spite of the noisy atmosphere of people chatting and jazz playing over the stereo.
Freedom to roam & explore "...[T]hese days we are trying to make everything under control," Tezuka says. But he points out that we humans are very resilient. A little rain or a little cold never hurt any healthy child. Let them experience the elements, he says. It's natural.
"[Y]ou should know that you are waterproof. You never melt in rain. Children are supposed to be outside. So that is how we should treat them."
I share Tezuka's philosophy about encouraging children to see that they are a part of nature, not separate from it. For example, when I take my small children to school, I always do so by bicycle regardless of the weather (unless it's stormy and dangerous to do so). I think some people, including teachers, are surprised that I do not use the car on rainy days. But my children love the bike ride in the rain and do not complain. The kids actually enjoy putting on their rain gear and getting a little wet on the way to school. We stop by the creek on the way to school to see how much the ducks are enjoying the rain. My son says, "daddy, ducks and fish like rain, don't they!" And my daughter chimes in, "I like rain too, and so do the trees and the flowers!"
With the kids on the way to school on a spring day with light showers. Learning to help each other Next to the kindergarten is a five-meter tall, seven-floor play structure for children to play on. It is not without its small dangers or difficulties in navigating for small children. But because it is challenging, children learn to help each other up and down and the bigger kids naturally give guidance to the smaller kids. They do this with out being told to do so.
"My point is don't control them, don't protect them too much, and they need to tumble sometimes. They need to get some injury. And that makes them learn how to live in this world. I think architecture is capable of changing this world, and people's lives. And this is one of the attempts to change the lives of children."
"Now these days, kids need a small dosage of danger. And in this kind of occasion, they learn to help each other. This is society. This is the kind of opportunity we are losing these days.
This lesson resonated with me. It made me wonder if the years of being in separate classrooms with four walls did not reinforce feelings of separateness from different groups. We learn to trust our own group (class), but the kids in the class across the hall? Well, those guys are "other" and separate from us. I wonder how much of our fear of other groups is a result of years and years of studying in a competitive environment in what is essentially a box with four walls?