Star Wars VII trailer: Storytelling & the invisible structure

Trailer_picThe 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?).

1
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.

2
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?
 
3
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.

4
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.

5
Familiar X-wing fighters but with slight modifications.

6
Again, a familiar element of a pilot in an X-wing fighter, but it's a new character.

7
Rey, Finn, and BB-8. Young, small, fragile vs. powerful explosion and TIE Starfighters in pursuit. Great example of contrast.

8
An antagonistic force. Kylo Ren, the force that will try to prevent our heroes from reaching their objective.

9
Another projection of the power that our heroes are up against. An amazing shot with great visual contrast.

17
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.

10
Rey's image is contrasted again with the projection of power from the Empire in the form of a battle scene.

11
A threatening, chrome trooper. All slick, clean, and menacing.

12
A great contrast from the chrome trooper scene. The grimy insides of the Falcon, and the tiny, innocent looking BB-8.

13
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.

14
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.

15
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.

16
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.

 


Architect Takaharu Tezuka creates imaginative learning spaces

Takaharu-TezukaTEDxKyoto 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.

Beanery
The Beanery, across from the Oregon State University campus. (source)


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!"

Garr_bike
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?

Link

For a longer, more detailed look at this project and others by Tezuka, see his 2013 presentation at Harvard.


Presentation lessons from Steve Martin's autobiography

Steve_martinThe greatest presentation lessons will never be found in a book on using PowerPoint (or any other presentation tool). Advice and lessons are found in different places. I have always said that some of the greatest advice on presenting on stage comes from the world of stand-up comedy. In the ten years of Presentation Zen, I have often pointed to the lessons from comedians. Stand-up is the most naked and most difficult kind of public speaking gig I can think of. For every famous stand-up comedian you know, there must be ten thousand others who tried but eventually gave it up.

One of the most enjoyable auto-biographies I have ever read is Steve Martin's Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life. It's brilliant. I stumbled upon the book shortly after it debuted many years ago. Recently I purchased the e-book and reread the whole book cover to cover on my the iPad and found myself highlighting over one hundred passages in the Kindle app.

Below I share just thirteen of those Steve Martin quotes while elaborating on how they relate to the world of speaking and presenting at large. Anyone who performs or otherwise makes their living presenting in front of audiences big or small will get something from Martin's account of his 20-year career as a stand-up comedian. You'll learn how he made it to the top, but also why he walked away from it. It's an inspiring story and also a cautionary tale. And there are lessons for us all.

Success takes *a lot* of time
Before Martin became a star, he spent well over a decade struggling, just trying to get better everyday.

"I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success."

I found it remarkable that several months after killing it on his 16th appearance on the Tonight Show—which should be a sign that he had "made it big time"—Martin recalls in the book that he was at one of his lowest points professionally just a few months later, unsure if true success would ever be achieved.

Have a clear structure
Regardless of the length of your speech of presentation, have a solid structure on which to build your material.

"I always gave my performances, even my five-minute talk show appearances, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

One the most basic is the classic Act I, Act II, Act III (beginning, middle, end). You can also think of this in terms of exposition/background, conflict/struggle, and resolution.

Keep it moving forward
It is not hard to be interesting sometimes or engaging occasionally, the trick is to keep the audience engaged from start to finish. Over time you learn which bits work (and in what order) and which bits do not. It's often the arrangement of the content and the pace of delivery that keeps the momentum moving forward.

“Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.” Precision was moving the plot forward, was filling every moment with content, was keeping the audience engaged."

The right physical environment is crucial
Each audience is different. What worked for one may not work for another, even if they look similar on paper. But the atmosphere of the physical space is also crucial. Martin touches on the importance of the physical space several times in the book.

"Darkness is essential: If light is thrown on the audience, they don’t laugh; I might as well have told them to sit still and be quiet."

For keynotes or ballroom style presentations before large audiences, creating this sort of show-biz atmosphere with a well-lit stage and a darkened ballroom is good advice. It works for many conferences and events such as TED, Ignite Talks, Pecha Kucha Nights, etc. For most other types of presentations, it's best to keep the lights on.

"Comedy’s enemy is distraction, and rarely do comedians get a pristine performing environment. I worried about the sound system, ambient noise, hecklers, drunks, lighting, sudden clangs, latecomers, and loud talkers, not to mention the nagging concern 'Is this funny?'."

Distraction is the enemy for presenters as well. A good tip is to arrive early to minimize any surprises and to make adjustments depending on the configuration of the room.

Dress just a bit better than the audience
In the early ’70s Martin changed his on-stage look from a casual "hippie" fashion to something much more formal. In talking about why he wore a three-piece suit (and therefore a vest), Martin states:

"How can I 'look better than they do' if my shirt was blousing out between my belt and by suit button?"

Having read books such as Showmanship for Magicians, Martin was the consummate professional and knew the old adage in show business was to dress better than the audience. This is a good general rule of thumb for speakers—and it does not hurt for students making presentations either: Always dress a little better than your audience. This does not always mean you have to be formal (or business formal), it means to know the audience and dress in a manner that is just a bit smarter fashion-wise. A tech conference in Silicon Valley is very different than a large bank in London, for example. Last summer I gave a three-hour talk for 300 managers at a famous financial firm in New York City. I wore a formal suit but not a tie (not unusual for the hot Tokyo summers). I was surprised when I got to the venue in NYC that every man and woman was dressed in formal business wear, and every man was wearing a tie. Oops. I turned it into a joke near the start of my talk, but on that day at least I did not look better than they did.

Give them something to think about later
Create messages that stick. Give them something for now and for later.

"I believed it was important to be funny now, while the audience was watching, but it was also important to be funny later, when the audience was home and thinking about it." 

We want to engage our audience in the moment. We want to have an impact immediately and give them something to think about now. The real key to success as a presenter (or a teacher, etc.) is to give them something to think about later as well. This is the difference between mere entertainment—which is engaging in the moment but does not make us think later—and an entertaining talk (or lesson) which is engaging in the moment *and* gives us something to think about and talk about long after the presentation.

There is no substitute for experience
Martin talks of looking at tapes of his earlier work and notes how he appeared overly self-aware and lacked authority in his delivery in the early days. That presence and authority on stage came, but only after years and years of working on his craft.

"My growing professionalism, founded on thousands of shows, created a subliminal sense of authority that made the audience feel they weren’t being had."

The key is to be consistently good
Martin states that it was never enough to be great some nights and mediocre on other nights. Anyone can be amazing sometimes, he suggests, but the key is to be consistently good.

"It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances."

The key to greatness is persistence
There are numerous examples of Martin extolling the virtues of persistence over raw talent.

"But there was a problem. At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent."

"Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do."

"There was a belief that one appearance on The Tonight Show made you a star. But here are the facts. The first time you do the show, nothing. The second time you do the show, nothing. The sixth time you do the show, someone might come up to you and say, 'Hi, I think we met at Harry’s Christmas party.' The tenth time you do the show, you could conceivably be remembered as being seen somewhere on television. The twelfth time you do the show, you might hear, 'Oh, I know you. You’re that guy.'"

Reinvention
One of the hardest things to do for a successful speaker—and professionals in general—is to abandon the past, even though it was successful, and move forward with something new. Martin walked away from stand-up at the height of his success.

"Moving on and not looking back, not living in the past, was a way to trick myself into further creativity."

A wonderful book
This is such a great book. So great I read it twice. In a GQ interview in 2007, Jerry Seinfeld called Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life "one of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written." Loads of lessons for anyone who needs to get on stage from time to time. Insightful and well written by the man himself, Steve Martin.

 My favorite line from the book:

       “I think communication is so firsbern.”

I think so too.


Advancing the narrative through first person interviews

March 11, 2015 marks four years since our brothers and sisters up in Tohoku (northeast Japan) experienced the devastating impact of not one, but three disasters. In the past I have pointed to short films made by filmmakers Jeffrey Jousan, Ivan Kovac, and Paul Johannessen, such as in this piece Storytelling that grabs the heart as well as the head. And in this piece Storytelling, POV, & the power of first-person narrative. Today, as a way of commemorating the Tohoku disaster and remembering the great struggle that people face in such places as Ishinomaki, please take a look at a followup film below. In this example too there is no narration. Moving a narrative forward through the thoughtful compilation of first person interviews has long been one of my favorite documentary storytelling styles. This is a very interesting, provocative, and evocative film.

Then and Now facebook page


The key to storytelling is in the giving, not the getting

BookThe key to success with presentation—and storytelling in general—is to focus not on getting approval or a particular response from the audience, but on giving something meaningful to them. That is, it’s not about getting but about giving. Many years ago I was inspired by the approach to performance by the conductor Benjamin Zander. In his teachings, and in his book The Art of Possibilities, Zander encourages us to move the focus from ourselves —“Am I good enough? Will they like me?”—and instead to turn our attention to the audience and ask the question “How can I make a contribution?” Rather than thinking about success or failure, we shift focus to making a contribution for the audience. When you make that shift it’s liberating, you are no longer distracted and weighed down by self-doubt and insecurities. You can focus on something bigger. I came across this short film below by comedian Michael Jr. which reminded me of that spirit and the importance of finding your own way of creating a mind shift from "getting from" to "giving to."

The setup & the punchline
Michael Jr. talks about having a mind shift from wanting to get laughs from people to wanting to give the audience an opportunity to laugh. "Now I’m not looking to take,” Michael says. "I’m looking for an opportunity to give.” This simple shift in focus, says Michael Jr., changed everything. His engagement with his audiences improved, but his real lesson is that this approach is something that can impact your life far beyond the stage. Michael uses the analogy from comedy and storytelling of the setup and the punchline. Michael says that his career is really the setup, and his punchline is something much bigger than performing or professional success. “My punchline,” Michael says in the short film, “is to make laughter common in uncommon places.” To illustrate what he is talking about he tells of one particular encounter with a little boy who attended one of his performances. I won’t give it away here, but please watch the short film clip below.

"If we could just stop asking the question ‘What could I get for myself?’ and start asking the question, 'What could I give from myself?" I think people would learn that you don't have to be a comedian to deliver a punchline.” — Michael Jr.

Michael Jr. on Twitter
• Book: I like Giving (by Brad Formsma)


Imperfections, mistakes, & the courage to overcome them

The power of a live performance is not in the perfection of the mechanics but rather in the sincerity, authenticity, and quality of the contribution in the moment. This is not to suggest that one does not need great content — or in the case of a musical performance, great talent — but intangibles are important too. With a live performance, just as in a live talk, imperfections will show themselves. But it's our imperfections that make us human, and it's one's humanity that connects with and engages an audience. When there is a genuine connection and honest, engagement with the audience, little imperfections are not noticed, or they at least do not get in the way of the message. A live musical performance can never be as perfect or as polished as the recording, but often the live performance is even better in spite of (or even because of) the minor imperfections.

Idina Menzel singing "Let it Go" live in Times Square on New Year's Eve

Just keep moving forward
You may have heard by now that the Tony Award-winning singer and actress Idina Menzel sang "Let it Go" live in New York City's Times Square on New Year's eve. Menzel was a bit pitching on this frigid night, but I thought her live performance was fine, though there is no denying that the last note, the climax to the song, was off. It was obvious to anyone watching live on TV, though from the amateur video I saw posted to YouTube, it's not obvious that the crowd really noticed or cared. Billboard writer Michele Amabile Angermiller reported for Billboard.com that "She [Menzel] may not have hit the big note, but she hit all the emotional ones. Young kids in the audience were all so joyful singing along with her."

In the days before social media, people who witness such a thing may have just shrugged their shoulders and forgot bout it. It's hardly news. Professional singers sometimes miss notes, just as professional football players sometimes drop easy passes. But this is 2015, so of course the twitterverse erupted in condemnation (and support) for the Broadway star who botched the final note of one of the year's most familiar songs. People can be cruel. But that is not the point of this story. The lesson here is in Menzel's response. Rather than get defensive, she just let it go (sorry) and pointed followers via a tweet (see original tweet below) to something she said in a recent interview months before the New Year's Eve show which sums up how she feels about perfectionism, mistakes, and moving forward. Her message is spot on and is applicable to just about anyone, certainly to performers or anyone else who has to present themselves in front of an audience. (Emphasis in the text is mine.)

"There are about 
3 million notes in a two-and-a-half-hour musical; being a perfectionist, it took me a long time 
to realize that if I'm hitting 75 percent of them, 
I'm succeeding. Performing isn't only about
 the acrobatics and the high notes: It's staying in the moment, connecting with the audience 
in an authentic way, and making yourself 
real to them through the music. I am more than the notes I hit, and that's how I try to approach my life. You can't get it all right all the time, but 
you can try your best. If you've done that, all 
that's left is to accept your shortcomings and have 
the courage to try to overcome them."

 


Merry Christmas, everyone!

Happy holidays, everyone. Below is a little video montage I put together just for family and friends a couple of years ago that captures a lot of the feeling of Christmases I had as a child. These images are from my grandma's 8mm film camera shot in 1958. This was a few years before I was born, but in the film you can see my three brothers, Mark, Matt, and Todd. Both my mom and dad are in there as are three of my grandparents. You never see my dad's mom because it was her camera and she shot all the film.

My mom's birthday is December 24, so you can see some birthday clips in there too when she was about 30-years old. (My mom passed away in 2010; my father died when I was a kid.) The tradition then was to go over to the grandparents house for Christmas presents on Christmas eve (and also have birthday cake). I never knew my grandfathers as both of them died just a couple of years after these shots were taken, so I never experienced "going to grandmother's house for Christmas". My grandmother (the woman behind the camera) committed suicide when I was just a baby so I never knew her, though I am sure she held me and kissed me as grandmothers do to little baby grandsons — but those memories are gone of course. This makes these video images just that bit more bitter sweet (for me at least).

The footage has no special effects — the poor lighting, poor camera work, over exposure, etc. are all just part of it, but they add to the nostalgic feel. (The song in the montage is Driving Home for Christmas by Chris Rea available on iTunes.)

Christmas is my favorite holiday and the most sentimental time of the year. I dig it now, but as you can see from the photo below, my first experience meeting Santa did not go so well.

Firstsanta1

Merry Christmas! Or as we say here in Japan, メリー クリスマス!

 


10 tips for Improving Your Presentations

In September of this year, I was asked back to the TEDxKyoto stage to give a few words regarding tips from storytelling as they relate to modern presentations. The 15-minute talk can be viewed below. The title of the talk is "10 Ways to Make Better Presentations: Lessons from Storytellers." But as I say early in the presentation, perhaps a better subtitle would be "Lessons from watching too many Pixar films." Below the video I list the ten (actually eleven) lessons. It's not an exhaustive list by any means. But it's a start. (Link on YouTube.)

(1) Turn off the computer.
Most people open a computer and create an outline. Don't do this. Preparation should be analog at the beginning. Turn off the technology and minimize the distractions. You've got to get your idea out of your head and on the wall so you can see it, share it, make it better. We've got to see the details and subtract and add (but mostly subtract) where needed. And we've go to see the big picture. Ideas and patterns are easier to see when they are up on the wall or spread out on the table.

Tedxkyoto_14_slide.015

(2) Put the audience first.
Even when we are "telling our story" we are really telling their story. If designed and told well, our story is really their story. Yes, the plot—the events and facts and the order in which they are arranged—may be unique to us, but the theme is universal. The message or the lesson must be accessible and useful for your particular audience. The advice may not be new and it may not sounds exciting, but it's true: Know your audience.

(3) Have a solid structure.
The structure can be very, very simple, but you need it there to help you build your narrative. Once you give the presentation the structure will often be invisible to the audience, but it will make all the difference.

Tedxkyoto_14_slide.025

Most presentations will not follow a classic story structure, but there are many narrative structures such as explanatory narratives, slice of life, and so on. The simple and obvious structure in my TEDxKyoto talk above follows a sort of "top-10 list." Any variation of a top-10 list (or countdown, etc.) creates an easy structure for both the presenter and the audience. The down side of a top-10 style is that it is nearly impossible to remember each point without writing it down. This is why I am providing this list in text form as well. For the live talk, my aim was not that the audience would remember each point, but rather that one or two points would stick with each person. And I hoped that the overall message would resonate and give people something to think about after the talk was finished.

(4) Have a clear theme.
What is your key message? What is it you REALLY want people to remember? What action do you want them to take? Details are important. Data and evidence and logical flow are important. But we must not lose sight of what is really important and what is not. Often, talks take people down a path of great detail and loads of information, most of which is completely forgotten (if it was ever understood in the first place) after the talk is finished. The more details that you include and the more complex your talk, the more you must be very clear on what it is you want your audience to hear, understand, and remember. If the audience only remembers one thing, what should it be? Write it down and stick it on the wall so it's never out of your sight.

(5) Remove the nonessential.
This applies to the content of your talk and also to the visuals you use (if any). Cutting the superfluous is one of the hardest things to do because when we are close to the topic, as most presenters are, it *all* seems important. It may be true that it's all important, but when you have only ten minutes or an hour, you have to make hard choices of inclusion and exclusion. This is something professional storytellers know very well. What is included must be included for a good reason. I'm quite fond of the advice by the legendary writer Anton Chekhov: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

(6) Hook 'em early.
The fantastic filmmaker Billy Wilder said we must "Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go." We've got to hook our audience early. Don't waste time at the beginning with formalities or filler talk. Start with a bang. Get their attention and then sustain that interest with variety and unexpectedness, built upon structure that is taking them some place. Audiences usually remember the beginning and the ending the most—don't waste those important opening minutes. Too many presenters—and writers for that matter—get bogged down in back stories or details about minor—or even irrelevant—points at the beginning and momentum dies as audience members begin scratching their heads in confusion or boredom.
 
(7) Show a clear conflict.
No conflict, no story. Not every presentation topic is about a problem that needs to be dealt with, but many are. And we can certainly improve almost any talk by being mindful of what is at stake and what the obstacles are to overcome. Here's a definition of Story from the book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story: “A character-based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal.” This is based off of the ol' Protagonist-complication-resolution story structure. It may not apply directly to every kind of talk you give, but many examples that we give or experiences that we share to illustrate a point will be about a problem that needed to be dealt with. Make things clear, engaging, and memorable by illustrating the struggle.

(8) Demonstrate a clear change.
Affecting a change is a necessary condition of an effective speech. "A presentation that doesn’t seek to make change is a waste of time and energy," says business guru Seth Godin. Presentations and talks are usually a mix of information, inspiration, and motivation. Anytime we get on a stage to speak we are talking about change. You can think of change in two ways. First, the content of every good presentation or story addresses a change of some kind. Second, an effective presentation or a story told well will create a change in the audience. Sometimes this can be a big change and sometimes it is quite small. Too often, though, the only change the presenter creates in the audience is the change from wakefulness to sleep.

(9) Show or do 
the unexpected.
When we are surprised—when the unexpected happens—we are fully in the moment and engaged. In classical storytelling, reversals are an important technique. Do the opposite of what the audience expects (their expectations were based on your earlier setup). Your surprises do not have to be overly dramatic ones. Often the best way is more subtle. You could, for example, pose questions or open up holes in people’s knowledge and then fill those holes. Make the audience aware that they have a gap in their knowledge and then fill that gap with the answers to the puzzle (or guide them to the answers). Take people on a journey of discovery. And this journey is filled with bits of the unexpected. This is what keeps the journey moving forward.

(10) Make ’em feel.
Storytellers—filmmakers, novelists, etc. — know that it is emotion which impacts people most profoundly. Yes, facts, events, structure are important, but what people remember—and what is more likely to push them to act—is the way the narrative made them feel.

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(11) Be authentic.
In the live presentation I mistakenly said that vulnerability was the formula for authenticity. I misspoke. What I meant to say was a willingness to take a risk and be vulnerable was a necessary condition for authenticity. There are no formulas. Vulnerability is what makes us human. We are attracted to characters like Woody (Toy Story) because we see ourselves in their fragility. It’s what makes them human. Even superheroes are interesting only when we know that they have weakness, including the perceived weakness of self-doubt. What made Robin Williams such a remarkable and beloved entertainer was his humanity and his authenticity. This is not something you can fake. Faking authenticity is like faking good health. Sooner or later its all going to come crashing down. Authenticity is built on honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable. It is risky, which is why authenticity is relatively rare, but so appreciated when it is found.

Wired for story
We are a storytelling animal. We are not a bullet-point-memorizing animal. We are wired to be attracted to story and to learn from them and to spread them. "The best stories infuse wonder," Pixar’s Andrew Stanton says. Everything depends on the context of the presentation, but in most cases a good presentation is a mix of logic, data, emotion, and inspiration. We are usually OK with the logic and data part, but fail on the emotional and inspirational end. Certainly leaders and educators need to infuse a bit of wonder into their talks that inspire people to make a change. A good presentation should not end when the speaker sits down or the class comes to an end.

We will not impact everyone in even our greatest presentations. But if we can get enough people talking about the content in the hours or days after our time on stage, then that may be enough. That's something. That's a small victory. Maybe we have lit a spark or motivated someone just a little to explore our message more deeply in future. That is change. It may not be a big change, but it is a change...and that is making a difference. And that is worth getting out of bed for.


Bill Murray on storytelling

If you are any kind of fan of Bill Murray at all, then you will enjoy this interview he did with Howard Stern last week. Murray, who is famously hard to get a hold of, does not do a lot of interviews like this, so it was a rare treat. It's not a performance. This is just two guys talking, but there are some gems in there and even a few bits relevant for presenters and speakers of all types. You can listen to the audio here, but I highlight two of the more relevant points for presenters below.



On story and storytelling

At 18:55 in the audo track above Howard asks Bill how it is that he makes people laugh? Were there any secrets for making people consistently laugh? You and I may not need to make people laugh the way a comedian must, but for us we could frame the question more something like "how do you make people feel something? How do you make them care?" As for being funny, Bill says the key is having the ability to tell stories.

Howard Stern: "Who teaches you to tell a story? Is it something you are born with?"

Bill Murray: "No, I don't think you're born with it. You have to hear stories and you have to live stories. You have to have a bunch of experiences and be able to say 'Here's something that happened to me yesterday....' And if you can make people laugh by telling them what happened to you, then you are telling the story well. So that's what I learned in improv...." But you have to live to have the stories, says Murray. You need the experiences.

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The more you do it, the more relaxed you become

Howard Stern says he is amazed at how Bill Murray is able to seem so relaxed. Being relaxed and natural is something that is very engaging as a performer or communicator in general, but how do you do it even when you are nervous? How does one get loose and relaxed? Stern asks Murray if he was nervous the first time he was on Saturday Night Live (SNL). The stakes were high and the TV audience of millions was live. Surely a young Bill Murray was nervous. (Discussion begins at about 23:40 in the audio).

Bill Murray: "The more relaxed you are, the better you are. When you get on the stage...you go into like a professional state. Your state changes. You get higher."

Bill Murray says he learned how to be loose and relaxed through his early improv work at Second City and on National Lampoon Radio, performing in an off-Broadway show, etc. He had the confidence he could do it because he had done it before, albeit on a smaller stage. There is a lesson in there for us, of course. If you want to get good at being relaxed, natural, and comfortable on stage or speaking to any kind of group as part of your work, the secret is to give yourself opportunities to gain the experience over time. It will not happen overnight, but over time—including both success and failures—you can develop into a master.

Public speaking and improv should be part of our education. It should not just be for a few students in the speech class or the even fewer students in the drama department. All of us can learn from the experiences with improvisation, and with performances such as plays and music, etc. This idea of "state" is very important. Over time, with experience, you learn to put yourself into a different state when communicating before an audience. This is something that even experienced teachers do, perhaps without even thinking about it. Step by step, with experience, almost anyone can become much, much better.

 


Presenting a lunar eclipse

Last night we were treated to a lunar eclipse here in Nara, Japan (and elsewhere in the world, assuming you had clear skies). As it's the harvest season here with very much a feeling of Autumn in the air, the majestic orange tint of the moon seen just above the trees lining our house seemed very fitting to the season. As you know, a lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly behind the Earth and into its shadow or umbra. The orange Moon or "blood Moon" is really something to behold. But why does the Moon turn red/orange? It's a simple phenomenon and it's explained clearly and visually in this video presentation by our friends at NASA (below).



Capturing the mood
Below are a few images I snapped outside an upstairs bedroom window at home about 8:10 PM Japan time last night. No filters or editing at all, and yet that is one intensely orange Moon. Beautiful. Before science, imagine what kind of super natural explanations one could have come up with to scare the pants (or loin cloths) off of people. We use the term "awesome" too much in daily conversation, but this gorgeous Moon was a truly awesome sight.

Moon-2

Moon3


Moon2

(click images for larger size). The snaps are from my old Nikon D90. But I was too lazy to find my tripod, so I balanced the camera on the window ledge upstairs. That was steady (sort of). But pushing the shutter with my finger was still enough to get a bit of a blur, but I did not mind as I rather like the effect of the imperfection. Besides, my father in-law—an amateur astronomer—was taking much better photos with his high-tech telescopes down the street.

Link
Fantastic shots from last night's eclipse on Flickr