TED Talk falls flat, finds new life as animated presentation

Chris Anderson posted a great piece on the TED blog today entitled "Why this might just be the most significant TED Talk ever posted." In this post, the TED curator features an animated version of a 2012 TED talk presented by psychologist Steven Pinker and the philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The talk, however, was rated too low by the TED audience for it to appear on the TED website. This talk was different from the typical TED talk since it featured a conversation between two people—albeit a scripted one—standing on the center stage at TED. All the presenters in this session called "The Dinner Party" sat at a large table near the back of the stage with their host Chris Anderson and took turns giving talks on the red carpet center stage, returning to the table to have follow-up discussions after their talk.

Pinker and Goldstein presenting live in 2012 at TED. Note "The Dinner Party" in the background. Photo: James Duncan Davidson (image source).

Goldstein and Pinker discussed Reason and whether or not it was a more powerful force historically than it's given credit. In the end Pinker is convinced by Goldstein's argument. "I have become convinced," Pinker says, "that reason is a better angel that deserves the greatest credit for the moral progress our species has enjoyed and that holds out the greatest hope for continuing moral progress in the future." And the audience offers up a bit of polite applause. "The script was clever, the argument powerful," says Anderson. "However on the day, they bombed." Why did they bomb? "Somehow the chemistry of the dinner guests never ignited. And perhaps the biggest reason for that was that I, as head of the table trying to moderate the conversation, had my back to the audience. The audience disengaged, the evening fell flat."

Another go at it — this time with animation
Usually a talk that receives a low rating at the TED conference never gets posted, however, in this case Anderson says the content was so important and so central to the TED mission of spreading ideas that matter that he wondered if there was not "a way to rescue the talk." And that's where the idea of using animation and cleaning up the audio came in. Andrew Park and his team at Cognitive did indeed do a remarkable job with the animation. Andrew Park does amazing work and his RSA Animate series has been seen by millions. The animated version below uses a bit of humor and is engaging and illustrative. The speed of the talking and the animation is quite fast a lot of the time so I found myself occasionally stopping the video so that I could take in the visuals displayed or simply read all the labels. I would love to see the original live recording of the on-stage dialog with the audio cleaned up and then compare it to the animated version. (Watch it below.)

Presentation tip by Chris Anderson
One thing Anderson mentions in his blog post is that he regrets turning his back on the audience to host "The Dinner Table" session on stage. He is spot on about that. It is not likely that this act alone was responsible for the session becoming generally less engaging than others, but it surely did not help.

This photo by James Duncan Davidson shared on the TED blog shows curator Chris Andserson hosting "The Dinner Party" session. "An experiment I will never try again: hosting a session with my back to the audience." Words of wisdom.

The Need for Literacy in Both the Sciences and the Arts

With all the excitement concerning the worldwide release of the new Cosmos series with Neil deGrasse Tyson this month, it's a good time to repost this piece from 2009 on the remarkable Mae Jemison. Young people need role models, and Dr. Jemison is a great one. According to The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence: "Mae Jemison, with her perseverance and commitment to science, serves as a great role model for future scientists everywhere."

Mae Jemison: The arts and sciences are not separate
MaejemisonMae Jemison is an astronaut, a medical doctor, a scientist, an engineer, an art collector, and a dancer. In 1992, Dr. Jemison was the first African-American woman to go into space. Since then she's become a crusader for science education, and for a new vision of learning that combines arts and sciences, intuition and logic. I think this 2002 TED talk below, recently featured on the TED website, is an important one to watch. The presentation itself is well structured, clear, and delivered with passion, although the visuals used did not match the quality of her talk. Yet, I do not point to this talk as an example of great visuals or even of perfect delivery. Rather, I think it's the content of the talk that will cause you to pause and reflect, especially if you care anything about education. Dr. Jemison says it's foolish to even think in terms of having to choose between being analytical or being intuitive and likens this false choice to having to choose between being idealistic or realistic. "You need both," she says.

Art & creativity or science & analysis: a false choice
Thinking_boy Dr. Jemison's point is simple and it's not new, yet here we are today still thinking, for the most part, that science and the arts are completely separate from one another and that scientists are not creative and that artists and other "creatives" are not analytical. Worse still, we have educational institutions that guide students away from their artistic interests because "you'll never get a job doing that." What a waste. Looking back at my own K-12 education, I wish I had had more exposure to science and math, especially astronomy, physics, and statistics which were all but missing for me until college. But, I wish I also had taken even more art and music classes instead of avoiding fine art classes, for example, out of guilt that it was not serious academic work.

"If we keep thinking that the arts are separate from the sciences...and that it's cute to say 'I don't understand anything about [the arts] or I don't understand anything about [the sciences]' then we're going to have problems."   
                                      —  Mae Jemison

Brain_art_science I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to be Leonardo da Vinci or that we all should be enlightened, well-rounded generalists. We need specialization. But even specialists have gained from following their inherent curiosity and by following a more holistic approach to their own education, an education that extends far beyond formal schooling. Over the years I've met many people in the high-tech industry, for example, that in addition to being successful engineers and programmers, etc., were also talented musicians or had obsessions in the arts that went far beyond a passive interest or hobby. In spite of the stereotypes about "technology nerds," the successful ones I've met always struck me as being sort of modern day Renaissance men/women, possessing both a well-rounded eduction in the arts and sciences and a deep, deep expertise in a special field.

Mae Jemison: NASA astronaut, scientist, medical doctor, teacher, former Peace Corps Volunteer, multilingual, Stanford graduate, and....an artist. (Photo: NASA)

Science or art? A ridiculous choice. The arts and sciences are connected. And our mission, says Dr. Jemison, is to reconcile and reintegrate science and the arts. Both the arts and the sciences, says Dr. Jemison, are not merely connected but manifestations of the same thing — they are our attempt to build an understanding of the universe, and our attempt to influence things (things in the universe internal to ourselves and the universe external to ourselves). "The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity — [they] are our attempt as humans to build an understanding of the world around us...."

Don't let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It's your place in the world; it's your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live."         
                                         —  Mae Jemison

Speaking of the role of art & music in education
Quincy Mae Jemison's TED presentation ties in nicely with a piece that came out this week by the legendary Quincy Jones called Arts Education in America. Quincy asks "...can we really run the risk of becoming a culturally bankrupt nation because we have not inserted a curriculum into our educational institutions that will teach and nurture creativity in our children?" The most interesting part of Quincy's article were the words taken from the 1943 War Department Education Manual EM 603 that got its recommendations on jazz completely wrong. (Read it — you'll be amazed.) Kind of makes you wonder what else — in spite of good intentions — our educational institutions and leaders are getting completely wrong today? If our recommendations are based on the assumptions that science is not a place for creative thinking or that the arts/humanities have no room for analysis and logic or that students need to make a choice about what kind of person they are — logical or intuitive — then something tells me we're getting it wrong. We need both science and the arts...and we need to do better teaching both.

"It has been proven time and time again in countless studies that students who actively participate in arts education are twice as likely to read for pleasure, have strengthened problem-solving and critical thinking skills, are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair...."
                                                         — Quincy Jones

Bill Strickland makes change with a slide show
Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity

Sam Berns presents "My Philosophy for a Happy Life"

SamThree years ago, HBO produced a documentary about Sam Berns called  "Life According to Sam." I had not seen the documentary until earlier this year. It's a remarkable story. I don't think anyone can watch this documentary about this amazing young man and his two loving parents and not be deeply moved. The documentary does not play on sentimentalities, but it will surely make you cry, especially knowing now that on January 10 of this year, Sam Berns died due to complications from Progeria  (Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome), a rare and fatal genetic condition which is characterized by an appearance of accelerated aging in children. Most children with Progeria do not live past their teens. When I saw that Sam had passed away, I felt so sorry for him and for his family. But pity is not something Sam would have wanted anyone to ever feel about him.

A great talk & life advice from Sam Berns
Sam gave a talk last October at TEDxMidAtlantic in Washington DC. This video below of his talk was posted in December, just about a month before Sam passed away. Sam touched the hearts of a lot of people while he was on this planet, and through this presentation he will continue to do so. 17-year-old Sam Berns gives us some good advice, but he also demonstrate how to tell your story in 12-minutes in a way that is simple, clear, and engaging.

Sam's approach to telling his story
Sam does not start off his presentation by talking about Progeria because his whole point—his theme—is that the disease is not the biggest part of his life. Instead he begins with a short story from his life about a challenge and overcoming that challenge without even ever mentioning the disease. That was what his life was like: Overcoming and moving forward. Sam opens with a mini-story where he tells of his deep desire to play snare drum in the high school marching band. The problem was the frame for the snare drum weighed 40lbs, but Sam only weighed 50lbs. A clear conflict. He was devastated by the reality that he would be unable to fulfill one of his dreams. His body was not up to it though his spirit was. We learn, then, that he was, however, able to work out the problem thanks to the kindness and brilliance of an engineer who created a special snare drum frame that weighed only 6lbs. Right from the start we have a story of conflict and resolution. Morerover, the snare drum story returns later on in his talk with added significance.

Sam does get into the facts of what the disease is—this is part of exposition if you will. The audience needs this knowledge to understand what follows and to appreciate just how remarkable his wisdom is given his difficult circumstances. We usually reserve wisdom for the old, obviously because they have been through so much. Well, Sam too, although only 17, had been through a lot. Sam recalled that when he was asked by an NPR interviewer "What is the most important thing that people should know about you?" His answer was "I have a very happy life." Sam said that Progeria did indeed present many challenges but that people should not feel sorry for him. Besides, he said, he was able to overcome most of the challenges anyway.

Sam's advice
"My Philosophy," he said, "has three parts, essentially." Sam then prefaces his list of three with a quote from the movie Ferris Bueller: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

(1) "Be OK with what you ultimately can't do, because there is so much you CAN do."
 Sam said he is very much aware of the things he can't do, like ride a roller coaster, but instead of focusing on that he instead focuses on the things he can do, and the things he is passionate about. Sam said you can put somethings that were impossible or out of reach before in the "can-do category" by making adjustments. To illustrate this point with an example he plays a clip of himself with the marching band, the story he opened with, which further illuminates his theme or his core message.

(2) "Surround yourself with people you want to be around." Sam talked about the importance of having high-quality people and great friends in your life, and a close family. "We see each other for who we are on the inside," Sam said of his friends and loved ones. You can see Sam gets choked up when talking about how the relationships in his life supercede even all the other positive aspects of his life. Our friends, our families, our communities, Sam said, are really the things that can make a huge difference in our lives.

(3) Keep Moving forward. Here Sam quotes Walt Disney: "Around here...we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things." Sam said he was able to get through difficult times by always having something in the future to look forward to, even if it was just a small thing like a new comic book or a football game. "This mentality includes staying in a forward-thinking state of mind. I try hard not to waste energy feeling badly about myself, Sam said, because when I do I get stuck in a paradox where there is no room for happiness or any other emotion."

Sam was so positive and so optimistic about his future. "No matter what I choose to become, I believe I can change the world. And as I am striving to change the world, I will be happy." He showed a clip from the film which he said emboddied his philosophy. Even though he had change in four years, he said, his philosophy had not. Sam told a story at the end of being very sick. It was a time he had to use all his strength and put his philosophy to the challenge. It was the three keys above that saw him through the roughest times, he said. "Being brave isn't supposed to be easy," Sam said. "But it's the key to moving forward."

"Being brave isn't supposed to be easy, but it's the key to moving forward."

Sam's talk is a beautiful thing. It is positive, authentic, and from the heart. His presentation is a wonderful contribution that is continuing to touch people, and inspire them to live life as fully as they can.

Thank you, Sam. You live on in more ways than you could have imagined.

Progeria Research Foundation
Foxborough field to be named after Sam Berns
Life According to Sam website

More storytelling lessons from "Cosmos"

This is an exciting week for anyone who was even remotely influenced by Carl Sagan's "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," a thirteen-part TV series which first aired in 1980. This week began the much anticipated follow-up called "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" hosted by famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Like many people, I'm a huge fan of both the late Carl Sagan and current science communicator extraordinaire Neil deGrasse Tyson. I'm interested in Cosmos for the science and the awe of the universe that will unfold before us on screen. But for me — and I suspect for many of you as well — I'm interested too in the many lessons about presentation and storytelling that will be implicitly displayed over the next several weeks in the new Cosmos. But before touching on those points, the first question is really why does the original Cosmos endure to this very day? Why does a show about the universe produced in 1980 have such a strong pull on us today? It's not because of the compelling communication style of Carl Sagan alone, although that is a small part of it. Nor is it because Sagan gave us information that most of us never had. The reason Cosmos endures is because the presentation of the original Cosmos series made it clear why what we were seeing and hearing mattered. Even if it was not always explicitly stated, the message was clear: This is important. This is remarkable. And you are a part of it.

If you listen to the creators of Cosmos you will hear the words Story and Storytelling uttered frequently. "You realize that science is not just this subject from a textbook," Tyson said. "It's a human story. Discovery is human… It's a celebration of human curiosity and why that matters to who and what we are." Below are just a few lessons from Cosmos—the original and the new series—that we may be able to apply to our own presentations. There are many, many more than this, but here are just a few for now.

Make the tough choices about inclusion and exclusion
Whether you have 5-minutes, 18-minutes, or an all-day seminar in which to tell your story, it is never enough time to tell all that you know or to share everything in as much detail as possible. Time can be a real obstacle, but it's also a great enabler if you are willing and able to put in the time to think long and hard about what's the most important and what's less important for reaching your audience in a way that is honest, informative, and engaging. You can't include all that you know or all that there is to say. The secret is in knowing what to leave out. Cosmos is only thirteen-hours long so the creators had to be very focused about what to included and what to exclude. When cutting we must be careful, however, not to misrepresent or conceal or distort or embellish the data. This is not easy. Balance is key.

Make 'em care and tell them why it matters
As Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in this Bill Moyers interview, the original Cosmos was not just a documentary of the latest scientific findings concerning the universe. There was something more there. After all, Tyson reminds us, there have been many documentaries since the original Cosmos that did a good job of laying out the latest science, and yet they more or less fade from our memory. But Cosmos did not fade. Why? "It's not because it brought you the latest science—although it also did that," says Tyson. The impact of Cosmos endures to this day, says Tyson, "...because it displayed for you why science matters. Why science is an enterprise that should be cherished as an activity of the free human mind. Because it transforms who we are, how we live, and it gives us an understanding of our place in the universe."

It is hard to choose just one element that a successful story must have, but if I had to choose just one, I'd say it is this: Show clearly why your topic — or result, cause, mission, etc. — matters. What's the big picture and our place in that picture? Pixar's Andrew Stanton said something very similar when he identified the most important element of storytelling as "make me care." You must make the audience care. And you must let them know clearly why they should care.

Respect your audience
Two of the great crimes of science education, says Tyson, is (1) not knowing how to make it exciting, and (2) believing that you are making it exciting by "dumbing it down." The audience, says Tyson will know if you are dumbing it down. He says you must speak to the audience with respect and dignity and have appreciation for the audience's capacity to wonder and for their intelligence. Too much TV programming, for example, Tyson says goes down—way down—to the lowest common denominator. "What kind of vision statement is that for producers of media or even for a nation to create programming that does not treat people as intelligent beings?" The lesson for us? Know your audience as best you can and prepare with that audience in mind.

Make it visual
The new Cosmos is a "visual-effects extravaganza," says John Teti writing for avclub.com. "Cosmos doesn’t hesitate to indulge in eye candy. But the true feat here is how Cosmos’ imagery overcomes our puny ability to conceive huge spaces," says Teti. "Each line on the cosmic address follows clearly from the last, and the sequence’s methodical buildup lets viewers acquire a sliver of insight into our universe’s baffling bigness or, to put it another way, our pathetic smallness." However, "visual" does not mean only the use of graphics such as photography, video, animations, visualizations of data, and so on. Visual also means helping the audience to clearly "see" your ideas through your use of descriptive language, through the use of concrete examples, and by the power and simplicity of metaphor.

Present in the spirit of contribution—make an offering
Tyson says that Cosmos is not an attempt to beat people over the head with things they must understand to become science literate. Instead, he says, it is an offering. "I'm not saying learn this or else!" But rather, Tyson says, "it's like, here it is and here's why it matters....Here's why your life can be transformed just by having some understanding of this."

Spark their curiosity
Producer Ann Druyan says that the way science has been taught in schools is "horrendous," an approach which often results in our natural curiosity being "beat out of us." Therefore, says Druyan, "the way we are trying to tell these stories is an opening, an aperture to the excitement [of science]." Tyson goes on to add, "Cosmos will reignite the fires of curiosity that I know live within us all."  

Take them on a journey
"In the new Cosmos we are continuing this voyage. We are continuing this epic exploration of our place in the universe," says Tyson. There have been new discoveries obviously since the original Cosmos in 1980. For example, some thirty years ago we did not know—though people suspected—that there were other planets orbiting other stars. This discovery is not just new science, says Tyson. "It's new vistas of thought and imagination." Science can be told as an adventure as exciting and mysterious as anything any man has made up.

Trigger a question
Good storytelling causes the audience to ask questions as your narrative progresses. As the storyteller you can ask questions directly, but often a more interesting approach is to present the material in a way that triggers the audience to come up with the questions themselves. And yet we must not be afraid to leave some (many?) questions unanswered. When we think of a story we may think of clear conclusions and neat, clear endings, but reality can be quite a bit more complicated than that. There are an infinite amount of mysteries to ponder and puzzles to be solved. Many observations can not (yet) be explained, but that is OK. This is what keeps us going forward.

Touch them emotionally
"Science doesn't have to be the opposite of religion in terms of its emotional value," says producer Brannon Braga. "Science can move you like any other story. Science can be a visceral, emotional experience." In an interview with Skepticality, producer and writer Ann Druyan said "In order for it to qualify on our show it has to touch you. It still has to be rigorously good science—no cutting corners on that. But then, it also has to be that equal part skepticism and wonder both." In this interview with The Christian Science Monitor, "Tyson says, "what you remembered most about Cosmos is how it affected you not only intellectually, but emotionally."

Great interview with Bill Moyers and NDT.

"Whoever said you couldn’t communicate science by way of stories? Cosmos is an occasion to bring everything that I have, all of my capacity to communicate. We may go to the edge of the universe, but we’re going to land right on you: in your heart, in your soul, in your mind. My goal is to have people know that they are participants in this great unfolding cosmic story."  — Neil deGrasse Tyson (Wired)

• Seven things we learned from episode 1
Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson Unveils the Cosmos
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
• Cosmos Live Event video (great discussion)
• The Carnegie Mellon University website has a page entitled Telling Science Stories with documents and links to resources for helping people incorporate elements of storytelling into their science writings and presentations.

The Incomparable Carl Sagan: Scientist & Presenter Extraordinaire

Carl_sagan Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was a famous and brilliant astronomer who was also a great speaker and presenter. I was a big fan of Carl Sagan back in the 1980s and learned a lot from Cosmos, we all did. Sagan spoke of complex issues in ways that were easy to understand and made you excited about science. He did not dumb down the issues, he simply had an engaging and unique way of putting the issue in context and illuminating and illustrating his points in a way that listeners could comprehend. He was a scientist-presenter who cared about being clear and about being understood.

When Carl Sagan spoke of statistics he usually followed the number with an illustration or comparison to make it understandable in context. Numbers alone are meaningless. The question is always what do the numbers mean, and compared to what? In the beginning of this clip below you can watch a good example of Sagan doing this without any visuals, though his words create the visuals in your head (which is sometimes even more effective). For example, how much is 20 tons of TNT? Enough for a single bomb to destroy an entire block. All the bombs used in World War II, Sagan says, amounted to two megatons of TNT or the equivalent of a hundred thousand "blockbuster" bombs. So now we can visualize all the explosive, deadly destruction that took place in all of WWII (1939-1945). We can "see" the horrible impact of two megatons of TNT. Two megatons of TNT is now not an abstraction. Then Sagan drops a bomb of his own:

"Today, two megatons is the equivalent of a single thermonuclear bomb—one bomb with the destructive force of the second world war."



It's always hard to see the forest for the trees. Good presenters will ask us to step back and examine the problem from another perspective to better see what is true and what is not. In the clip above Sagan says:

"How would we explain all this to a dispassionate, extraterrestrial observer? What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet earth?"

By asking us to look at the problem from the point of view of an "extraterrestrial" (i.e., a dispassionate outside observer) then the problem need not be obstructed by abstractions such as nation, political party, religion, etc. Sagan says that "from the extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilization is clearly on the edge of failure and the most important task it faces is preserving the lives and well-being of its citizens and the future habitability of the planet."

Sagan's words here remind us that we as a species are the most remarkably intelligent, creative, and innovative species on the planet, yet paradoxically and incomprehensibly, we also can be, at times, the stupidest. Nonetheless, there is hope. Sagan says there is emerging a new consciousness which sees the earth as a single organism. A consciousness that understands that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We know who speaks for the nations, Sagan says, but who speaks for the earth? The answer, of course, is we do. Though it does not appear in this clip above, this is Sagan's concluding comment:

"Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos ancient and vast from which we spring!"

Below is a quote from Carl Sagan's Cosmos that goes very well with this photo of Earth I pointed to earlier.


"Fanatic ethnic or religious or national identifications are a little difficult to support when we see our planet as a fragile, blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars."  —Carl Sagan

Pale Blue Dot
Below is a slideshow set to Carl Sagan's narration. The message is wonderful and the simple photographic images amplify the message well. I think this is beautiful and puts "it"—our lives, our responsibilities, worries and our dreams—in perspective. It is this distant image of our tiny world—the only one we've got—that underscores, says Sagan, "our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another" and to preserve and cherish our home, the planet Earth.



Some of the graphics will seem a bit dated in this clip below, but this clip is a good example of using a metaphor and simple graphics to help illuminate a complex issue. You can argue that it is too simple, but  remember that this kind of calendar metaphor to explain the history of the universe is not meant to be the end of the conversation, it is only meant to be the beginning. We have a choice, says Sagan, but what happens in the first second of the next cosmic year (i.e., now) depends on what we do with our intelligence and knowledge.

Here's the Cosmic Calendar from Discovery Education. Each month represents about one billion years.

December of the "Cosmic Calendar."

The same version of this article (with some editing) appeared in the magazine Communicating Astronomy with the Public (CAP) in 2008 (PDF available here). Also available on the The Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System website here. As we are all getting quite excited to see the new Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson — another great communicator of science —I thought it was worth posting this here.


The International Year of Astronomy 2009 
Communicating Astronomy with the Public (CAP Journal)

The Beautiful Spirit & Creativity of Zina Nicole Lahr

Yesterday, I was deeply moved by the beautiful spirit of a young, creative, and intelligent woman, a woman who I've never met. I was not the only one. Thousands of people have now been moved by the amazing work and personality of 23-year old Zina Nicole Lahr from Ouray, Colorado. On November 20, 2013, Zina died as a result of a fall while hiking alone in the trails near her home. A devastating and tragic loss for her family and friends. Zina was a remarkable woman. I know this to be true all due to an amazingly simple yet beautiful 6-minute film created by Zina's friend and film student Stormy Pyeatte. Thanks to Stormy Pyeatte's wonderful film, tens of thousands of people worldwide have been inspired by Zina's fantastic energy and incredible creativity. Zina was taken from this earth far too soon, but in the nearly three months since she passed, she is still touching people and inspiring them more than she probably could have imagined.

The film itself is very well done; such a lovely presentation of Zina and her work. The backstory of the video's creation is that in August, 2013 Zina asked her friend Stormy to shoot a video for her portfolio during the short time they were both back in Ouray. "She needed something that would showcase her work but also tell a little bit about her personality and her interests," Stormy writes on her Vimeo website. "We had two days to shoot and edit so we shot an interview and smashed something together to meet our deadline. On November 20, 2013 Zina passed away due to a hiking accident....After the funeral I revisited the footage and made this short as an attempt to capture her personality and creativity." Watch the 6-min film below.

Stormy's work here is truly a deeply touching piece of art. It's just a short, but it's a remarkable short. I have seen it several times now, and each time I watch it I can't help tearing up and feeling a strange mixture of inspiration but also a sinking feeling of loss, a feeling that we lost a truly great young mind...a great young person. My own daughter is only 3-years old now, but when she is older I will show her this film. 

Zina's website (with a link to her blog)
• Outdoor Magazine has a great article this week on Zina: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Zina Lahr
Stormy's interview with Aspen Public Radio regarding the video and Zina's life (very moving).

10 Books for the 21st-Century Presenter, Storyteller

Mark-twain quote.001"The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading in order to write," Samuel Johnson once said. "A man will turn over half a library to make a book." In order to make any kind of contribution during this short time on earth, I need to study the contributions of others. In spite of my love of film and video and live presentations/lectures, and so on, nothing beats reading. And reading books is the best form of reading. I prefer books over articles and blog posts in the same way that I prefer albums over songs. With the advent of digital books, I certainly purchase many more books today then I can actually read. But still I press on, trying to read as many books as I can. When we read books—good books anyway—it feels more like we are having a conversation with the author. We can take our time, we can slow down, we can stop and think about what we have read. Books, more than just giving us "how to" lists and prescriptions for success, should stimulate us to ask questions and to think critically.

Below I link to ten books (eleven really) that I have read in the past year that I recommend. The titles may seem to be all over the shop, but they are broadly connected to issues related to storytelling in its myriad forms. I received free advanced copies of three of the books below—Show & Tell, Body of Work, and Power Cues—but I think I would have recommended these books anyway, but who knows? This is not an exhaustive list, obviously—there are at least 100 more books, new and old, that I could recommend that would help you on your journey to becoming a better storyteller, presenter, and communicator in general. But this is my personal Top-10 must-read books for 2014. (Here's my list from last year.)

(1) Show and Tell: How Everybody Can Make Extraordinary Presentations
by Dan Roam
Dan-roam-bookDan sent me a digital copy several weeks ago and I was happy to endorse the book. It does not come out until April, but it's worth pre-ordering on Amazon (or elsewhere) so you do not forget. This is a beautifully presented book. It's quite a visual book; a great blend of text and illustrations. The ideas in this book are straight forward and will help you make better, more engaging presentations no matter what type of talk you need to give. The Three Rules of Show & Tell according to Roam: (1) Lead with the truth and the heart will follow. (2) Lead with a story and understanding will follow. (3) Lead with the eye and the mind will follow. And, Roam says, all presentations can be made with just four story lines: The report, the explanation, the pitch, and the drama. (Also recommend Dan's The Back of the Napkin and Blah Blah Blah.)

(2) Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact
by Nick Morgan
Nick-morgan Here communications expert Nick Morgan looks at recent brain and behavioral science revelations about how we communicate.There are essentially seven sections in the book: 1. Knowing Your Own Power Cues (Becoming Self-Aware and the Significance of Gesture). 2. Taking Charge of Your Non-Verbal Communication (Projecting Your Desired Persona – Through Your Emotions) 3. Reading the Unconscious Signals of Others (How to Recognize and Understand Emotional Cues in Gestures)  4. Mastering Your Own Voice  (The Most Powerful Leadership Cue)  5. Communicating as a Leader (Combining Voice and Body Language for Success)  6. Using Your Intuition Effectively (What Your Gut is Really Saying – and How to Leverage It) 7. Synchronizing Minds (How to Use Story to Get on the Same Wavelength). I liked the story chapter the best. Story works for us as leaders, Morgan says, "because it matches the way our brains work." At 225 pages it is a quick read and a very good read. Also recommend Nick's Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma.

(3) Presenting for Geeks
by Dirk Haun
GeeksAs the title suggests, this is a book for geeks by a geek (in the best sense of the word). If you are quite familiar with presentation and presentation design literature, then you may not find anything necessarily new. However, I very much like this book as it is targeted to people who need to give technical presentations, especially the type of tech talks at conferences. This is well written and in a credible tone of "one geek to another." If you or someone on your team wants/needs good presentation advice from a fellow technical presenter, then this is the book. At this time it is available as an ebook only. (I have met Dirk several times in various parts of Europe and I can assure you he is passionate about the art presentation and especially knowledgeable about technical presentations. Great guy.)

(4) Photo Jolts!: Image-based Activities that Increase Clarity, Creativity, and Conversation
Photojoltsby Glenn Hughes, Sivasailam Thiagarajan
This book is great for facilitators, workshop leaders, and teachers. It includes 51 activities (with hundreds of variations) to help your participants/students think about and discuss issues. The activities cover a wide range of topics such as: problem-solving, team building, communication, emotional intelligence, design, creativity, sales/marketing, global culture, etc. Each activity comes with recommendations for topics, the number of participants, timing, etc. In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I have worked with Glenn on several of his visits to Japan over the years. Glenn is an award-winning facilitator and an adult education and training specialist. He's been designing and doing these activities with good results for a long time. Here's a video of Glenn explaining a little bit about Photo Jolts.

(5) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
by Susan Cain
QuietEarly on in the book Cain talks about how the US went from a culture of character to a culture of personality. "At the onset of the Culture of Personality, we were urged to develop an extroverted personality for frankly selfish reasons—as a way of outshining the crowd in a newly anonymous and competitive society. But nowadays we tend to think that becoming more extroverted not only makes us more successful, but also makes us better people. We see salesmanship as a way of sharing one’s gifts with the world." Problem is, as many as half of us may be introverts. "Should we become so proficient at self-presentation that we can dissemble without anyone suspecting? Must we learn to stage-manage our voices, gestures, and body language until we can tell—sell—any story we want? These seem venal aspirations, a marker of how far we’ve come—and not in a good way—since the days of Dale Carnegie’s childhood." This is such a eye-opening book. Although I speak before large crowds often, I discovered through this book that I am actually more of an introvert than an extrovert, and I am also shy. Shyness and introversion are different things, and it is OK to be either (or both). A few words here can not do justice to the book. Please see Susan Cain's TED talk which covers some of the points in the book.

(6) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
by Brene Brown
Brene-brown-bookI love Brené Brown's work and I have featured her presentations a few times over the years such as here and here. Telling stories—especially your own stories—requires a certain amount of risk taking. The best stories often occur when the teller opens up and reveals themselves to you, reveals to you their vulnerability. This book is based on years of research which supports the idea that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather the path to engagement and meaningful connections. Through vulnerability we find courage. When we embrace vulnerability we become stronger. The findings and conversations in this book go beyond communication, but will certainly be valuable to anyone dealing with any kind of personal relationship, creative, or work-related communication issues. Informative and inspiring.

(7) Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together
by Pamela Slim
Pam-slimPam shows how to find the connections among your diverse accomplishments, sell your story, and continually reinvent and relaunch your brand. "Your body of work," says Pam, "is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created. Individuals who structure their careers around autonomy, mastery, and purpose will have a powerful body of work." Chapter 9 is called Share Your Story. In this chapter she highlights storytelling in the context of presentation and also more broadly, covering the story we tell others through our social media content and so on. This book really got me thinking more about what kind of story I want to create and share through my life and my life's work. Here is an excellent 45-minute interview with Pam by Jonathan Fields where they discuss the content of Pam's new book. This interview with Pam by Nancy Duarte is only about 10-min and cuts right to the chase.

(8) Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World
by Gary Vaynerchuk
Gary-v-bookI know Gary may seem over the top for a lot of people, but I have to admit that what he says resonates with me. If you are someone on a mission with a story to tell—regardless of what field you may be in—then this book has some good advice for spreading your message. Dan Schawbel has "14 Memorable Quotes" from the book on the Forbes website; this may give you a better feel for the book. Here's one: “A story is at its best when it’s not intrusive, when it brings value to a platform’s consumers, and when it fits in as a natural step along the customer’s path to making a purchase.” And here's another: “Today, getting people to hear your story on social media, and then act on it, requires using a platform’s native language, paying attention to context, understanding the nuances and subtle differences that make each platform unique, and adapting your content to match.” Gary uses many examples from various forms of social media.This book is especially targeted to marketers and business folks, but I think others can get value from this book. Here's a clip of Gary being interviewed on the book.

(9) The Business of Belief: How the World's Best Marketers, Designers, Salespeople, Coaches, Fundraisers, Educators, Entrepreneurs and Other Leaders Get Us to Believe
Biz-of-beliefby Tom Asacker
I really liked Asacker's book Sandbox Wisdom, which I read back in 2000 on Tom Peter's recommendation. This 2013 book by Asacker looks more closely at story and belief in the context of leadership. Like his earlier books, it is relatively short and a quick read, but there is enough meat there to get you thinking. "People are drawn across the bridge of belief by their anticipation of a better experience and a better life," Asacker says. "Effective leaders ignite people’s imaginations by painting vivid, compelling, and personally relevant pictures—ones that move them. As John Quincy Adams made clear, 'If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.'" Effective leaders, Asacker says, "...know that the essential first step to changing people’s behavior is to understand their perspectives and embrace their desires and beliefs. Everything else flows naturally from there." Here is a 12-min presentation by Asacker on content directly related to the book.

(10) iPhone Millionaire: How to Create and Sell Cutting-Edge Video
by Michael Rosenblum
IPhone_millionaireIf you are going to be a 21st-century storyteller, then you need to know how to create good video. The title is the worst part of the book (it's not about becoming rich by shooting great video), but it is a good book. The book takes you through the basics or getting good shots, etc. and focuses quite a bit on storytelling through video. It is not a book about equipment, but it is a book that will help you create and tell better stories through the art of motion picture (video in this case). Rosenblum's writing is very much like his speaking—very direct, practical and straight forward. Rosenblum founded the New York Video School which offers live courses and also courses online. I have learned a lot by studying the material on their website. Here is a 4-min video interview with Michael Rosenblum discussing the contents of the book. Here is a sample intro to storytelling with video segment from the NYVS courses. And here is a sample on shot sequence from the courses.

This list goes to 11, it's just one more isn't it?

(11) Propaganda
by Edward Bernays (Wikipedia bio)
PropogandaThis one may seem out of left field, but this book written by Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays is an important one to read if you are at all interested in the principles and techniques that are the foundation of modern advertising, marketing, and public relations (what used to be called propaganda). Bernays is to this day called "the father of public relations," yet it is truly remarkable—and not in a good way—that so few people know of Edward Bernays and his work given the incredible consumerism that is merely taken for granted in much of the world today. His techniques were used to sell everything from bacon and eggs to bananas to cigarettes, and to sway mass public opinion in myriad ways, including toward participation in war. This book was first written in 1929 (so there are free versions such as here), so many examples may seem outdated, but you'll shake your head as you realize that many of the techniques are still used today, for better or worse. Now, I could just recommend that you read books on Bernays such as The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations, but I think it is useful to read some of these older works from the author himself. Watch this 4-minute video presentation by NPR for a solid overview of Edward Bernays and the kinds of things you'll read about in his book.

OK, and one more. (It's free!)
Seth-bookI mentioned this book back in October with links to one of Seth's new presentations on education.This is a free download.
Stop Stealing Dreams (What's School For?)
by Seth Godin
In this 30,000 word manifesto, Seth discusses his ideas regarding education and school. "One thing is certain," says Seth,"if we keep doing what we've been doing, we're going to keep getting what we've been getting."

10 non-PowerPoint books that can help you create better presentations

Scott McCloud: Presenting comics in a new (media) world

Scott I'm a big fan of Scott McCloud's work. I linked to this 2005 TED talk a few years ago, but it's worth linking to again today. Not only is Scott's content stimulating and directly relevant to our world of presentation, the unique presentation of his story is a wonderful example of what is possible with your basic slideware app (and this is almost nine years ago!). I've talked about Scott many times before on this site (such as here) and I talk about him a bit in the Presentation Zen book as does Nancy Duarte in Slide:ology. This is just a fantastic TED talk and a powerful yet simple use of the slide medium. If the principles Scott talks about excite you, then I recommend his best-selling book on the art of comics (and why and how they matter) called Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. This is an amazing book with applications far beyond the world of comics. Watch Scott's talk below or here on the TED site.

Good advice from comics guru Scott McCloud
So much good stuff in this TED talk, but here's something that sticks out to me. Three types of vision:

  1. Vision based on what one can not see (unseen and unknowable)
  2. Vision based on what has been proven (or has been seen)
  3. Vision based on what can be, what may be based on knowledge (but is not yet proven)

What Scott is saying is that there are many ways to pursue a vision based on what can/may be. People are doing this in science, the arts, politics, personal endeavors, etc. What it all comes down to, says scott, is this:

  • Learn from everyone
  • Follow no one
  • Watch for patterns
  • Work like hell

These four guidelines will take you far indeed as you create your own life story.

Here is a nice 10-minute interview from a few years ago when Scott was on his 50-State Tour in the US.


Proud to Be: A visual, visceral, & evocative message

Thanks to Brene Brown's tweet, I stumbled upon this short video with a powerful message below. As it is Super Bowl week over in the United States, this is a timely message. The PSA was released by the National Congress of American Indians and produced by the agency Goodness Mfg. This two-minute video presentation uses compelling video and historic archive photography along with music and narration to deliver a message that is evocative, provocative, and strong. There are compelling juxtapositions using quick contrasts in imagery and narration right from the beginning which hits you at a visceral level and brings you in. Then the arc builds and the energy rises with mostly positive imagery and narration. The final message is both subtle and direct. It is subtle in the sense that it is never said explicitly in words what the final message is, but the final visuals make the message unabashedly clear.

CBC News (Canada) reporting on the PSA video
fastcocreate.com reports on the video
changethemascot.org shows the video

Coping with Presentation Anxiety & "Stage Fright"

Speaking_fear.001Earlier this month, Hollywood director Michael Bay walked on stage at CES in Las Vegas to say a few words about his work and to praise the new 105-inch curved TV by Samsung.
However, things did no go as planned, and Bay, who seemed uncomfortable right from the beginning, left the stage before his presentation ever really got started. This incident was a hot topic on social media last week and many people were quite unkind to Bay. Still, most people could empathize, or at least sympathize with the man. It does not matter if you are rich and famous or a complete unknown, everyone has their own fears to deal with. The only reason I bring up the Michael Bay presentation is because I hope the incident will remind people that (1) presentation is not easy, (2) fears or anxieties regarding public speaking are normal and affect almost everyone, and (3) it's better to prepare well and speak from the heart rather than to read a script off a teleprompter.

Let me out of here!
Merriam-Webster defines a Panic Attack in part as "...an episode of intense fear or apprehension that is of sudden onset and may occur for no apparent reason or as a reaction to an identifiable triggering stimulus [such] as a stressful event."  Whatever we call what Bay was feeling at the time, many of us can relate. In fact, many years ago I went through something very similar to what Michael Bay experienced. In my case, I was in Japan and half way through a presentation on stage in front of a large group when my brain just froze up while I was trying to read a short quote in Japanese. I knew the Kanji (Chinese characters) on the screen, but I obviously did not know them as well as I thought and suddenly I felt like I was having a stroke. My talk was completely derailed and I became so nervous that I seriously considered just walking off stage. My fight-or-flight response had fully kicked in. I was absolutely in a state of panic. I managed to just skip ahead in my presentation to a place where I could regain my control. I knew this looked bad but it was better than walking away, though I would never blame anyone for doing so.

In graduate school I actually did walk away in the middle of a panel discussion. The room was absolutely packed and quite hot. While another panelist was speaking—I was up next—I was suddenly overcome with irrational fear. I just quietly got up and exited the room. People probably just thought I was going to the bathroom, but in fact I was "running away" from the situation. My heart was pounding. After a few minutes in the hallway alone jumping up and down, stretching, and then deep breathing, I managed to calm down enough to walk back in and rejoin the panel. I was fine in the end, but the unexpected panic attack worried me for years until I found out through study and experience that it was normal. Although I do not suffer from panic attacks while presenting any longer, assuming I have prepared, I do—like so many other people—have to cope with claustrophobia, acrophobia, and a good deal of irrational worrying about flying.

Happens to everyone
As you become accustomed to public speaking and presenting over time you will grow more comfortable and able to be more natural, letting "the real you" come out. But if you are still quite nervous about the idea of presenting in front of others, don't worry, virtually every confident and engaging presenter you see today was at some point earlier in their careers much less sure of themselves in front of a live audience. For example, this clip features Steve Jobs getting ready for a live TV appearance when he was in his early 20s in 1978. This clip is confirmation that everyone can get better and become more relaxed and comfortable with time. But it's also a reminder that it is perfectly OK and absolutely natural for you to feel nervous in front of an audience.

Can you ever be 100% comfortable?
In a great little documentary called Comedian (a must for any public speaker) Jerry Seinfeld had this to say about getting more comfortable on stage: "You’re never really comfortable. Even though you may think you are... you really aren’t.” But in time, Seinfeld says, "you learn how to open, how to sustain, how to pace...” and you will get more comfortable.

 Jerry  Seinfeld_2
The slides above are from a series of slides available on Slideshare.net.

In the Naked Presenter book (2011) I touched on the issue of nerves. In that chapter a nice two-page callout section was written by my buddy in Australia Les Posen. Les is a Clinical Psychologist practising in Melbourne who uses his knowledge of the cognitive sciences to help presenters deliver their best possible presentations. Below is an excerpt from his contribution to the Naked book which appears on pages 92-93.
Les_posen Five tips for dealing with presentation nerves
by Les Posen

"Starting about 60,000 years ago, our brains developed a marvelous system of providing us with remarkable defenses against environmental threats. Sometimes, those defenses are set-and-forget types, such as automatically blinking when a bug hits your windscreen, even though you “know” you’re protected. Other times, an evolutionary newer part of our brain where we make decisions and plans—the part that makes us most human—warns us of an upcoming threat. In the case of presenting, it might be fears of not connecting, or of our ideas not being accepted, or of going blank in front of 500 pairs of eyes. In historical terms, we still possess the fear of what it means to be stared at by so many people: Either we are the monarch, or more likely, we are the next sacrifice! Through evidence-based research and practice, clinical and performance psychologists have developed ways to help suppress these learned and ingrained fears, especially when we know we can perform well if only we give ourselves the chance. There are five interventions I teach and want to share with you:

1. Chunking and exposure.
Identify and break down your presenting challenges into small manageable chunks, and deliberately expose yourself to each of them step by step.
2. Rehearsal.
Beyond just practicing your slide timings, actually visualize and hear yourself say the words with your slides. You see yourself in front of the crowd and rehearse your presentation to a variety of audience reactions, both positive and negative.
3. Self-talk.
Anxiety grabs onto self-critical talk such as “I’ll do a terrible job. What happens if the slide show fails. What happens if they don’t laugh at my jokes.” Your task is not to feed your anxiety with this type of talk, but to change it into “I can do this. I will follow my rehearsed plans. This is manageable.”
4. Arousal control via diaphragmatic breathing.
Calm your brain’s fear center with slow, deliberate breaths with slightly longer exhales. Slower rhythm (rather than deep breathing) is helpful for fear management.
5. Deliberate practice.
Practice your beginning, identify challenging concepts, and practice, practice, practice—out loud. These techniques work, and I use them myself as well as with clients. They are powerful and will prove useful in scenarios other than presenting."

The tips from Les Posen above are not the last word on dealing with presentation anxiety, but these bits of advice can certainly help. One of the biggest tips to remember as well is to be well prepared. A big source of difficulty comes when speakers simply have not prepared. The only thing scarier than presenting in front of a crowd is doing so while being ill-prepared and unsure of yourself and your content.

Your Worst Speaking Fear Realized (Nick Morgan)
Mitch Joel's comments regarding Michael Bay incident
Carmine Gallo's article with lessons from Michael Bay's presentation
• Les Posen's blog

A side note: Michael Bay did say the next day in this interview that he would have been incapable of "winging" it since the plan was for him to read text that Samsung had prepared for him, not his own words. Moreover, the script, he said, was being changed at the last minute. This obviously was a very bad idea. Even if things had gone perfectly as planned, it would have been a dry, unnatural and underwelming speech to say the least. The only thing worse than listening to someone read a prepared speech is listening to someone read a speech that someone else prepared.