TEDxKyoto held Sept 16 (Update: videos now live)

TedxkyotoThe first big TEDxKyoto will be held this Sunday, Sept 16 in the beautiful and historic city of Kyoto, Japan. Years of preparation and planning have gone in to this event and the organizers have worked very hard to put on a first class TEDx conference. Most of the presentations will be in Japanese (with interpretation) and there are a great list of speakers from all over Japan and the world. A few presentations will be in English, including mine which is schedule near the end of the day. I'll be speaking for about 15 min on the impact of visuals, video, and story in short-form presentations today. You can follow the event live on ustream. The videos will be on line in HD soon after the event. Below is a teaser for the event in video form. And if you are attending the event live in Kyoto, I look forward to seeing you there.


We all had a great time at the inaugural TEDxKyoto event Sept 16. The audience was great and full of very interesting creatives and leaders from tech, entertainment, design, education, etc. The after party was fantastic—met so many cool people. In a few weeks the videos of each speaker/performer will be up on the TEDxKyoto site and on tedxtalks.ted.com Here are a few pics from the event.

Garr Reynolds on stage at TEDxKyoto, Sept 16, 2012.

Osho-san_garr  Makoto_kyoto
Left: With Zen Priest Daiko Matsuyama from the Taizon Temple in Kyoto. Meant a lot to have him say how much he appreciated the PZ approach to presentation. Right: With Patrick Newell (co-founder of TEDxTokyo), and Makoto Kyoto (a genuine Geiko or Geisha). Makoto is a jazz singer too — here is her album on Amazon.

Tips on how to be more creative by John Cleese

Assembling talking points, lists, and tedious outlines is a rather drab exercise that neither challenges your creative abilities or leads to a rewarding experience for you or your audience. But if you are going to do something different, if you are going to craft a talk that engages, illuminates, and even inspires, then the preparation is going to take creativity. This is especially true for the creation of a short-form presentation such as a TED/TEDx talk, or an Ignite or Pecha Kucha presentation, etc. In spite of much our formal schooling's efforts to mold us into compliance seekers rather than curious and intelligent creatives, we are still at our core creative beings. Creativity is in all of us—in fact it's who we are. And yet, regardless of our professions, we can benefit greatly from being even more creative. So how to do that? One way to start is to listen to the legendary John Cleese below and incorporate his tips into your daily work and life where possible. This speech is from 1991 and is as relevant as ever.


Can you learn to be more creative?
In case you don't have 30 minutes to watch this video,  I have summarized Cleese's thoughts here. Early on Cleese refers to the late UC Berkeley psychologist Donald MacKinnon (1903-1987), who Cleese says, reached many of the same conclusions scientifically that he arrived at over the years through experience. But Cleese also prefaces his speech with the idea that any talk about how to be more creative is futile since it's one of those things that just can't be explained. "It is literally inexplicable," Cleese says, albeit a bit tongue in cheek. Cleese says that while it's difficult to say what creativity is, he can at least shed light on what it is not. "Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating," Cleese said. "Creativity is not an ability that you either have or do not have. It is...absolutely unrelated to IQ." Dr. Mackinnon also found that, beyond a certain minimal level of intelligence, creativity and intelligence were not necessarily related. What makes some intelligent people more creative than other intelligent people it seems is that the more creative people are able to get themselves into a particular mood, according to Cleese (and Mackinnon's research). A mood or a state "that allowed their natural creativity to function." Mackinnon described this as an ability to play and even to be childlike. In this state people are able to explore and discover, even though there may not be any immediate practical purpose to their play. "Play for its own sake," Cleese stated, is the key.

Open & closed
Cleese says that we can describe the way people function at work in terms of two basic modes: open and closed — and creativity is not possible in the closed mode. The closed mode is the one we are in most of the time at work, running around busy in an "active...slightly anxious mode." The closed mode is not a bad thing, of course, and is often crucial for getting things done — but it is not creative. By contrast, the open mode, says, Cleese, is more relaxed, less purposeful, more contemplative, and more inclined to humor. "Humor," Cleese says, "always accompanies  a wider perspective." The open mode is more playful and curiosity can operate for its own sake since there is less pressure to get to a particular goal quickly. Play, says Cleese, "allows our natural creativity to surface."

Conditions needed to become more creative
Cleese elaborates on five factors that may lead to the open mode and thus at least improve conditions for creativity to flourish. They are Space, Time, Time, Confidence, and Humor. (Not surprisingly, these factors are often lacking in schools due to the regimented, institutional approach to most schooling around the world and the compliance-driven, beauracratic atmosphere that besets many large organizations.)

(1) Space. You can't be playful and creative in your usual environment with its usual pressures, Cleese says, since to cope with all the pressures you need to be in the closed mode. Therefore, you need to create a space which gets you away from the everyday stresses and pressures of your job. It needs to be a kind of fortress of solitude in which you will not be disturbed.

(2) Time. The space you create for yourself must be maintained uninterrupted for a specific amount of time. Cleese suggests 90 minutes as a minimum. It is difficult (impossible?) to get yourself in the open mode by giving yourself space, say, ten minutes here and fifteen minutes there — it doesn't work that way. Without a specific starting and finishing time, it is too easy to drift back into the closed mode of putting out fires and dealing with the everyday stress of reacting to problems.

(3) Time. You have now used space and time to create an oasis of quiet, but it is also key that you not take the easy way out just to get the problem solved. Cleese believes, and Donald MacKinnon reached a similar conclusion, that the more creative people are willing to tolerate the discomfort of not solving the problem quickly in order that they may discover a much better and more original solution. The more creative people, then, put in more pondering time. The aim should be to give yourself the maximum pondering time possible while still being decisive once your solution is reached.

(4) Confidence. To play is to experiment and try new things, and this necessarily leads to making, for a lack of a better term, mistakes. We must remain open to trying anything without fear of it not working out. You cannot be playful if you are frightened of being wrong. "Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake," Cleese says. You must have the confidence to be free to play. Realizing that there is no such thing as "a mistake" while you are experimenting and pondering in the open mode will help you be more creative.

(5) Humor. Humor gets us from the closed mode to the open mode "faster than anything else," Cleese says. Laughter creates relaxation and humor widens our perspective. The problem is, people confuse serious with solemn. We can be quite serious indeed while still using humor to examine, ponder, and even discuss very import issues. Laughter does not necessarily make what you are working on any less serious. On the other hand, solemnity, says Cleese does nothing more than serve pomposity and egotism of those who are threatened by the freedom and creative thinking that can be generated by humor. "Humor is an essential part of spontaneity, and an essential part of playfulness — an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems, no matter how serious they may be."

In the spirt of factor five above, please enjoy this skit called The Argument Clinic from Cleese's early work with Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1972. This is still one of my favorite bits. We used to watch this at our Philosophy Club meetings in my college days at OSU.

Final points
While you are in the open mode, you must keep your mind around your subject, Cleese says. You can daydream, but you need to gently keep bringing your mind back to the problem. "If you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious." If you put in the pondering time first, this reward may come as what feels like a sudden insight from nowhere or an epiphany. Cleese says that it can be very rewarding to create a space and time to play with others on a problem as well. However, it is important that your partner or small group members not create an atmosphere that is defensive. In closing Cleese touches on the ideas of random connections and intuition, and the ideas of Edward DeBono and "intermediate impossibles" that lead to more creative thinking. Finally Cleese offers amusing advice on "how to stop your subordinates from being creative."

Recent interview with John Cleese on creativity.
Below Cleese touches on creativity and "slow" and "fast" thinking.

Presentation: A few minutes with John Cleese on creativity


Presentation: The need for engagement in education (redux)

Below is a ustream version of a short talk I did in the spring at TEDxOsaka. This repeats a lot of the stuff I (and many others) am always hammering on regarding school and the lecture approach to teaching.

What's the use of lectures?
Lecture_coverI mention Dr. Bligh's book in my presentation; I recommend the book. Bligh shares his vast experience as a college professor and supports his ideas and suggestions with good evidence. I wish we could all but get rid of the college lecture hall, but that is not going to happen soon. Still, there are things we can do to engage students that increase the effectiveness of the large classroom. Bligh highlights why the traditional style of a one-way, passive, teacher-knows-all approach to teaching does not work well and offers many tips for improvement. I also touched a bit on the approach advocated by Eric Mazur. Here's a longer video of Dr. Mazur explaining his approach.

Related links
Lecture Fail (Chronicle of Higher Education)
Article: 60% find lectures boring (only 60%?)
Interesting data on ineffective lectures
Tips for staying awake in boring lectures
Videos to help you rethink education, learning and school
The need for connection & engagement in education

Ken Burns on the power of story

Legendary documentary Ken Burns says that the best stories are about "One plus one equals three." A good story is more than simply the sum of its parts. There is something beyond the words and the data and the images. In this short film below by Tom Mason and Sarah Klein, Ken Burns givens a very candid and brief look into what he thinks story is all about. There is not just one way — one formula if you will — for describing what good story and good storytelling is. It's complicated and professional storytellers will give you different answers. However, there is a lot of good stuff in this very short film that should inspire you to think deeper about your own storytelling ideas and techniques in your own work. For example, Burns touches on the idea of truth in documentary storytelling. But as he says, there are many truths. This is a sentiment echoed by the work of Robert Mckee as well who has said “What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.” The film itself is a good example of what is possible with just first-person interview footage and positive manipulation of the material.

"We all think that an exception is going to be made in our case and we're going to live forever. Being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that's not going to be. Story is there to remind us that it's just OK."  — Ken Burns

Storytelling that grabs the heart as well as the head

Map_japanLast week we took the Shinkansen as far as Sendai, and then spent several days driving a rental car 300 km up the winding coastline of Eastern Japan, visiting several of the towns which where hardest hit by the March 11, 2011 tsunami. You can read reports and look at the data to get a sense of the massive undertaking rebuilding the towns along the coast will take, but going to actually visit towns like Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, Miyako, and several other smaller coastal villages was a genuine eye opener and reality check for us. Most of the time we were there, my wife and I did not know how to verbalize our reaction to what we saw. So we were silent. The scale and enormity of the damage was hard to comprehend. Even though I was looking at it with my own eyes, a part of me could not believe it. Then it dawns on you pretty quickly that the complete devastation to buildings and infrastructure is nothing compared to the deep and invisible pain and emotional suffering that people must cope with everyday. 

Ishinomaki_east   Ishinomaki_school
ABOVE Snaps I took a couple of days ago in Ishinomaki. The photo in the right is of Kadonowaki elementary school. The image on the left is in front of the school looking east toward the Pacific. This used to be a crowded urban area before the March 11, 2011 tsunami. (Click photo for larger view.)

Then and now: storytelling through first-person interviews
Just after our return to Nara Saturday, I discovered this short (14-min) film by Japan resident Paul Johannessen. In this short film I think Johannessen captures something that we were sensing ourselves when we were in Ishinomaki last week, but we couldn't verbalize what we were feeling. You might look at this film and just see it as a string of first-persion interviews with some compelling visuals interlaced, but I think it is much more than that.This is a good example of evocative storytelling through first-person interviews. Storytellers like famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns like to say that a good story is an example of "1+1=3." That is, an experience for the listener/viewer that is in the end greater than the sum of its parts. Although this is a simple and short film, I think it passes the "1+1=3" test. Burns also says in this clip that story is about "being drawn to the things that grab your heart as well as your head." The arrangement and flow of the interviews and the style of the film do indeed grab your heart as well as your head. Of course, the story is not complete—this story is very much still evolving. And so it is too with our own stories. You don't always have to put a period at the end of the last sentence or wrap your story up in a pretty bow. After the film is finished, you want to know more. The lack of a clear ending I think is precisely one of the key messages of the film. The answer to the question of "What shall we do now?" asked in this film is evolving day to day in hundreds of towns and villages and for thousands and thousands of people all over Japan. I highly recommend that you spend the 14 minutes to really watch this film below.

It's Not Just Mud

SeasideI grew up in Seaside Oregon, directly on the other side of the Pacific from Ishinomaki. Our house was right on the beach. When I was a child we had a few emergency tsunami evacuations to the hills; at least one tsunami caused some minor damage. In those days we thought tsunamis in Oregon could be only relatively small and originating far away, allowing several hours time to evacuate. Now we know this is not the case. Recent scientific discoveries, much of it involving useful historic data from Japan, tells us the Cascadia fault just off the Oregon Coast is a very real seismic threat to the entire region, including a massive tsunami similar to the one which destroyed so many lives in Tohoku. My hometown of Seaside, Oregon is particularly vulnerable. Seeing so much destruction on the Tohoku coast, I obviously pondered what a similar event would do to the Oregon coast. Part of the reason we spent so many days on the Eastern Japan coast was to educate ourselves better in hopes that we can help spread the word to folks in Seaside to take the threat very, very  seriously. There is an effort in the Seaside School District to build new schools in the hills of Seaside, safe from the tsunami threat. This is just one thing that must be done (schools are currently near the beach), but it will take a herculean sales job to convince people to come up with the money it will take for a threat that seems like an abstraction unless you really see what a large tsunami can do.  The great pain inflicted upon Ishinomaki and other towns, including the tragic loss of so many children, is unbearable even to imagine. At the very least the lessons from Japan—the most prepared country in the world regarding earthquakes and tsunamis—should be used to save as many people as possible in Japan and around the world when future events occur.


Robert McKee: Storytelling trumps statistics



"As a method of persuasion, I am not a big fan of PowerPoint presentations," says the legendary screenwriting guru Robert McKee. What McKee is saying here is that using slideware the way most business people still do today — slides filled with loads of data and lists of "points" — fails (even assuming people are able to pay attention through the visual assault) largely because the audience assumes the presenter is hiding something and that he is including only bits and pieces that support his case. Beating people over the head, one fact-filled slide at a time, is a much weaker approach than the use of story, McKee says. Watch the video below to hear McKee explain the three different methods of persuasion and why he thinks storytelling is the best method.

"PowerPoint Presentation"
I dislike the term "PowerPoint presentation" — a term McKee used several times in this video clip. When people use this term, especially in a disparaging way, they assume that using PowerPoint necessarily means using it the way the Microsoft templates suggest (title, bullets, small charts and graphs, etc.) rather than as a simple digital storytelling tool that can amplify a person's live message with full screen video clips, easy to see quantitative displays, high quality photography, good type, and so on. "PowerPoint presentation" (or "Keynote presentation" or "Prezi" etc.) is a term I never use. There are no such things as "PowerPoint presentations" — there are only effective presentations and ineffective ones. The effective ones almost always incorporate elements of story and good storytelling, regardless of whether they use multimedia or not. I agree with McKee's assertion that story is extremely effective and very much underutilized by business people today. And I agree with his implication that even great visuals are not at all necessary for effective storytelling. However, visuals can obviously be a powerful storytelling amplifier,  assuming they are designed well and the story is well constructed and well told.

Data and storytelling
Statistics and storytelling are not mutually exclusive. In Business and in technical fields the good visualization of data can be very valuable. Software such as Tableau, for example, does a good job of visualizing your data in a way that can be incorporated into your persuasive story. While boring, cluttered, and impossible-to-see slides are very ineffective visual support, quantitative displays that are easy to see and serve as harmonious support to clear thinking and an engaging story can be a powerful amplifier for the storyteller. In this clip below, notice how Hans Rosling uses a great deal of data to tell a clear story regarding global economic growth over the last 150 years. Wether you use data or not, there is no excuse for boring an audience.

A book for all creatives, not just writers
The classic Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting is a wonderful book that I recommend often — I think all of my own books have at least one reference to this book or other writings by Robert McKee. Whatever business you are in, you in the business of being a human most of all. And humans tell stories. “Stories," says McKee, "are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” The best communicators in any profession understand the power of story and the basic principles of good storytelling. 

 Robert McKee on the Power of Stories
 Another Robert McKee video similar to the video above


Going analog: sketching with an erasable pen

As much as I love digital technology, I still prefer using a whiteboard or paper for brainstorming and sketching out ideas. Obviously you can erase little errors quickly on the whiteboard, but I never really cared about having the ability to erase while using a pen and paper; I still remember the mess that erasable pens made when I was in college (admittedly that was a million years ago). Things have changed a lot since then. The 3-colored FriXion by Pilot that I have been trying uses a thermo-sensitive gel ink that disappears when erasing friction is applied (see the rough iPhone video I made to see another method for erasing).

The ink is not quite as strong as traditional ballpoint pens, but pretty close. The pen writes just as smoothly as a regular pen, however. The downside is if you leave your notebook in a hot car, for example, it's possible the ink could disappear (some people have reported this). And of course, you should never use this kind of pen for legal documents or writing checks, etc. These pens are very popular in Japan. You can read what people say about the pens — good and bad — here on Amazon to get a feel for what people think. I am still experimenting, but I really like the pens so far.

ABOVE Best use of a PC ever? Students use pens and post-it notes to brainstorm and organize their ideas long before opening up an app.


Ichi ju san sai: A lesson in less-is-more

A couple of years ago, two of my students created a presentation extolling the virtues of eating a traditional Japanese diet and encouraged their fellow students—with evidence and anecdotes—to eat much less fast food. The secret to a healthy life, they said, was eating a traditional Japanese diet inspite of the ubiquitous fast food options in today's Japan. In this presentation they introduced a simple phrase — ichi ju san sai—which many students had not thought about, although they had heard the term before. Japanese cooking is in part based on the principle called ichi ju san sai (一汁三菜) or one soup and three side dishes (plus rice). The ichi ju san sai pattern goes back several centuries in Japan. The three side dishes usually have a main dish plus two lesser dishes. The main dish is often a protein like fish and the lesser dishes might include items such as tufu or potatoes or vegetables like carrots, daikon radish, burdock root, and so on. And a typical meal is served with tsukemono (Japanese pickles) on the side as well. With this kind of meal it is very easy to follow the hara hachi bu principle (eat until 80% full) while still feeling satisfied.

Here is one of their slides sketched first on the whiteboard. Later they took their own photos and built there images in slideware, but occasionally students sketch all their slides like this on a whiteboard and then take pictures of each sketch with text and use those images to fill the full frame in their slides.

A lesson in variety & balance
We can apply the spirt of ichi ju san sai to other aspects of our creative lives, including presentations. For example, ichi ju san sai is good for achieving a relatively low-calorie but nutrient-rich diet. A lot of fast food reverses this equation—high-calorie, nutrient-weak—especially when sugary drinks are added. In a similar way, many effective presentations are relatively short in terms of time but rich in content and meaning (and relevance, inspiration, etc.). Good presentations subtract the superfluous and add the meaningful and are efficient with time. However, ineffective presentations are often weak in relevant content and meaning but nonetheless take a very long time to deliver.

The principle behind ichi ju san sai is a good lesson in achieving variety & balance through simplicity. With food we need a variety of different sources from which we get our calories. The ichi ju san sai principle encourages variety and adjusting menu items to include what is in season, ensuring the freshest of content. Variety and balance are keys to many aspects of our lives, however, including education — how we learn and help others to learn — and our pursuit to make a contribution in the world and find some bit of happiness and fulfillment while doing so. We need security and reassurance and we get that through routine and exposure to the known and the expected, but we also crave variety. No variety, no life.


Looking back to the future

The photo above is of one of their pre-slide sketches which features the phrase 温故知新 (onko chishin) which means something similar to "visit the past to understand the new" or "learn from the past." My students are calling this "Back to the Future." That is, there is much to be learned, they said, from the past and that we are well advised to bring some of those things from traditional "old Japan" with us to the future, such as the healthy, sustainable, and delicious eating habits of the past including the ichi ju san sai approach. The secret to the future, at least when it comes to cooking and eating they said, is to look back to discover lessons from the past that we may use to improve our present. This principle too has many applications for our personal and professional lives today.

Two students plan their presentation on the benefits of traditional Japanese cooking vs. modern fast food, first by brainstorming on paper and sketching visuals on the whitebaord, and then in their storyboard books long before the computer was turned on.

What is your intention?

John_hIn the world of presentation visuals, I often have new students in university or clients in the business world who are very eager to come to me to show off their "visual masterpieces." These cluttered and distracting multimedia creations, filled with the superfluous and the nonessential, incorporating seemingly every special effect, color, and font the software had to offer, end up assaulting the brains of anyone who dares to look in the general direction of the screen. When they ask me what I think, I usually begin by asking them what there intention was. "What's your intent?" I ask them. The response is always the same: a blank stare followed by some "ums" and erms" and other disfluencies, and the realization that they "had not really thought about it in those terms." And this is the rub: Almost all ineffective design can be traced back to a failure right from the beginning to ask (and answer) the simple question: "What's my (our) intention?"

Today, I am happy to point you to a simple and evocative TED presentation by award-winning journalist John Hockenberry that touches on the issue of design and intent. John Hockenberry's message was clear, engaging, memorable, and inspiring. If this was his intent, then I must say his presentation was wonderfully designed indeed. Well done, Mr. Hockenberry. (View on ted.com.)

Related links

Design with intent blog
Article: Design with intent

Steve Jobs on life: change it, improve it, make your mark

Every year around this time I look for inspirational speeches, presentations, and other words of advice for graduating seniors. Last year, for example, I pointed to these three graduation speeches. This year I do not have a formal speech to point to, but I stumbled on this short and simple yet profound piece by Steve Jobs below. This clip is from a PBS documentary called "One Last Thing" which aired last November. This interview clip dates back to a time in the '90s, before he rejoined Apple. The words are very simple and uncomplicated...and true. Life is short and ephemeral, an yet we can have an impact. We can each make a contribution. Our job is to figure out what that contribution is. (The clip on Youtube.)

Life: "You can change it, you can influence it..."

Here is the transcript for the video clip. There are some good quotable lines in there.

"When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

"The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

"I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”   — Steve Jobs