"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...."
People often ask great storytellers—writers, producers, directors, authors, etc.—where they come up with their stories. They inevitably say something like "write/tell what you know." In other words, write (or speak) from your own life experiences. This is why I always say you have to live a life to tell a life. I believe this is what Murray is saying above when he says it's important to have a "bunch of experiences" from which to draw. The experiences—good and bad (but especially bad)—are like a persona library of history and insights for the storyteller.
The video above is a nice example of a simple, short story that Murray tells, seemingly impromptu, to a question from the press during a panel interview for the film The Monuments Men. Most people may think nothing of this tale from his life, but it's a great example of the everyday kind of real-life memory from one's past which holds a lesson or a gem of wisdom. His recollection is a kind of "man-in-hole" story. Right from the beginning, we hear of a traumatic failing that sends Murray out onto the streets of Chicago for a long walk. He's at his lowest, and things look like they will get worse. He continues to walk, not feeling especially hopeful, until he stumbles upon the Art Institute of Chicago. There, expecting nothing, he is moved by a piece of art. His day went from one of his worst to one with hope and a new perspective, in part because of being exposed to The Song of The Lark, an 1884 painting by Jules Adolphe Breton.
In cooperation with the Khan Academy, Pixar and Disney have been offering Pixar in a Box, an on-going series of behind-the-scenes lessons taught by Pixar's professionals (storytellers, animators, directors, artists, etc.). Subjects have included color science, animation, effects, sets & staging, character modeling, and so on. Part of the aim of this project, as stated on the Pixar-in-a-Box website is to show how "The subjects you learn in school — math, science, computer science, and humanities — are used every day to create amazing movies at Pixar."
These lessons are remarkable, but what I am most excited about is that last week, Pixar in a Box announced a new series: The Art of Storytelling. Pixar may be the best at the technical side of animation, but what really made them successful is their understanding of story and storytelling. In this interview regarding Pixar's success, Steve Jobs said this: "Even though Pixar is the most technologically advanced studio in the world, John Lasseter has a saying which has really stuck: No amount of technology will turn a bad story into a good story."
The new Art of Storytelling series is great news for educators who want to bring the principles of storytelling into the classroom and help their students understand the art of story. Yet this is also useful for anyone who wants to become a masterful storyteller in business or in any other endeavor. Here's the introduction video for the Storytelling series.
The storytelling series will cover six main parts that take you from the formation of your rough idea to actually creating storyboards. Each lesson features videos and activities, so this is something you can do on your own or as part of a class. Here are the six sections to be covered as outlined in the introductory video in lesson 1:
Currently, only Lesson 1 is online, but others will follow throughout the year. Even if you do not desire to make an animated film, the lessons — especially those related to structure and visual language coming up in lessons 3 and 4 — will help you create better presentations in all their myriad forms or incorporate storytelling into other aspects of your work and life.
If you have not heard of Pixar in a Box, here is a video presentation that explains the concept. And in the true spirit of Pixar, the video introduction is done with great clarity and humor.
The Zen Master of data visualization has died. I am sorry to have to report that Dr. Hans Rosling passed away today in Uppsala, Sweden. He was just 68. A profoundly mournful day for anyone who knew Professor Rosling, obviously. But it's also a sad day for all of us in the greater TED community or data visualization/business intelligence communities as well. Dr. Rosling's work was seen by millions and will continue to be seen by millions worldwide. It is incalculable just how many professionals Hans inspired over the years. His presentations, always delivered with honesty, integrity, and clarity, were aided by clear visuals of both the digital and analog variety. He was a master statistician, physician, and academic, but also a superb presenter and storyteller.
"Hans Rosling, an expert in public health from Sweden, does an amazing job in this presentation bringing the data to life. If you want to know how he did all those graphics, go to gapminder.org. It's all there. Hans is saying the problem is not the data. The data is there. But it's not accessible to most people for three reasons: (1) For researchers and journalists, teachers, etc. it is too expensive. (2) For the media, it is too difficult to access. (3) For the public, students, and policy makers, it is presented in a boring way. His solution is to make the data free, let it evoke and provoke an 'aha' experience, or a 'wow!' experience for the public. I loved the way he got involved with the data, virtually throwing himself into the screen. He got his point across, no question about it."
From that point on, I watched virtually every talk he made and featured him in every book I wrote on presentation. I saw the professor in person at TED 2009 and was a fellow presenter with him at Tableau 2014 in Seattle where he, as usual, had the crowd of data geeks in the palm of his hand. If there is a Zen Master —or Jedi Master — of data visualization, then Dr. Hans Rosling is that master. His contributions are immense, and he will be missed deeply.
Below is Dr. Rosling's debut at TED 2006. It's as good now as it was then.
A photo I took of Hans at TED 2009. Love his analog pointer!
Hans Rosling presented at TED ten times, more than any other presenter. All of his TED presentations are featured here on the TED website. Below are links to a selection of other posts from presentationzen.com which feature videos and analysis of Dr. Rosling's presentations over the years.
His message and spirit live on Hans Rosling's contribution to the world in his 68 years was extraordinary. I'll continue to do whatever I can to spread his teachings in future. His work will continue to inspire and educate. We need his message of a fact-based worldview now more than ever. Here is part of today's announcement by Anna R. Rönnlund & Ola Rosling which appeared on the Gapminder website:
Across the world, millions of people use our tools and share our vision of a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand. We know that many will be saddened by this message. Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!
Indeed. Let us all remember Professor's Rosling's contributions and continue to keep the dream of a more fact-based, rational worldview alive.
Edward Tufte is a leading expert in the data analysis and data visualization space. His books are classics and required reading for anyone interested in understanding how best to display quantitative information. I read his books just after I left Apple in 2003 to become a college professor in Japan. His books are foundational. I've talked about Tufte in my own books and on this website going back to at least this post in 2005. I have not seen him speak recently, so I was happy to see this 50-minute presentation by Dr. Tufte which took place at the Microsoft Machine Learning & Data Science Summit 2016 held this past September. Microsoft's David Smith introduced Dr. Tufte at the 2:30 mark.
Highlights In his talk, Tufte warns against confirmation bias and massaging the data to arrive at findings that are desirable or somehow in your interest. He paraphrases one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous lines: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." This reminded me of the old Darrell Huff chestnut from How to Lie With Statistics (1954): “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”
You want to generate your findings from the data not from the analysis, Tufte says. To do this he recommends specifying your analysis first before you collect the data. "This is to avoid all the generating findings just by analysis, not out of the data." Tufte stressed the importance of "...full pre-specification of the analysis so they can't over search the data, so they can't run a million models and publish one. I think this is the future of confirmatory data analysis."
Exploratory and replication "We should be mucking around in our data to find out what's going on. We can learn from it. We can run it through powerful exploratory things. We can run it like a map through millennial time and look it over and say, that look interesting....and what this means, though, this kind of searching, is that you must have an honest replication of the results of the search. To go back on innocent data, maybe somebody 500 miles away does it. Maybe that's better, independent replication of the search results to distinguish now between noise and signal."
"It is impossible for any normal human being to stare at a spreadsheet and look for contradictions, and problems." This is where data forensics comes in. Tufte recommends the Quartz Guide to Bad Data at GitHub.
Scattering the eye and mind, producing vague anxiety & clutter At the end of his talk, Tufte said something very wise. Something simple as can be, but it was one of the most important things he said in his talk. After talking about the need for us to learn about the entire process of data and analysis and to go out in the field and watch directly how original measurements are made, Tufte said this:
"In doing creative work do not start your day with addictive time-vampires such as The New York Times, email, and Twitter. All scatter the eye, and mind, produce diverting vague anxiety, clutter short-term memory. Instead, begin with your work. Many creative workers have independently discovered this principle." I completely agree with this.
And finally this bit of wisdom concerning data analysis and thinking in general. The most powerful question you can ask yourself, and of others is: "How do I know that? How do you know that? How do they know that?"
These books by Dr. Tufte —especially The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Visual Explanations, and Envisioning Information — are ones you want on your bookshelf. They are beautifully designed and well made. Over the years I have come back to these books often. Of course, the examples are dated, but the principles are the same and the examples hold up well and you can easily apply the concepts to modern problems. And they are just beautiful, smart books.
There is loads of evidence that reading to children at bedtime is not only good for their emotional well being, it also has long-term benefits for their cognitive development. We have a 6-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. Since they were babies they have been exposed to books. Bedtime stories are one of the great joys of parenting and is a nightly ritual for us. As it is the Christmas season, I thought I would recommend two books here that do a great job of presenting their material in an engaging, visual way.
The first is the classic The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore. There are many editions of this classic tale, but based on the amazing and numerous reviews on Amazon, I purchased Robert Sabuda's The Night Before Christmas Pop-up last year in time for Christmas.The pop-up art is amazing and imaginative. I was not sure at first that I would want a pop-up book for story time, but the great thing about the 3-D aspect of it is that the kids are always touching the paper and playing with the tabs and strings as the story progresses. They use their imagination to believe now that the story is about them and their house. In the final two-page spread, for example, a snow-covered town pops up with Santa flying over the houses. My son will say something like "here is our house and this is our bed room window." My daughter would then comment "here's grandma's house and here's our school across the bridge." I read each page, but we spend more time on questions and adding to the narrative before I move on to the next spread. It's a well-made book, but you need to be a bit careful with it, especially with infants. Still, if you are just a little careful, the pop-ups should keep working long after the kids are grown.
My 4-year-old son pulls tab to have Santa and his reindeer fly above the snow covered village.
My 6-year-old daughter opens the page which reveals the eight reindeer and Santa scurrying down the chimney.
The second recommendation is not a pop-up, but rather a series of visual books that come with an audio reader than the child can control. My wife had a business trip to New York City about a year ago and brought back The Disney Star Wars Me Reader. It was an instant hit.The box comes with eight short illustrated books and a durable plastic electronic reader. Of course, I can read the book as my children follow along, but they actually prefer that I hold the book for them as they press the buttons on the reader to go through the story page by page. The electronic reader is intuitive to figure out for the child. We got this Star Wars set over a year ago when my son was 3-years old and he knew how to navigate the analog menus after 1-2 minutes of playing around. The narrator's English is extremely clear and easy to understand and I believe this has helped with their English pronunciation. The kids don't just listen but repeat phrases from the book — "It's a trap!" As we live in Japan, I am about the only person they interact with in English, so tools like this were surprisingly useful. My son is the Star Wars nerd (as am I), so I think we'll get a different Me Reader for my daughter for Christmas such as the Frozen Me Reader.
The Star Wars Radio Youtube channel has a preview of one of the books along with the audio for each book. This should give you a feel for what they are like. We've already gotten a lot of mileage of these books.
There's a new book just out that focuses on improving the kind of presentations that scholars, researchers, and other technical specialists need to give. The book is Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks by data-visualization pro Jonathan Schwabish. Jonathan is a Senior Research Associate in The Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center and a member of the institute’s communication team where he specializes in data visualization and presentation design. Jonathan is an economist by training and an expert in data visualization. He’s a numbers guy with a special skill for helping others communicate their data in ways that engage and connect with an audience.
Jonathan also created the PolicyViz website which features a popular podcast that covers a range of topics related to effective communication and the display of data visualizations. Recently, I was a guest on the PolicyViz podcast. You can hear that episode here on the PolicyViz website.
"Presenting is fundamentally different from writing," says Jonathan. "[But] with only a little more time, a little more effort, and a little more planning, you can communicate your work with force and clarity."Better Presentations is a simple, well-written, visual book that is useful for students, teachers, and other academics, as well as for anyone who needs to give data-driven presentations. Check it out.
When Toy Story opened in the US at the end of 1995, it was met with enthusiasm and great critical acclaim. The film would go on to be the highest-grossing film of the year. There was tremendous buzz (ahem) about the film before it arrived here in Japan a few months later. Much of the talk focused on the stunning 3-D animation and the remarkable technical achievements by Pixar to pull this movie off. I remember sitting in a movie theatre in the spring of 1996 in Osaka, Japan watching the film. I was a bit of a technology geek in those days so what propelled me to actually go see the film initially was the fact that it was the first truly digital animation feature film. And yet the thing that impressed me about the movie was that I soon forgot all about how the animation was created and just remembered being engaged by the story. I wanted to see the film again (and again). I thought it was perfect. Fast forward to today and I have seen every Pixar film ever made dozens of times. I have two small children who adore all the Pixar films and I don't mind watching along with them. If there was a degree given out for watching Pixar films, then I'd by working on my PhD by now.
I watch the films repeatedly because my kids ask to see them, and since our DVDs are in English the movies are more than mere entertainment. But truth be told, I love watching the Pixar films because I have learned so much about story structure, story elements, character, etc. simply by seeing them so many times and paying close attention. These films are designed for adults and kids to enjoy and you may not think there is much to learn from these animated features, but you'd be wrong. Lasseter has said that the first 18 months of working on Toy Story was spent laboring just on the script, that is, the story. The animation is awesome, but it's the story that hooks you, holds you, and rewards you at the end. And it is really, really hard to craft a good one.
There are many lessons from Pixar's prowess at storytelling that we can take and apply to other forms of storytelling, including the 21st-century short-form presentation format. At the end of this documentary on the making of Toy Story, filmed before the film was released, there is a great line by Pixar's now legendary John Lasseter:
"Everyone's going to talk about the fact that this is the very first computer animated feature film, but the computers are just tools [the computers] didn't create this picture, it's the people who created the picture." — John Lasseter
In spite of Pixar's amazing technology, there has always been a focus on the people creating the picture, the people in the audience, and above all, the commitment to the story and the story process.
Steve Jobs on Pixar, Hollywood, and Story In this 2007 interview of Steve talking with Wall Street Journal columnists Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, Jobs tells how the typical live action film will shoot between 10- to one 100-times more footage than will actually appear in the film. After shooting, the film is assembled in editing, which leaves most of what was shot on the cutting room floor. But animation is much too expensive to create a film in this way. Because animation is so expensive you have to edit the film before you actually make it, Jobs explains. This is where storyboarding comes in. The story team has sketches of each scene which follow the progression of the script. A film could have thousands of these.
"Basically we build our movie before we make it out of these story sketches, and we video them, put scratch music and scratch voices so that we can watch our movie. And invariably what you think is going to work crashes and burns when you see it in the reels." The key says Jobs is improving on what you see in the reels. "You iterate on these reels thousands of times, and only when it works in the reels do you then go animate it and actually produce [the movie].”
"In Hollywood one of the most popular sayings is 'The story is King' — but it turns out it really isn't. Because when push comes to shove and the movie is in production and there is a lot of mouths to feed and they're waiting for stuff to make and the story is not working, almost everybody says 'well, we just have to make the movie.'' — Steve Jobs
Jobs talks about how Pixar had avoided having to go ahead and finish a movie that was not working. Pixar has a story crisis on every movie they make, says Jobs. When the story is not working, Jobs says, "we stop, we stop and we fix the story. Because John Lasseter really instilled a culture of story, story, story. Even though Pixar is the most technologically advanced studio in the world, John has a saying which has really stuck: No amount of technology will turn a bad story into a good story. That's one of the reasons why we have been so fortunate is that we get to look at our stories before we really make them and perfect them in reels, and then go make them."
Putting the story first is one of those things, Jobs said, that's easy to say but hard to do. "Everybody has to make their choice. You find out what people really care about when you are in a tough situation and the meter's running.Then you find out how important they think the story is."
In this short clip from 2009, John Lasseter talks about the importance of storyboarding and creating story reels to see if the story is working or not before starting production on a scene. "We will never let a sequence of a movie go into production until the story reel is working fantastically." If a story reel is working well then Lasseter says it gets a hundred times better once it's animated. "But if a story reel is not working, if the sequence is not working, it will never be improved by all this animation." This is a lesson for all storytellers. It is not about your visuals, and certainly not about the software tools you used to make those visuals. Visuals matter. Visuals are important. But no amount of stunning visualization is going to save a story with a bad design or a presentation that is poorly thought out.
A good book I often recommend is: Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini et al. I first read the book when it came out in 2008. The book is designed for professionals who are interested in becoming better at understanding how to persuade or influence others. The book may also help you understand why you decide to do the things you do. Even if you are a researcher or teacher or a medical doctor, and so on, and not a business person, it's still important to understand how people are (or can be) influenced and persuaded by your words and behaviors. Each chapter focuses on a single question and is no more than 3-5 pages long. If you want to go deeper you can checkout the sources for each chapter in the Notes section.
"Yes!" is not a textbook, and it may not go deep enough for some, but for extremely busy professionals, this is a useful book with many clear, quick lessons that will get you thinking.
Above: The book on my desk. Each chapter focuses on a question such as what common mistake causes messages to self-destruct, how sticky notes can make your messages stick, etc. Checkout the table of contents here to see all 50 chapters at a glance. If you want a little more depth, I suggest Cialdini's other huge bestsellers Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Influence: Science and Practice. These books have sold in the millions by now. Some people may be skeptical about the ethics of trying to persuade and influence others, but remember, it's not just about marketers trying to influence someone to buy something they do not need with money they do not have. Persuasion can be used for good just as it can be used for ignoble reasons. For example, a medical doctor often needs to be effective at persuading patients to comply with her recommendations. Facts, data, and argument are usually not enough to influence a change in behavior.
If you do not have enough time to read the Influence books yet, the 12-minute video below will give you a good idea as to the key findings in Cialdini's research. The video presentation covers the six universal principles of persuasion which are scientifically proven, according to the author, to make you more effective at influence and persuasion. (Watch below or on YouTube.)
Principles of Persuasion at a glance In an ideal world people would use reliable information and sound logic to guide their thinking and decision making, but the reality is people use shortcuts or "rules of thumb" to make decisions. The six shortcuts below, according to the author, are universal rules of thumbs that guide human behavior. The key is to understand these shortcuts and use them in an ethical manner to persuade others. There are many examples in the books, but in the video they can only give one or two. Here are the six principles in brief.
(1) Reciprocity. The obligation to give back when you have previously received. The key takeaway: Be the first to give and make it personal and unexpected.
(2) Scarcity. People want more of those things which are perceived to be rare or in short supply. It's not enough to tell people about the benefits they will gain, you must also tell them what they stand to lose or miss out on if they do not adopt your idea (or buy your product, or choose your school, etc.).
(3) Authority. People will follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts. In the presentation space, it's highly desirable to have someone give a short and concise introduction of yourself which highlights why you are an expert worth listening to.
(4) Consistency. Asking for small commitments that can easily be made. Then going back and asking for larger commitments later. Sometimes this is called "getting a lot by first asking for a little." People want to be consistent, according to the principle, so if they said yes to you previously they are more likely to do it again.
(5) Liking. People prefer to say yes to the people they like. There are three factors in determining whether we like someone (a presenter on stage, for example). We tend to like people (1) who are similar to us, (2) who pay us compliments, and (3) who cooperate with us. For presenters it's important to really know your audience so that you can touch immediately on something shared and personal with the audience.
(6) Consensus. People often look to the actions of others to determine their own. So rather than simply hitting people over the head with your logic and data trying to persuade them to accept your idea, you can also elaborate on all the other people who have already accepted your proposal.