Hans Rosling: a wizz with visuals

TED boasts 1500+ talks. That represents a serious amount of time that someone like me can spend, looking for examples that have particular interest for this blog. The trainee that suggested that I should look at Hans Rosling therefore did me an enormous favour. Merely for interest and entertainment the man is great value; but today I want to examine something that he does with particular skill. Rosling is a master at the development, use and application of visuals.

When I go through the routine of embedding a video here, I never know in advance what still picture will be used to illustrate it. You may think that the above picture was a happy chance, in view of what I said would be my theme for this posting, but you could pause this video almost anywhere and have a picture of Rosling in some galvanic pose with a visual.

His talk is on the impact of religion on birth rate, and he has some quite surprising revelations that I shall not spoil: this talk is worth watching for its own sake.

Before I home in on his use of visuals, I’d also like to draw your attention to his excellent use of a hanging thread at 2:04. In fact he begins spinning this thread at around 1:30. Hanging threads are very useful when you are torn between wanting to say something early in a speech, but don’t want to pre-empt a kindred point that you are planning to cover later. By telling the audience that you will return to this you not only solve the problem but you also hook them into paying more attention so as not to miss it. This latter quality is often covered in how-to books, with the regrettable result that too many speakers dangle too many arbitrary and meaningless threads. It’s a powerful device when used sparingly and judiciously, but badly used it can be tedious as hell. Rosling applies the principle beautifully.

The joy of Rosling’s visuals is in the synergy that he achieves between his voice and his pictures. They are never a distraction from what he is saying, nor does his voice prevent you from absorbing exactly what you need from the pictures.

At 2:40 he begins weaving a fascinating demonstration. At the beginning he is merely showing you a map of the world, indicating religious distribution, but this is in order that you might understand the iconography that will follow. A minute later there appears a graph, a chart. He spends yet another minute taking you through and explaining the chart, and we see how comprehensively he has made the chart interactive; but the real magic is yet to come. At 4:45 the chart starts moving to indicate the passage of time, and what it shows is extraordinary.

At 5:20 the audience breaks out in spontaneous applause. What are they clapping? What he has discovered? No, it is the way he has demonstrated it. The applause is well-deserved: that chart is a wizz! Together with his commentary it makes its point with complete clarity.

We are merely halfway through the talk and what is still to come is as fascinating as what has passed.  He plays more with the interactivity of his chart, and he plays with those boxes that you can see in the picture above. He also picks up the hanging thread.

And he plays with something else! He has a pointer. Not a laser pointer, but a great long pole with a bobble on the end. The juxtaposition of his high-tech graphics and this low-tech pointer makes for very appealing theatre. This is a clever guy who has thought everything through with considerable care. I can see myself wasting lots of time watching his talks.

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