Hans Rosling – amazing!

Many of my trainees at first assume that I disapprove of visuals, because I don’t appear to use them. It’s true that there are almost never any slides in my lectures, but I have a couple of visual props that I use. Essentially my rule is that a visual should be used only if omitting it would significantly impoverish the promotion of your message. Never allow yourself to be voice-over for a string of pictures, competing with you for the audience’s attention.

The finest user of visuals that I have encountered – one of my heroes – was the late Hans Rosling. He has been on this blog twice – here and here – but not since his sad death in 2017. I chanced upon today’s offering and decided to feature it, because one of his most endearing characteristics was his cheerfulness, and we seem to need cheerfulness at the moment. My own expectation of cheerfulness is slightly dented by the realisation that Rosling outlived this performance by barely two years, notwithstanding the comment we will hear him make at 25:33.

I believe he had a superb team of techies, preparing his slides, because they always illustrated his point in a revolutionary fashion and always animated. But I have never before seen, from him or anyone else, what we see here. At 2:26 he builds a graph in the air between him and his audience. What is it: a hologram? I don’t know, but it’s brilliant.

Then suddenly we are watching some video footage, but what does the audience in the hall see? The same video on a screen there, probably, but where is Rosling while the video is playing? I don’t know, but being obsessed with a speaker’s relationship with his audience I’d like to.

Here’s my point. Many speeches are delivered to live audiences and incidentally videos are made of them. Other speeches are made specifically for the video market and an incidental audience is invited to the filming, not least to supply audience reaction. Either way it’s a bit of a compromise, because there are subtle differences in how you present to each medium. But not here. Rosling appears effortlessly to be straddling the two. My word, but he was good!

So concerned have I been with the technicalities, that I haven’t mentioned the message. If you are familiar with his work it will not surprise you to be told that he is exploding the widely held fallacies about the world and the way it is going. Materially the world – all of it! – is going not to the dogs but getting better. Nearly all metrics indicate that global life is getting better – and he illustrates the data in a hugely entertaining fashion. Watch that speech, and it’ll be one of the shortest hours you ever knew.

Yes, there are still some – a rapidly decreasing number, but some – for whom life remains a hard struggle. We see them on video, tackling their struggle with good humour, and my mind flies off to other recent video footage of spoilt kids in rich countries, rioting and burning and looting because of some imagined victimhood.

He addresses climate change – lukewarmly, but he addresses it. I reckon he has to for a lot of understandable political and financial reasons, but I’d like specifically to address a few seconds of video footage of a chimney starting at 52:20. Try going there and pausing the video.

What do you see? A factory chimney belching out filthy, sooty smoke? No. That can’t be smoke. Smoke doesn’t create itself out of nothing after an appreciable gap of a few feet above the chimney. That gap is the giveaway. What we’re seeing is steam – a colourless gas which you can’t see – coming out and cooling to vapour – which you can see. Look closely at the spout of a boiling kettle and you’ll see the same thing. Yes, the vapour from the kettle is a very different colour, but this bit of video has had a colour filter applied. It’s phoney. I’ve seen countless examples of this cheat, so I spotted it immediately.

True, there are factory chimneys with real smoke coming out of them but smoke doesn’t look dramatic enough so they cook up this piece of phoney film. I’ll say no more on that, except I’d like to think that Rosling didn’t make it but used a piece of library film that others supplied.

It’s an amazing lecture, though, and I’m so glad I found it.

Steven Pinker and optimism

The Breakthrough Dialogue 2017 was held in Sausalito, California, exactly a year ago (and the 2018 Dialogue is happening as we speak). The Breakthrough Institute describes its annual Dialogue as the “anti-Davos”, and I can think of few more appealing recommendations.

One of their speakers last year was Steven Pinker with a talk called “Why do progressives hate progress?” which title seems to suggest that it was at least partly airing matters covered in his latest publication Enlightenment Now.

It is no idle accident that Amazon brackets Pinker’s book with Factfulness, by the late Hans Rosling. Rosling, with his legendary and hilarious use of creative visuals, appeared twice on this blog – here and here – and preached a similar optimistic message that despite what is too often implied life for humanity is getting measurably better.

Why do I keep sensing signals of nervousness? Pinker is a hugely experienced lecturer: I have watched many of his outings. Yet he seems here not entirely at ease. Could it be something to do with an unaccustomed audience? Most of his speaking that I have found was to universities, and I know how easily you can find yourself adopting a wavelength that works with familiar demographics.

When I say ‘works’ I mean things like response to humour. You get used to a particular type of bounce-back to the way you phrase and time things. Then when that bounce-back is different you start imagining that this audience isn’t getting you.

Or it can happen with unfamiliar technology. You are so comfortable with a certain variety of – e.g. – slide projection that you can almost make it sing! Then one day you are faced with a remote control whose buttons are in the wrong place, and that can be stressful. I notice that he clearly has a ‘slave screen’ below him to his left, and he constantly checks that the audience is seeing what they are meant to be seeing.

Or perhaps I’m the one that’s imagining it? There’s little, if anything, wrong with the way this talk is prepared and delivered. I just sense an undercurrent of edginess.

Its message is wonderfully optimistic and fascinating. I am especially captivated by the ‘tone-mapping’ graph telling us that the media and other opinion-pundits consistently offer a depressing view of a world that is constantly improving. Pinker proposes a range of explanations that seem to make sense (and slightly exonerate those pundits). It’s a very good speech, and ends with a satisfactorily up-beat tone.

And for the reader who follows this blog in the hope of learning something about speaking, there is the moral that if you find yourself out of your comfort zone and in some way in unfamiliar territory, then trust your game and relax.