A Good Speech Example: Who Said Statistics Are Boring?

TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks have chalked up more than one billion views since becoming available online in 2006. 

I watch the talks as frequently as possible and try to select topics I’d normally not be interested in.  Great TED speakers regularly take a topic of limited interest to me and bring it to life, making me care about something I never imagined I would.

One such example came from Swedish statistician Hans Rosling. In February 2006, he delivered a talk that sought to debunk several myths about the developing world. The video has been viewed more than five million times.

The best part of his presentation comes right at the beginning, so do yourself a favor and watch the first five minutes.

What I love about the first five minutes of this talk is that Mr. Rosling succeeded despite failing to adhere to several public speaking best practices (he turned his back to the audience, stumbled over a few of his words, hunched over his laptop at various points, and made a lame joke about Tintin that the audience didn’t seem to get).

But none of those speaking taboos got in the way for the audience. His creative presentation of data and passionate delivery—akin to that of an energetic sports play-by-play announcer—easily overrode his imperfections.

Even more impressive, Rosling’s foundation created the software that animated his graphics in such a visually compelling manner.

His presentation serves as a good reminder that if you’re truly passionate about your work and have made an effort to present it cleverly, the audience will forgive a lack of precision in your verbal delivery of the material. If anything, those “glitches” can even become endearing. 

The remainder of Rosling’s speech wasn’t as strong as the beginning. He lacked a clear organizing structure for his talk (a title such as “Five Myths About The Third World” would have helped); his talk bordered on “death by data;” and his verbal tic of ending many points with “eh?”—akin to ending every sentence with “okay?”—became a bit distracting.

But his first five minutes are a masterpiece that prove that statistics, presented well, can be as fascinating as any tale shared by a master storyteller.

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