American Psychological Association

120th Annual Convention
Orlando, Florida, August 2-5 2012

Dr. Phil Zimbardo: The Anatomy of a TED Talk

Zimbardo on TED
Philip B. Zimbardo, Ph.D., Stanford University

Most importantly, in my view: he looked very well. Despite past and present health struggles, tonight he walked around the stage, consistent with his take-away from doing several TED events, "you have to own the stage". TED imitating TED, here the one and only Phil Zimbardo (who hours earlier had won an award for his lifetime contribution to psychology) shares with us his experience with the power of the TED presentation, as both participant and observer.

TED began in 2006. The rule: 18 minutes or less. TED features have attracted over 100 Million views on YouTube and the TED Website.

APA leadership has been watching TED presentations and learning, and also advising potential participants on how to approach a TED talk as a presenter. He speaks quickly now, as is necessary to survive a TED performance - with a strict time limit and the need to be as engaging as possible within that time.

Zimbardo began with a bit of context - what he has been focused on, between the lure of studying the nature of evil (e.g., The Lucifer Effect) and now trying to directly contribute to some good. Thus his interest in time perspectives, and his new e-book about 'why boys are struggling and what we can do about it.' Tonight he wants to help others do great talks, should they have the opportunity.

TED approached Zimbardo 4 years ago with an invitation to give a presentation. First question:

What is TED? Technology. Education. Design.

You can organize a Ted-x event on your own, by the way, but such events carry a $7500 registration fee for the 4 days. In 2008, he was fortunate to enjoy first-class treatment (via Virgin Air!) and was summoned to a rehearsal. "I never had to rehearse!" Soon he understood why it was important. He'd be face-to-face with a big digital countdown clock: 18:00 minutes. Ready-set-go! He found he'd gathered "too many slides" and he needed to condense his prepared presentation. Clips from his TED event flashed on the big screen behind him now. He describes to the TED audience how "good people could be seduced across the line" in his (in)famous Stanford Prison Study, and proceeds to address the nature of evil.

"Evil is the exercise of power. That's the key."

A slide is projected: "Evil, Evil Everywhere - Google 'evil' - a word so empty that it should surely have withered away - and up come 136 million hits in a third of a second."

OK, so there are '3 factors' -

1) Dispositional: What do people bring into the system? ("The Bad Apples")
2) Situational: What does the system bring to people? ("The Bad Barrel")
3) Systemic: How do system and people interact? "Broad influences: political, economic, legal power" ("The Bad Barrel-Makers")

Example of the end result: Abu Ghraib - "Don't blame us." ... "It's not the system."

"I become an expert witness [with] access to top secret files." Evil. Flash back to the dungeon. OMG- the counter says 6 minutes left, 20 slides to go... speed up! (Zimbardo's pitch and movement and rate of speech all accelerate.) "I'm interested in what surrounds the bad barrel... The power is in the system! Three factors - dispositional (the bad apples), situational (the bad barrel) and the systemic - broad influences, political, economic, legal (the bad barrel-makers) ... villains and heroes... social psychology research... "

A summary cartoon is displayed - brilliant: what looks like a police interrogation room and the man in the tie says: "I'm neither a good cop nor a bad cop, Jerome. Like yourself, I'm a complex amalgam of positive and negative personality traits that emerge or not, depending on circumstances."

The clock is ticking, time is running out...

Home stretch. "A few more evil details, unveil heroes, and... finito!". That was the plan, but as he went into final conclusions, via the Schlesinger report on parallels between the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) and Abu Ghraib... "Power without oversight is a recipe for abuse..." And just as the punch line was ready to deliver, describing the other end of the spectrum -- societal, fantasy and everyday-people heroes... Just as he was about to conclude by speaking of his present interest in heroism, time was up!

00:00 Game over.

In this case, fortunately, he was given special dispensation to finish his conclusion (quickly), with the producer stepping up to share that he knows about 'heroism as the antidote to evil'. Villains and Heroes. Social Psychology Research. Real-world parallels...

Zimbardo concluded by ending the SPE story, for both the TED audience and those here now: It ended with "the heroic woman who stopped the Stanford Prison Study... And the good news: I married her." Now he continues to pursue his interest in how 'heroic imagination' might be evoked. The nature of evil, and heroism.

[You can see his APA presentation on the SPE, which he presented along with his wife and former SPE participants, here.]

Now Zimbardo turned from his experience as a participant to some of his favorite TED presentations, chosen both to entertain and instruct on how to do a really great TED presentation. Through these samples he'd like to 'lay out essential guidelines for success -- in Content and in Delivery'

All the TED clips were engaging, fascinating, and fast-paced. Dan Ariely, a cognitive psychologist, on 'Using a simple demo to reveal new ideas'. Visual illusion. Here the image of two Rubik's Cube objects with multi-colored facets were shown, two highlighted. They absolutely look different, but if you mask the surroundings you can see they're the same color. "I think of illusion as a metaphor... an evolutionary role [with] decision-making implications".

Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo broadened the brush to illustrate the importance of nuance and appearance, along with manipulation. He gave the example of a study looking at why some countries have very high rates of organ donation (e.g., Sweden) while others in similar areas (e.g., Denmark) have very low rates. The short version is that a huge difference was made by changing from a check-box which must be checked to be a donor to a system where it is 'opt-out' and the norm is to be a contributor. All the difference was in the Motor Vehicles form. And the point? In many situations we are manipulated into a norm, while "we might have an illusion of decision-making."

Moving back to the big screen and visual power as presented on TED, as "A dynamic duo presents dramatic never seen before visuals". The team is Beverly and Dereck Joubert, wildlife photographers, conservationists, and humanists. Zimbardo introduces this amazing footage with the observation that the subject matter, 'lions and hyenas' is parallel to gang warfare. What followed (and was aired via TED) were some totally amazing images, of lions, elephants, and lightening. A group of lions is intent on conquering a lone elephant, who is struggling to shake off the lions. Says the narrator, "People believe death starts in the eyes..." and for a moment it looks like this mighty elephant may be worn out and giving up. "Or, something else can happen, the will to fight." Here, a picture truly is worth a thousand words. Meanwhile there is a leopard who is becoming comfortable in the couple's car. Says the husband of his wife, "she felt she's been displaced" by the leopard. From the humorous to the heart-wrenching: A tigress picks up a tiny baby monkey, after killing its mother, and protects it from gathering hyenas. Protector, yet killer. A conflict, almost "like a girl on the verge of becoming a woman."

Cut to Jane McGonigal, psychologist and director of Gaming, Institute of the Future.

Lesson point: Begin with immediate impact.

McGonigal begins her talk: "My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games". At the time of her presentation (2010) some 3 billion hours a week were spent playing online games. "I believe that if we want to survive the next century on this planet we need to increase that total dramatically", she continues. By her calculations we must see 21 billion hours of gameplay a week by the end of the next decade, if we want to ensure the future survival of the human species. This is essential, she says, and the path to solving problems of hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, and obesity.

And to one of my own favorites, Hans Rosling, Swedish Statistician.

Lesson point: Giving life to static numbers, powerful graphic displays.

This is another must-see-to-appreciate presentation. Using 3-dimensional colored bubbles to represent things like population growth, fertility rates, and other trends, his presentation is spell-binding, "like a textbook or a Tinton" explaining we and them. Life expectancy, global shifts, all made exciting.

You can see Rosling's 2006 TED presentation (with over 4 million visits so far), below:

[A shorter version is on YouTube, here].

Next clip, and a favorite of his, says Zimbardo.

Lesson point: Defining ultimate stage presence: sincere, humble, clarity of message, smooth gestures.

The presentation: Bryan Stevenson, Public Interest Lawyer for the disadvantaged in the South. "We have a hard time talking about race", he begins. "Now consider Apartheid, truth, reconciliation. We haven't done that." How would it feel, he asks his audience, to live in a nation state and watch the government executing its own people. "It's that mind-heart connection that I believe compels us to not just be attentive to all the bright and dazzling things but also the dark and difficult things.” (Bryan Stevenson) ... We're not fully human until we pay attention to suffering.

And now Tony Robbins, Motivational Speaker and Trainer, illustrates the next lesson point:

Owning the stage to inspire and motivate, with direct audience engagement.

He struts around and 'owns the stage', it is clear. He is asking, 'why don't people succeed? Excuses!' And he jumps into the crowd. He talks about the Supreme Court. He proclaims that "the defining factor is never resources, it's resourcefulness!" High energy personified.

Next we are treated to a sample of Cindy Gallop on 'sex education' as she sees it and preaches on her website: offering up a potpourri of possibly shocking self-revelation about her sex life. She exemplifies, with her shock value another ingredient:

The most provocative, violation of expectation, personal revelation.

Gallop certainly unloaded some unique ideas and history. Zimbardo plays more of the clip, saying to cover our eyes if offended by talk of sex acts. "I date younger men", she begins. And it goes graphic, so much so that it stirs a lot of discussion, but is not sent out as a regular TED event as it was deemed inappropriate for children.

"Girls want love, not porno acts", comments Zimbardo. He goes on to list several related social issues which may relate to the conversation, for example the notion that "Guys are failing". He sees a negative impact of 'excessive videogaming' as well as from so much freely available hard-core pornography. [facetious] No worries, Johnny's in his room, it's private, and time for gaming, porno, whatever... But back up. Forty percent of children in the U.S. grow up without a father. For women 30 and younger, 50%. Mothers remain the source of unconditional love while the fathers are pushing to succeed. So many factors to consider...

And back to life and death, mortality. Many of us have seen this (possibly on '60 Minutes' in addition to TED). A living example of the will to life, and a great illustration of an engaging TED talk.

Lesson point: Re-enacting a near tragedy, discovering new meaning in life.

Here is an incredible TED presentation by a neurosurgeon who brings along with her onstage, a real human brain, complete with dangling spinal cord. She knows brains well, but it took a while to realize when her own brain was suddenly imploding and she realized she'd lost her body's pilot... A brain hemorrhage. She's seeing a stroke this time from the inside out.

This TED video is now the most-watched ever, at over 9 million views!

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Harvard Neuroscientist begins by showing the human brain, with its 2 hemispheres, the left being a 'serial processor', and the right side a 'parallel processor'. Hemispheres think differently, have different 'personalities'. The left hemisphere is linear thinking, it looks at the past, the future, details of details... categorizes and predicts the future from the past, thinks in words: 'Remember to do your laundry!' My left hemisphere says 'I am', separate from you... the portion of my brain that I lost. It "gripped me and then it released me". She got on her exercise machine and noticed that her hands looked like claws. "Very Peculiar... Whoa! I'm a weird looking thing!" She seemed somewhere outside her body, yet needed to take charge: "OK muscles: Contract! Relax... My left-hemisphere brain chatter went silent - like a mute switch.... I felt enormous, and expansive... I can no longer define the boundaries of my body." For a moment her left-brain voice returned to say: "We got a problem" And then 'back to la-la land'."I felt this sense of peacefulness... Imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage."

I've got to shower and get to work. But my right arm is paralyzed.
I realized I had a stroke. Cool: How many brain scientists get to study a stroke from the inside out?. But I have to go to work...

She realizes she should call her office but she cannot read her own business card - "Forty five minutes to go one inch into a stack of cards. I do not understand numbers. I do not understand telephones." She tries to match the squiggles on the card with the squiggles on the telephone - but, back to la la land. Did I dial that number? Eventually, miraculously, "a colleague picks up the phone and says grorghhhhrr. He sounds like a golden retriever. So I say, grghgrrrg! And I sound like a Golden Retriever.... Next thing, I'm in an ambulance. In that moment I knew it was over, or a doctor will rescue me..."

See it for yourself (there's lots more than I summarized here to engage the viewer, and it is delivered masterfully).

Talk about powerful, and the power to grip in 18 minutes or less! Ideas worth sharing...

So what are some of the other ingredients (aside from these amazingly gifted presenters) necessary for a memorable TED talk? With tonight's timer counting down now as well, Zimbardo would review some secrets of content as well as delivery, use of humor, and useful tools.

Secrets of Content

A slide onscreen details some key presentation points for successful TED talks, such as we've just seen:

Secrets of Delivery:

  • Timing, Tight, New TED Talk Model, 12-20 minutes

  • (PRACTICE, with shorter max time)

  • Pacing: fast, smooth, high energy, full of Passion

  • Humor, selectively used to engage audience affect

  • Move Around a bit, Own the Stage in Performer Role

  • Use hand gestures effectively to communicate feelings, direct audience attention

  • Use Visuals powerfully, with video clips, Keynote, or the new online presentation creator: Prezi.

    Zimbardo noted that in his case the hand gestures come easily ("I'm Sicilian, so it's natural!"). He underscored the importance of visuals: "You cannot give a lecture without visuals" He suggests that presenters (to TED, at any rate) 'never use Powerpoint: Use Keynote; If that means buying a Mac, it's worth it... it allows embedded videos. And there is also a new tool, Prezi [] which is said to 'bridge the visual landscape between whiteboards and slides'.

    TED Talks are really two talks in one, one for the audience, the other for the 'Internet world'. Post-production takes 6-20 hours per talk, integrating input from 3 video sources, deleting glitches, etc. by a video team. It is now headed by Michael Glass, and was formerly headed by Jason Wishnow, both Stanford Alums.

    The TED tapings use 3 cameras, one on the speaker, one on the audience, one on the screen. No talking heads doing TED presentations. And we were shown several more snippets of incredibly effective TED presentations - by extraordinary people.

    In closing, Zimbardo reminded us that TED presenters are 'actors on a stage' - in addition to whatever else they bring to the topic. He ended with his final tutorial: "Don't believe any of my advice, according to new statistical analysis of features of best vs. worst TED talks". The video sample features Sebastian Wernicke, Satirist Statistician.

                TED formula

    The several lists, Venn Diagrams, and bar graphs are all very compelling but in the end boil down to the talking points of Zimbardo - with a twist. The presentation parodies the art of 'reverse engineering a TED talk' (like we do 'here and now'!). The illustration above depicts a simple mapping of our pleasure and engagement motivators, while each new graphic drills down into the 'real statistical explanations' for successful talks. There's a list of 'good words', including: You, Happiness, Brain, French, Coffee, Choice, Data; other words are supposed 'bad words' such as So, Oxygen, Aircraft, Building, Problem, Computer, Girls.... And from there Wernicke extrapolates out to good words like Happiness, People, Emotions, Ethics, Thought and Psychology... and bad words like Weather, Media, Animal and Plants, Transportation, Men... A graph illustrates the mean time for presentations which are 'fascinating' (9 to 15 minutes), or even 'Jaw-dropping'. The most favorited of all-time came in at just over the time limit (8:15) while the least favorited clocked in at 11:56. On the shorter side, the graph indicates one should 'KEEP TALKING'. And there are rule exceptions, with 'beautiful' and 'Ingenious' playing well at under 15 minutes. The audience (in Wernicke's presentation) is told that one needs to provide a service to the audience - I'll give you xyz, you're going to get xxx ... And "It's OK to fake intellectual capacity", using phrases such as et cetera et cetera. A diagram is offered up to show the ideal speaker's appearance (long hair, glasses), color swatches promise the key words for 'setting the mood for being rated'.... And so it goes. Not without some kernels of truth perhaps, but clearly painted as a broad parody of how one might prep for maximum TED effectiveness.

    Perhaps the truth lies in between this simplistic and satirical version of how to be the master of a TED presentation, and the detailed and personal observations of the very serious social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo. Personally, I have confidence that Zimbardo has just presented as good a preparation for a TED event as can be had. I'm reminded of 'how to get to Carnegie Hall' (practice, practice...) It helps to be gifted from the start and have the vast experience in teaching or research or natural science as have had so many of these amazing presenters. As for Zimbardo, his last bit of advice for those who do get the opportunity to present a TED: "Talk as long as they will let you - until they drag you off the stage!"

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    2008 Convention Highlights:
    Grand Theft Childhood | Opening | Malcolm Gladwell | College Success, Love, Hate, More | My Life With Asperger's
    My Space, You Tube, Psychotherapy, Relationships... | Aaron T. Beck - 2008 | The Mind and Brain of Voters

    2009 Convention Highlights:
    Internet: Pathway for Networking, Connecting, and Addiction | Opening | Virtual Psychology & Therapy | Q&A with Zimbardo
    Seligman: Positive Education | Future of Internet Media | Sex, Love, & Psychology | How Dogs Think

    2010 Convention Highlights:
    Online Support Groups & Applications | Evidence & Ethical Practice | Opening Ceremony | Sir Michael Rutter: Resilience
    Group Memory | Psychology in the Digital Age | Steven Hayes: What Psychotherapists Have that the World Needs Now

    2011 Convention Highlights:
    2011: eHealth Odyssey | Googling, Twittering, Poking | Zimbardo: Reflections + Enduring Lessons from 40 Years Ago: Stanford Prison Experiment
    Opening | Avatar-based Therapy | Canine Cognition: Chaser | Aaron T. Beck @90 | Cavanagh: Computerized CBT | Seligman: Flourish
    PsychTech: Virtual & Augmented Reality | Relationships 3.0 | POKE ME: Social Networks & Kids | Telehealth & Telepsychology Licensure - Barriers and Possible Solutions

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