Recently I had the pleasure of seeing a couple of Hans Rosling shows on BBC2, I was lucky enough not to miss them. It’s quite difficult not to be a fan of the famous professor, whose videos are often used in my public speaking workshops. Mentioning him just for the Ikea props or the people boxes is very belittling him.

Hans Rosling and data

Hans Rosling is a professor, a scientist, a visionary, a researcher and, amongst many other accomplishments, an extraordinary speaker.  Watching one of his presentations is an enriching experience on many levels. To begin with the topics he covers, in this shows he cover poverty and over-population. In times where communication is often shouted and built on empty catchy claims (sometimes effective albeit short-lived) Rosling builds on solid data (often UN sourced). We all know that a mere sequence of numbers can be as exciting as watching paint dry, hardly a candidate for TV prime-time, and disengaging for the audience.  This last bit is what really makes or breaks communication effectiveness. My advice for you is watch the whole show, or at least some of it, the one on population here and the one on poverty here.

On top of enjoying interesting facts on crucial topics, you have a chance of appreciate and learn how to make data cool for the public. Make them spectacular, not for pure entertainment, rather to increase the emotional impact of them. How? Using several skills, 3 of them I’d like to underline here.


Numbers are numbers, not people. The stories shown in these documentaries catch two birds with a stone: they remind us that the numbers represent people and also hook us up since we are wired to be interested in stories. They also visualise some statistics otherwise hard to grasp and possibly drab too. I loved the analogy when he explains how from the commanding height of our average income we cannot easily distinguish the different poverty levels. Storytelling as a great communication device is sure not a novelty, this is just a great example.

Use of technology

Does technology help conveying a message? If aptly used indeed it does. We can pick two examples. Animated charts presented by Rosling (via Gapminder he co-founded) manage to render complex data that spans on several dimensions. If you watched is pretty evident what I mean, and how more challenging would be to pack all of that in a different format.

Projecting on the glass wall allows him to “enter” in the chart in a much more effective way if the diagram was on a traditional screen, with a better outcome both for the camera and audience in the room.

Creative use of technology

The fact is that most of us are not able to afford the same cool devices he has and likely we don’t have the same budget for our gigs. This is not a valid reason to deliver dull presentations, or subject our listeners to death-by-powerpoint. Despite Rosling resources are conspicuous and leveraged when it makes sense, lots of his technology relies on imagination and creativity. Of the many examples you have witnessed watching both shows, I picked this one:

It may be not the most startling, and maybe not even the most effective. So why am I showcasing this one? I don’t want to influence you, and leave you to decide which one it was your number 1, and which ones you can use as inspiration for your data presenting. I personally love the aforementioned ladder. So are the billion people boxes, Rosling fans may remember them in other performances. If you search for other presentations of him you may find washing machines, bamboo sticks, and many more.

To close (on making data cool)

Hans Rosling is a terrific communicator. Not because he can add a wow factor to his numbers, but because he has an uncanny ability to shape them in a story, visualise them, make us think about them, with a superb balance between being pragmatic, informative, funny, personal, passionate and engaging. Thanks to the three elements highlighted here: storytelling, effective use of technology and creativity, and others like changing media, tone of voice, ask questions, and more. Most of the things we can do ourselves armed with the intention of doing them!