Effectively explain a complex concept is not always easy, even more when the audience is not familiar with the topic. Learn how to do it with this #LearnFromTED example thanks to Laurie Santos.

The discipline is behavioral economics, a relatively new branch of economy and the main message is not really flattering the audience: “You are not as smart as you think you are”. Take a look how it is presented by Laurie.

The opening

Let’s analyse the opening since I think is very effective. At the beginning there are two important things to do: capture the public’s attention and introduce the main theme so that it will be easier to follow the explanation.

I want to start my talk today with two observations about the human species. The first observation is something that you might think is quite obvious, and that’s that our species, Homo sapiens, is actually really, really smart — like, ridiculously smart — like you’re all doing things that no other species on the planet does right now. And this is, of course, not the first time you’ve probably recognized this. Of course, in addition to being smart, we’re also an extremely vain species. So we like pointing out the fact that we’re smart.

Santos talks about two observations and this already helps to gather attention. As an audience we ask ourselves “what are the two?” and after hearing the first one we still want to know the second. It’s not by coincidence that in digital marketing you see many titles with numbers: “The 5 things you must know…” they leverage our curiosity.

Briefly after that is the main point.

But of course, there’s a second observation about the human species that I want to focus on a little bit more, and that’s the fact that even though we’re actually really smart, sometimes uniquely smart, we can also be incredibly, incredibly dumb when it comes to some aspects of our decision making.

This is the final attention grabber, it’s a little counter-intuitive after the previous sentences, and it hits directly everyone in the public.

It is also a little jab at them which is softened by the following statement.

Now I’m seeing lots of smirks out there. Don’t worry, I’m not going to call anyone in particular out on any aspects of your own mistakes.

The complete central statement is laid down soon after that, not how clearly is stated. An easy language and short sentences so that the public can focus on the idea.

But it turns out, what social scientists are actually learning is that most of us, when put in certain contexts, will actually make very specific mistakes. The errors we make are actually predictable. We make them again and again. And they’re actually immune to lots of evidence. When we get negative feedback, we still, the next time we’re face with a certain context, tend to make the same errors.

This happens almost at the end of the second minute, as I said before most of the times it is better to tell the audience in the beginning what is your point to help them follow along. To be precise here, the central idea is that our wrong decision is inherited from primates, still this is a clear enough point for the audience to put in context all the information they are to receive.

Watch the concepts

To understand if our decision making mistakes are wired with us, researchers conducted experiments on primates. To share the the results Laurie could go along different routes:

  • State the conclusions they reached observing the behaviours of the primates
  • Show series of data collected during the experiments to explain what is the result of the studies
  • Make us participants in the experiments

This last option is the chosen one and it is the most effective because it involves the audience. From the fourth minute Santos explains how the experiments were conducted and most of all she shows some video clips from them.

The narration of the experiments is entertaining and is dotted by some light humour. Still there are precise sentences that underline the scientific value of the talk.

So much so that, if you saw the monkeys’ numbers, you couldn’t tell whether they came from a monkey or a human in the same market.

What do you think of the use of videos? How more effective they are compared to just talking about it? How can you replicate it in your presentations? Where can you replace a narrated story with a visual story?

Audience engagement

You can involve your public also mentally by stimulating their reasoning. It is what happens from 10:45.

So imagine that right now I handed each and every one of you a thousand U.S. dollars — so 10 crisp hundred dollar bills. Take these, put it in your wallet and spend a second thinking about what you’re going to do with it.

This section has several positives in it. First of all is a change of rhythm, videos will be back later, in the middle this moment where the focus shift from the screen back to the audience (or on us if we are watching the recording). It reinforces the parallel of the experiment, all the trials on primates are to check if they replicate human behaviours, there is an alternation between primates (video) and homo sapiens (audience).

More important of all is that the public becomes active and lives Laurie Santos’ message, feeling the emotions and probably making the same wrong decisions at the heart of this TED talk.

Close on a positive note with a takeaway

Several great presentations rely on a problem, or they bring out and underlying problem that the audience doesn’t perceive. All of them, or almost all of them, end on a positive note, with a solution or the direction to go to overcome the obstacles. The closing of the presentation starts right here, recalling the opening. This is something I encourage you to to it if you can, it give a sense of completeness and a more logical path.

The question is: is there any good news? I’m supposed to be up here telling you the good news. Well, the good news, I think, is what I started with at the beginning of the Talk, which is that humans are not only smart; we’re really inspirationally smart to the rest of the animals in the biological kingdom.

And here is the takeaway for the audience.

The hope is that you all will think about your limitations, not necessarily as unovercomable, but to recognize them, accept them and then use the world of design to actually figure them out. That might be the only way that we will really be able to achieve our own human potential and really be the noble species we hope to all be.

You have just seen how Laurie Santos was good in effectively explain a complex concept, and also in doing it in an interesting way to keep audience interest always alive.