Hans Rosling: Doctor, Professor, & Presenter Extraordinaire

Hans-rosling
The Zen Master of data visualization has died. I am sorry to have to report that Dr. Hans Rosling passed away today in Uppsala, Sweden. He was just 68. A profoundly mournful day for anyone who knew Professor Rosling, obviously. But it's also a sad day for all of us in the greater TED community or data visualization/business intelligence communities as well. Dr. Rosling's work was seen by millions and will continue to be seen by millions worldwide. It is incalculable just how many professionals Hans inspired over the years. His presentations, always delivered with honesty, integrity, and clarity, were aided by clear visuals of both the digital and analog variety. He was a master statistician, physician, and academic, but also a superb presenter and storyteller.

Almost eleven years ago, just after TED began experimenting with putting some of their talks on the web, I wrote this post called "If your idea is worth spreading, then presentation matters." In that post, I summarized my impression of Dr. Rosling from his 2006 TED Talk:

"Hans Rosling, an expert in public health from Sweden, does an amazing job in this presentation bringing the data to life. If you want to know how he did all those graphics, go to gapminder.org. It's all there. Hans is saying the problem is not the data. The data is there. But it's not accessible to most people for three reasons: (1) For researchers and journalists, teachers, etc. it is too expensive. (2) For the media, it is too difficult to access. (3) For the public, students, and policy makers, it is presented in a boring way. His solution is to make the data free, let it evoke and provoke an 'aha' experience, or a 'wow!' experience for the public. I loved the way he got involved with the data, virtually throwing himself into the screen. He got his point across, no question about it."

From that point on, I watched virtually every talk he made and featured him in every book I wrote on presentation. I saw the professor in person at TED 2009 and was a fellow presenter with him at Tableau 2014 in Seattle where he, as usual, had the crowd of data geeks in the palm of his hand. If there is a Zen Master —or Jedi Master — of data visualization, then Dr. Hans Rosling is that master. His contributions are immense, and he will be missed deeply.

Below is Dr. Rosling's debut at TED 2006. It's as good now as it was then.


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A photo I took of Hans at TED 2009. Love his analog pointer!


Hans Rosling presented at TED ten times, more than any other presenter. All of his TED presentations are featured here on the TED website. Below are links to a selection of other posts from presentationzen.com which feature videos and analysis of Dr. Rosling's presentations over the years.

If your idea is worth spreading, then presentation matters
Hans Rosling: Don't just show the notes, play the music!
Hans Rosling: The Jedi Master of Data Visualization
Hans Rosling redux: Mixing analog with digital visualization
Hans Rosling: the Zen Master of Presenting Data
Hans Rosling & the Art of Storytelling with Statistics

His message and spirit live on
Hans Rosling's contribution to the world in his 68 years was extraordinary. I'll continue to do whatever I can to spread his teachings in future. His work will continue to inspire and educate. We need his message of a fact-based worldview now more than ever. Here is part of today's announcement by Anna R. Rönnlund & Ola Rosling which appeared on the Gapminder website:

Across the world, millions of people use our tools and share our vision of a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand. We know that many will be saddened by this message. Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!

Indeed. Let us all remember Professor's Rosling's contributions and continue to keep the dream of a more fact-based, rational worldview alive.

Gapminder.org


Edward Tufte on Data, Analysis, & Truth

Edward Tufte is a leading expert in the data analysis and data visualization space. His books are classics and required reading for anyone interested in understanding how best to display quantitative information. I read his books just after I left Apple in 2003 to become a college professor in Japan. His books are foundational. I've talked about Tufte in my own books and on this website going back to at least this post in 2005. I have not seen him speak recently, so I was happy to see this 50-minute presentation by Dr. Tufte which took place at the Microsoft Machine Learning & Data Science Summit 2016 held this past September. Microsoft's David Smith introduced Dr. Tufte at the 2:30 mark.


Video and transcript also available on the Microsoft website.

Highlights
In his talk, Tufte warns against confirmation bias and massaging the data to arrive at findings that are desirable or somehow in your interest. He paraphrases one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous lines: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." This reminded me of the old Darrell Huff chestnut from How to Lie With Statistics (1954): “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”

You want to generate your findings from the data not from the analysis, Tufte says. To do this he recommends specifying your analysis first before you collect the data. "This is to avoid all the generating findings just by analysis, not out of the data." Tufte stressed the importance of "...full pre-specification of the analysis so they can't over search the data, so they can't run a million models and publish one. I think this is the future of confirmatory data analysis."

Exploratory and replication
"We should be mucking around in our data to find out what's going on. We can learn from it. We can run it through powerful exploratory things. We can run it like a map through millennial time and look it over and say, that look interesting....and what this means, though, this kind of searching, is that you must have an honest replication of the results of the search. To go back on innocent data, maybe somebody 500 miles away does it. Maybe that's better, independent replication of the search results to distinguish now between noise and signal."

"It is impossible for any normal human being to stare at a spreadsheet and look for contradictions, and problems." This is where data forensics comes in. Tufte recommends the Quartz Guide to Bad Data at GitHub.

Scattering the eye and mind, producing vague anxiety & clutter
At the end of his talk, Tufte said something very wise. Something simple as can be, but it was one of the most important things he said in his talk. After talking about the need for us to learn about the entire process of data and analysis and to go out in the field and watch directly how original measurements are made, Tufte said this:

"In doing creative work do not start your day with addictive time-vampires such as The New York Times, email, and Twitter. All scatter the eye, and mind, produce diverting vague anxiety, clutter short-term memory. Instead, begin with your work. Many creative workers have independently discovered this principle." I completely agree with this.

And finally this bit of wisdom concerning data analysis and thinking in general. The most powerful question you can ask yourself, and of others is: "How do I know that? How do you know that? How do they know that?"

These books by Dr. Tufte —especially The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Visual Explanations, and Envisioning Information — are ones you want on your bookshelf. They are beautifully designed and well made. Over the years I have come back to these books often. Of course, the examples are dated, but the principles are the same and the examples hold up well and you can easily apply the concepts to modern problems. And they are just beautiful, smart books.

 

 


2 Great Visual Storytelling Books for Children

There is loads of evidence that reading to children at bedtime is not only good for their emotional well being, it also has long-term benefits for their cognitive development. We have a 6-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. Since they were babies they have been exposed to books. Bedtime stories are one of the great joys of parenting and is a nightly ritual for us. As it is the Christmas season, I thought I would recommend two books here that do a great job of presenting their material in an engaging, visual way.

Before-christmasThe first is the classic The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore. There are many editions of this classic tale, but based on the amazing and numerous reviews on Amazon, I purchased Robert Sabuda's The Night Before Christmas Pop-up last year in time for Christmas.The pop-up art is amazing and imaginative. I was not sure at first that I would want a pop-up book for story time, but the great thing about the 3-D aspect of it is that the kids are always touching the paper and playing with the tabs and strings as the story progresses. They use their imagination to believe now that the story is about them and their house. In the final two-page spread, for example, a snow-covered town pops up with Santa flying over the houses. My son will say something like "here is our house and this is our bed room window." My daughter would then comment "here's grandma's house and here's our school across the bridge." I read each page, but we spend more time on questions and adding to the narrative before I move on to the next spread. It's a well-made book, but you need to be a bit careful with it, especially with infants. Still, if you are just a little careful, the pop-ups should keep working long after the kids are grown.

Popup1My 4-year-old son pulls tab to have Santa and his reindeer fly above the snow covered village.

Popup2
My 6-year-old daughter opens the page which reveals the eight reindeer and Santa scurrying down the chimney.

Starwars-readerThe second recommendation is not a pop-up, but rather a series of visual books that come with an audio reader than the child can control. My wife had a business trip to New York City about a year ago and brought back The Disney Star Wars Me Reader. It was an instant hit.The box comes with eight short illustrated books and a durable plastic electronic reader. Of course, I can read the book as my children follow along, but they actually prefer that I hold the book for them as they press the buttons on the reader to go through the story page by page. The electronic reader is intuitive to figure out for the child. We got this Star Wars set over a year ago when my son was 3-years old and he knew how to navigate the analog menus after 1-2 minutes of playing around. The narrator's English is extremely clear and easy to understand and I believe this has helped with their English pronunciation. The kids don't just listen but repeat phrases from the book — "It's a trap!" As we live in Japan, I am about the only person they interact with in English, so tools like this were surprisingly useful. My son is the Star Wars nerd (as am I), so I think we'll get a different Me Reader for my daughter for Christmas such as the Frozen Me Reader.

The Star Wars Radio Youtube channel has a preview of one of the books along with the audio for each book. This should give you a feel for what they are like. We've already gotten a lot of mileage of these books.

 May The Force Be With You.


New Book for Researchers, Scholars, & Technical Presenters

Better_presentationsThere's a new book just out that focuses on improving the kind of presentations that scholars, researchers, and other technical specialists need to give. The book is Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks by data-visualization pro Jonathan Schwabish. Jonathan is a Senior Research Associate in The Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center and a member of the institute’s communication team where he specializes in data visualization and presentation design. Jonathan is an economist by training and an expert in data visualization. He’s a numbers guy with a special skill for helping others communicate their data in ways that engage and connect with an audience.

Jonathan also created the PolicyViz website which features a popular podcast that covers a range of topics related to effective communication and the display of data visualizations. Recently, I was a guest on the PolicyViz podcast. You can hear that episode here on the PolicyViz website.

Podcast.001

"Presenting is fundamentally different from writing," says Jonathan. "[But] with only a little more time, a little more effort, and a little more planning, you can communicate your work with force and clarity." Better Presentations is a simple, well-written, visual book that is useful for students, teachers, and other academics, as well as for anyone who needs to give data-driven presentations. Check it out.

Links

• Follow Jonathan here onTwitter.
• The PolicyViz website
• Jonathan's book Better Presentations on Amazon.com
• A great book on using charts called Good Charts by Scott Berinato
• Another book for tech presenters: Presenting for Geeks by Dirk Haun


Steve Jobs on communicating your core values

Stevejobs.002
Shortly after he returned to Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs gave an internal presentation to employees from the Town Hall building on the Apple campus (YouTube link below). This was an important presentation to let employees know where the company stood and where it was heading. A typical CEO may have put together a slide deck and run through a kind of SWOT analysis. But in this presentation, Jobs —dressed in shorts, sandles and a black turtleneck— stood before the audience and took them on a journey, without notes or slides, where he did touch on Apple’s Strong & Weak points, and also on the Opportunities and Threats, but in a way that was conversational with clear examples. Jobs starts the talk by stating the problem (the “ideal world” is implied):

“This is a very complicated world, it's a very noisy world. And we're not going to get the chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us."

Jobs then reminds people that Apple is one of the world’s top brands, right up there with Disney, Nike, SONY, etc. But even great brands need care. And that care had been lacking.

In the presentation, Jobs said that marketing is not about touting features and speeds and megabytes or comparing yourself to the other guys, it's about identifying your own story, your own core, and being very, very clear about what you are all about and what you stand for...and then being able to communicate that clearly, simply, and consistently. As Steve says, people want to know who you are and what you stand for. The problem was, Apple had for a long time before Jobs came back got away from communicating its core values, and in fact the employees may have even forgotten what they were.

Jobs used the example of Nike as a brand that did a great job of letting customers know what their brand stood for, not by focusing on the product, but by communicating its values:

“Nike sells a commodity, they sell shoes. And yet when you think of Nike you feel something different than a shoe company. In their ads, as you know, they don't ever talk about the product, they don't ever talk about their air soles, how they're better than Reebok's air soles. What's Nike do in their advertising? They honor great athletes and they honor great athletics. That is what they are about.”

In the case of Apple, the brand's core value, as Jobs says in the presentation, is not about technology or "making boxes for people to get their jobs done." Apple's core value, said Jobs, is this:

"We believe people with passion can change the world for the better....and that those people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who actually do. The things Apple believes in at its core are the same things that Apple really stands for today, and so we wanted to find a way to communicate this."

In the end Jobs introduces the now famous Think different TV ad that was about two months in the making. This campaign was an attempt, said Jobs, to get Apple back to its core values. It was only one of many first steps of the new branding campaign and Apple’s revival, but it worked.

Clarity & Simplicity key
The lessons in this talk obviously can be applied directly to the art of presentation, something Steve did very well in all his presentations, big or small. Good presentation is about story, just as good branding is about story. Clarity and simplicity are key, and the way to achieve these is by being relentless in abandoning the superfluous and identifying the absolute core of your message. Clarity and simplicity are not easy—they are hard. If it were easy to be simple and clear then everyone would do it, but few actually do. It is indeed a very noisy world, and it's getting noisier seemingly by the day. It is those people—and those organizations—who do the hard work to clarify and simplify that will be the ones who are able to rise above the noise, get their messages heard, and make a difference in this world in their own way.

Simple Story Structure

If you look at what Jobs said in this 1997 talk, the essence of it fits well into to the simple story structure.

• Ideal world: Apple would be growing and its marketing/branding message would be clear and powerful.

• Reality: Although the brand is super famous, it has lost its shine (and the company is in a weak position). Apple is in danger.

•Cause: Apple had too many messages and got away from its core values so customers were confused. Also, it is a more complicated and noisy world and more difficult for any brand to communicate its message. Apple has too many products, too many messages.

• Solution: Returning to old ad agency from the Apple glory days, and deciding to communicate in its brand only Apple’s core values through their “Think Different” campaign. (What we know now is that this was a winning strategy, first delivered to employees in a simple, clear narrative structure that resonated with the audience.)


Using storytelling to make a case for social change

I asked TEDxKyoto founder Jay Klaphake which of the many good talks at TEDxKyoto was a great example of storytelling, he replied immediately that it was the 2014 talk by Sahel Rosa. Sahel’s presentation is a wonderful example of a presenter using their personal story to (1) shine a spotlight on a social issue, and (2) to make a pitch for people to support her cause. Sahel takes us on a journey that begins with her own harsh childhood spent in an orphanage in Iran. She overcame impossible odds thanks to the love of a nurse who adopted her and moved to Japan. She also received help from a Japanese lunch lady from her school who rescued her and her adoptive mother who were living in a park at the time. Her presentation ends by building on the remarkable love and support from her mother and others in Japan to ask all of us to remember the thousands of orphans in Japan, many of whom are waiting for adoption. And she asks us to get involved in orphanages as much as we can to help improve the lives of the children there. She also mentions that her dream is to start a home for Orphans called “Sahel’s House.”



The aim of good storytelling is to make people feel deeply and empathize with your situation. Many times while analyzing this talk I had tears in my eyes. Some of the things Sahel recalled will make anyone feel deeply moved, moved even to tears. Such as when Sahel recalled a time when she was bullied in school in Japan for being an orphan and another child said “You kids are living off our tax money!” That’s such a hurtful thing for a child to hear. Any audience member would feel great empathy for her. Or the time Sahel returned after twenty years to her orphanage in Iran. Children were so happy to see her success and hear her story, but when she asked a child what his dream was, his reply was “Ummm...I don’t know. I just want a mom.” This speaks to the helpless children often feel in orphanages, not in an abstract way, but in a concrete way that tugs at the heart.

For the personal stories like this — “Telling Your Story”—there is another simple way to visualize the arc of the story. Most classic stories start in what’s called the “World of Perfection.” Then because of some incident, there is a descent into the “World of Imperfection.” In this latter world—which is often the biggest part of the story—our character struggles to overcome obstacles. If we put this on an X/Y axis, we can think of anything above the horizontal axis as Good Fortune (Positive, happy, normal life, etc.), and anything below the horizontal axis we can think of as Ill fortune (negative, unhappy, difficult, etc.). It is a simplification, but almost all storytelling arcs start near or above the horizontal axis, descend below, and eventually rise back to the “World of Perfection.” In Sahel’s case, you can see clearly how she starts positively in the current world and then descends into a world where there was some difficult to hear things about her personal story and the state of orphans and orphanages in Japan. By the end she ascends back up to a more positive world where there is hope for a solution and asks for three specific things from the audience.


Storytelling advice from Akira Kurosawa

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Akira Kurosawa
was one of the masters of cinema. Below is a six-minute interview where Kurosawa offers advice to aspiring filmmakers, but the advice can be applied more widely to other creative disciplines as well.

If you want to make a film today, you don't need expensive equipment necessarily. Even a smartphone and a good microphone will do the trick. But before equipment and camera techniques comes knowing how to create a story. If you want to be a director, says Kurosawa, learn to write screen plays first. For a story, all you need is a pen and paper (or a cheap computer). When Kurosawa laments in the interview that most aspiring filmmakers want to get immediately to directing without first spending a lot of time learning the craft of story through the difficult task of writing, this is something that could be applied to other professional endeavors. Learning an art — any art — is not glamorous; it's tedious and difficult. Writing is hard and can be lonely. The most important quality to have, says Kurosawa, is to have "the forbearance to face the dull task of writing one word at a time." To have the patience to write one word at a time is key. Most people lack the patience to do this for very long, so they quit. But if you stick with it, Kurosawa says, over time the writing process will become second nature to you.

Patience
Kurosawa says the many younger people want to get to the end quickly rather than spending the long, tedious time in first preparing. Creating a film is an enormous task Kursosawa says, but the important thing is to not let yourself get overwhelmed by the size of the task. His advice is not just for filmmakers but for writers or anyone else who has a big, creative job to do in front of them. As he says, when you climb a high mountain you must not look up to the peak so often but instead focus on the ground just a head of you. Step by step you make progress. But if you keep looking up at how far you have to go to finish it will be discouraging and also distracts you from the moment at hand. When I got my first book contract ten years ago, I wondered how I could finish the book in time. Dan Pink recommended I read the book Bird by Bird, a book about how to get through large tasks by taking one step at a time, as the author's father once advised her 10-year-old brother, who was worried sick over the scale of a book report on birds. His advice: "Just take it bird by bird." Kurosawa here is giving similar advice.

"Don't ever quit."
Kurosawa says that he encouraged his Assistant Directors to never give up on the script halfway through, but to go all the way through and finish it. Even if it is not the best (yet) it's important to develop the habit of perseverance and fighting through until the end. Otherwise, Kurosawa suggests, people will get in the habit of quitting when things get difficult or do not go well. Kurosawa also talks about the importance of reading books in order to become a better writer and a better storyteller. Reading a wide array of subjects over a lifetime gives one knowledge and perspectives in a kind of reserve which they may use in unforeseen ways in future. "Unless you have a rich reserve within, you can't create anything," Kurosawa says. "That's why I often say creating comes from memory. Memory is the source of your creation. You can't create something from nothing." As Kurosawa says, whether it is from reading or your real-life experience, "you can't create unless you have something inside yourself."

I highly suggest you read this great book by Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography


Five Essential Questions to ask Yourself

It’s graduation time around the United States, and while many speeches are forgettable, some of them stick. Dean James Ryan’s speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education ceremony was one such speech. Dean Ryan’s central message is that developing an ability for asking good questions is key to one’s path to success and fulfillment. "I would urge you to resist the temptation to have answers at the ready and to spend more time thinking about the right questions to ask,” he says. The entire 24-min speech is here, but it is this six-minute section below that resonates most with me and many others. In this section Ryan says he believes there are five essential questions that we must regularly ask ourselves. Ryan's claim is that, if we get in the habit of asking these questions, we’ll have a great chance of being both successful and happy. And, he says, we’ll be in a better position to answer “I did” to the bonus question at the end of his list of five. (A summary of his list of five follow the video.)

 

(1) Wait, what?
"Wait what is actually a very effective way of asking for clarification, which is crucial to understanding,” Ryan says. "The wait, which precedes the what, is also a good reminder that it pays to slow down to make sure you truly understand.” Many of us often have an unconscious bias toward information which confirms our own views about the world. In the 21st-century where social media allows completely made up “facts” to be circulated unabated, it's more important than ever to slow down, and to stop, and to question anything which seems too good (or bad) to be true.

(2) I wonder, why/if?
"Asking 'I wonder why' is the way to remain curious about the world, and asking 'I wonder if' is the way to start thinking about how you might improve the world. As in, I wonder why our schools are so segregated, and I wonder if we could change this?” This is perhaps the most fundamental question of all. This is one of the most powerful questions an educated person—regardless of their schooling—can ask. Questions such as: Is it so (I wonder)? Is it really true? How do I know that it’s so? What would happen if__? We begin tackling the really big problems in the world—and the big problems in our personal lives—with the smallest of questions: I wonder why/if?

(3) Couldn’t we at least?
"It’s what enables you to get past disagreement to some consensus, as in 'couldn’t we at least agree that we all care about the welfare of students, even if we disagree about strategy?'” This is a way to obtain some common ground and make progress, no matter how small. Ryan says that it’s also an approach for getting unstuck or for getting started in the first place. I have found this to be a mind-hack of sorts. One of our biggest obstacles to progress in our work is procrastination. Most of us procrastinate because we focus on the enormity of the project or on it’s conclusion, a conclusion about which we are uncertain. So instead of focusing on finishing the project, simply concentrate on getting started instead. Just start it, you tell yourself, don’t worry about how it progresses or about the long road to finish it. Simply start. When you tell yourself that you’ll just get started for a bit and not worry about the size and perceived difficulties of the entire project, it’s very easy to sit down and just have a go at it. Often, we’ll surprise ourselves which just how much progress we make when our only aim was merely to "at least get started."

(4) How can I help?
 "We shouldn’t let the real pitfalls of the savior complex extinguish one of the most humane instincts there is,” says Ryan, "the instinct to lend a hand.” A yearning to help and to make a difference in the lives of others is what fundamentally drives most of us. But, says Ryan, we must remain humble and truly listen with our eyes, ears, and heart to see where we can help best. “…how we help matters as much as that we do help, and if you ask 'how' you can help, you are asking, with humility, for direction."

(5) What really matters?
"This is the question that forces you to get to the heart of issues and to the heart of your own beliefs and convictions.” This is a question that we need to ask ourselves more than only occasionally. These days, professionals and students are asked to do more (or at least are enticed to do more). It’s easy to get pulled in many directions and to attempt to do too much. I say it a lot but if everything is important to you then nothing is important to you. Life is about making hard choices. This is true for business and it is true in life. We must learn to remove that which is not essential to our answer to the question “What really matters to me?” Clarity, simplicity, and focus are crucial for staying on your own path to what really matters.

Bonus question: “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?”
Here Dean Ryan recalls a passage in a poem by Raymond Carver that reads: "And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?” The “even so” tag, says Ryan, is a reminder that life even at its best is filled with pain, sorrow, and disappointments. Still, even so, are you living a fulfilling life? "My claim is that if you regularly ask: wait, what, I wonder, couldn’t we at least, how can I help, and what really matters, when it comes time to ask yourself 'And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?' your answer will be I ‘did.'"

Full speech and transcript