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April 2014

No amount of technology will make a bad story good

Toy_1-1When Toy Story opened in the US at the end of 1995, it was met with enthusiasm and great critical acclaim. The film would go on to be the highest-grossing film of the year. There was tremendous buzz (ahem) about the film before it arrived here in Japan a few months later. Much of the talk focused on the stunning 3-D animation and the remarkable technical achievements by Pixar to pull this movie off. I remember sitting in a movie theatre in the spring of 1996 in Osaka, Japan watching the film. I was a bit of a technology geek in those days so what propelled me to actually go see the film initially was the fact that it was the first truly digital animation feature film. And yet the thing that impressed me about the movie was that I soon forgot all about how the animation was created and just remembered being engaged by the story. I wanted to see the film again (and again). I thought it was perfect. Fast forward to today and I have seen every Pixar film ever made dozens of times. I have two small children who adore all the Pixar films and I don't mind watching along with them. If there was a degree given out for watching Pixar films, then I'd by working on my PhD by now.

I watch the films repeatedly because my kids ask to see them, and since our DVDs are in English the movies are more than mere entertainment. But truth be told, I love watching the Pixar films because I have learned so much about story structure, story elements, character, etc. simply by seeing them so many times and paying close attention. These films are designed for adults and kids to enjoy and you may not think there is much to learn from these animated features, but you'd be wrong. Lasseter has said that the first 18 months of working on Toy Story was spent laboring just on the script, that is, the story. The animation is awesome, but it's the story that hooks you, holds you, and rewards you at the end. And it is really, really hard to craft a good one.

There are many lessons from Pixar's prowess at storytelling that we can take and apply to other forms of storytelling, including the 21st-century short-form presentation format. At the end of this documentary on the making of Toy Story, filmed before the film was released, there is a great line by Pixar's now legendary John Lasseter:

"Everyone's going to talk about the fact that this is the very first computer animated feature film, but the computers are just tools [the computers] didn't create this picture, it's the people who created the picture." — John Lasseter

In spite of Pixar's amazing technology, there has always been a focus on the people creating the picture, the people in the audience, and above all, the commitment to the story and the story process.

Steve Jobs on Pixar, Hollywood, and Story
This is a great, short clip of Steve talking with Wall Street Journal columnists Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg back in 2007. In the clip Jobs tells how the typical live action film will shoot between 10- to one 100-times more footage than will actually appear in the film. After shooting, the film is assembled in editing, which leaves most of what was shot on the cutting room floor. But animation is much too expensive to create a film in this way. Because animation is so expensive you have to edit the film before you actually make it, Jobs explains. This is where storyboarding comes in. The story team has sketches of each scene which follow the progression of the script. A film could have thousands of these.


"Basically we build our movie before we make it out of these story sketches, and we video them, put scratch music and scratch voices so that we can watch our movie. And invariably what you think is going to work crashes and burns when you see it in the reels." The key says Jobs is improving on what you see in the reels. "You iterate on these reels thousands of times, and only when it works in the reels do you then go animate it and actually produce [the movie]."

"In Hollywood one of the most popular sayings is 'The story is King' — but it turns out it really isn't. Because when push comes to shove and the movie is in production and there is a lot of mouths to feed and they're waiting for stuff to make and the story is not working, almost everybody says 'well, we just have to make the movie.'' — Steve Jobs

Jobs talks about how Pixar had avoided having to go ahead and finish a movie that was not working. Pixar has a story crisis on every movie they make, says Jobs. When the story is not working, Jobs says, "we stop, we stop and we fix the story. Because John Lasseter really instilled a culture of story, story, story. Even though Pixar is the most technologically advanced studio in the world, John has a saying which has really stuck: No amount of technology will turn a bad story into a good story. That's one of the reasons why we have been so fortunate is that we get to look at our stories before we really make them and perfect them in reels, and then go make them."

Putting the story first is one of those things, Jobs said, that's easy to say but hard to do. "Everybody has to make their choice. You find out what people really care about when you are in a tough situation and the meter's running.Then you find out how important they think the story is."

In this short clip from 2009, John Lasseter talks about the importance of storyboarding and creating story reels to see if the story is working or not before starting production on a scene. "We will never let a sequence of a movie go into production until the story reel is working fantastically." If a story reel is working well then Lasseter says it gets a hundred times better once it's animated. "But if a story reel is not working, if the sequence is not working, it will never be improved by all this animation." This is a lesson for all storytellers. It is not about your visuals, and certainly not about the software tools you used to make those visuals. Visuals matter. Visuals are important. But no amount of stunning visualization is going to save a story with a bad design or a presentation that is poorly thought out.

Activity for talking about good (and bad) presentations


This semester I'm teaching three classes on presentation for undergraduates at my university in Japan. On the second day, I have students share with the class what they think are the elements of a good presentation and what they think are the kinds of things that make for a bad or ineffective presentation. Students may still be quite young, but they have sat through years of classes in school and lectures in college, sat through orientation meetings, and they have seen many kinds of presentations online such as TED talks over the years, so students actually do have quite a bit of experience with various kinds of presentations.

I use a slide like this or just write something similiar on the whiteboard. "Think about the best and the worst presentations you have ever seen. What's the difference? What made the good ones good and the bad ones bad from your point of view? What are the elements of a good presentation, including visuals (if any), preparation, delivery, etc. What was happening during the presentations that you identified as 'bad'?"

For the activity I ask students to break up into groups of 4-5 to share their ideas—based on their experience—on what makes for a good presentation and what makes for a bad presentation. I give them about 20 minutes. One person in each group keeps notes using a t-chart with "Good" on one side and "Bad" on the other. Before this we discuss a bit on what we mean by "Good." A good or effective presentation, from the point of few of the audience, being one where the audience was engaged and learned something, but also was motivated, or inspired, etc. in addition to being informed. After students have discussed their ideas and they have a "good/bad" list, they then put that info on the walls around the room, edit as they like, and then finally share their ideas with the rest of the class.


There is no right or wrong answer for the exercise I tell them. The point is to share their ideas based on their real-life experience and to get a conversation started, a discussion that will last the entire semester. The point of the exercise, besides being a good icebreaker, is to introduce many of the concepts we will be talking about for the next 15 weeks, but in this case the ideas are coming from them, not just from "a professor" at the front of the room. "You know this stuff all ready" I tell them, but there is a difference between knowing it and having the skills—and eventually the courage—to actually do it. The students identify many classic elements of a good presentation of talk. Below is a list of some of the more common elements identified by the students. This is a rough assembly of the items that students, numbering more than 100 in total came up with. Each element is quite commonsensical, perhaps, but common sense is not common practice. We'll spend the reset of the semester learning the principles, techniques, and practices of 21st-century presentation.

Elements of a "Good" & "Bad" presentation
Here is a list that a group of about one hundred young Japanese college students came up with this week.


• Start with interesting hook
• Big Voice (good projection)
• Smile, friendly, natural
• Passion, excited by topic
• Conversational tone
• Points are clear
• Use of humor, emotion
• Use of great visuals
• Use of video/movie segments
• Simple design, delivery
• Has a clear main point
• Confident body language
• Use of interesting examples
• Uses personal stories
• Clear pronunciation
• Gets audience participation
• Speaker asks questions
• Q&A, discussion time
• Feels like a journey
• Lots of photos/visuals
• Good time management
• Clear conclusion
• Has surprises, unexpected bits
• Makes audience think
• Is entertaining, fun
• Has new or "rare" info
• Variety of content
• Statistics *with* context
• Explains why not just what
• Makes the abstract tangible
• Changes pace periodically
• Uses original content
• Shows "the big picture"
• Not just lists of info
• Presenter is "authentic"
• Presenter is having fun

• Rambling, boring, slow start
• Small, weak voice
• Reading a script
• Reading text on slides
• Lots of text on slide
• No eye contact
• Looks at paper all the time
• No gestures
• Seems not confident
• Looks bored/disinterested
• Too long/too short
• Too complicated, confusing
• No attempt to simplify
• Material only memorized
• Ugly, amateur design of visuals
• No clear point
• No examples
• No stories
• Faces away from audience
• Repeats a point too often
• No audience participation
• Monotone, monopacing
• Seems unprepared
• Talks too fast
• No body movement
• Data overly complicated
• Charts are irrelevant
• Charts impossible to see
• Using jargon
• Speaks down to audience
• "Showing off" by using jargon
• Presenter not motivated
• Talk contains nothing new
• Speaking sounds memorized
• No flow, just many "points"
• Does not inspire or motivate

Students listing their ideas on the whiteboard. Then we have a class discussion on what they think are the most important elements and why. A chance to share the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly based on their own experience.

"The moment defines the creative expression."

A presentation is a moment in time. I have long referenced jazz and my own experience with jazz as having a great parallel to the act of a live talk or a presentation on the center stage. One thing that a live talk and a musical performance have in common—especially improvisational music—is that neither event is ever the same twice. They may be similar, they may cover similar ground, but they are never exactly the same. The message—the real meaning—is in the moment, in that interaction between audience and performer (or presenter). In this interview with London Real, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson relates Miles Davis's idea that you can not do again what you just did.

Tyson: The talk is my interaction with your live audience.
Below is the transcript from Dr. Tyson's riff on the importance of spontaneity and being in the moment.

"When you create—and it's on he spot and it's live—it's something that's never been created before even if the notes are the same on the page. The moment defines the creative expression. I feel that way when I give talks. When I give a talk, there are hosts of that event who will say: 'Oh, could you send your talk in advance?' No. The talk is the talk I give at that time, in that moment, to that audience. There is no 'talk in advance.' If I could send a talk in advance, I would do that and I would stay home. The talk is my interaction with your live audience. That's the talk." (emphasis mine.)

When I heard Dr. Tyson speak to the absurdity of "sending your talk ahead of time" in this interview, I practically fell out of my chair. I have been saying the same thing for more years than I can remember. It's just common sense. And yet it's refreshing to hear it from such great speaker and respected communicator of science as Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yes, dear conference organizers, please stop asking people to send their presentations in advance.

Related links

"Slideuments" and the catch-22 for conference speakers
Advice for conference presenters
Advice on giving technical presentations

H/T @brainslides

Danny Hillis on his friendship with Richard Feynman (TEDxCaltech)

In this 7-minute video below, Danny Hillis shares two wonderful short stories about the legendary physicist Richard Feynman. Hillis is a well known engineer, scientist, and inventor who, in his younger years, was lucky enough to spend a good deal of time with Feynman. There are many ways Hillis could have used his time to talk about the amazing Richard Feynman, but he chose to simply tell two short stories from his personal experience. And it was a very good idea to do so.

A good story does not have to be slick or polished or augmented with amazing visuals. Often a good story just needs to be authentic, from the heart, and told in the spirit of contribution. That is, a story well told is a gift to the audience, it is designed for the audience. What they do with it is up to them, but it is created and told for them. Once we tell the story the ownership is no longer ours. But if it is created and told in the spirit of an offering for them and not merely as an exercise of egotism for us, then it just may make an impact and have lasting resonance. The example by Hillis above is simple and seemingly unremarkable, perhaps. But I think it works very well, and he leaves us with at least two good, memorable takeaways, pieces of wisdom from Richard Feynman himself.

Richard Feynman: "The Great Explainer"

Even if Richard Feynman had not been a great communicator, he'd still be famous today for the incredible contributions he made to physics. The fact is, however, Feynman was indeed a great communicator as well as a Nobel-Prize winning physicist. Who knew the two could go together? Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and advocate of the public understanding of science, says in his "ASU Origins Project: Storytelling Of Science" talk that Feynman's abilities as a communicator inspired him to want to be a scientist. "What was amazing about Feynman was that he conveyed his excitement and his interest and the integrity of science." For Feynman "science was an adventure," Krauss says. "Everything in life [for Feynman] was an adventure. Learning—just the pleasure of finding things out." Feynman's passion for learning and for teaching physics was infectious, says Krauss.

While researching Feynman's lectures, I stumbled on to a fantastic YouTube channel called SciShow. One of their videos is a 10-minute presentation called Richard Feynman, The Great Explainer, part of their Great Minds series of presentations. I like the simple, quirky, visual way they present the story of Feynman here. Watch it below.

The communication of science
There are many great scientists, and there are many people who are skilled at explaining things, even complicated, technical phenomena. Unfortunately, being a great scientist and being a great explainer often are thought to be mutually exclusive. Your own experience may suggest that remarkable communicators of science are very rare, but I wonder how much of this is merely an example of confirmation bias. The narrative of the day, after all, is that men and women of science are not skilled communicators, nor should they be. But this is a myth and sometimes even a lazy excuse for bad teaching and dull, lifeless explanations. Not all great scientists need to be remarkable teachers or inspiring, engaging communicators of science. But certainly a scientist who is charged with also teaching others must necessarily be a good teacher.

On learning the joy of finding things out
Much of his visual and clear approach to explaining things, says Feynman, he learned as a small child from his father. "Everything we would read we would translate, as best we could, to some reality. So that I learned to do that—everything that I would read I would try to figure out what it really means, what it's really saying." Translating abstract ideas into concrete realities that one can see is a simple, natural, and highly engaging way of learning and also of explaining even difficult to comprehend ideas.


As a father of two very small children myself, I adore this clip above of Feynman recalling lessons he learned about learning—or the joy of finding things out, as Feynman calls it—from his father. Feynman says his father knew the difference between knowing the name of something and really knowing something. "That's the way I was educated by my father, with those kind of examples and discussions. No pressure. Just lovely, interesting discussions." I'll take a child who is deeply curious and intrinsically motivated to pursue the joy of finding things out rather than one who is supremely obedient, and deeply motivated by pressure and extrinsic rewards. Unfortunately schools—even some elementary schools—are designed for the most part to nurture the latter.

Richard Feynman on the Scientific Method (in 1 minute)

There is not a device invented that can measure the joy I have in watching a Richard Feynman lecture. The man was not only a brilliant, Nobel Prize winning scientist, he was a great teacher and communicator of science as well. In this lecture by physicist Brian Cox—in this case speaking to school children for an event at Manchester University—I noticed that Cox played a one-minute clip (14:45 mark) from a Richard Feynman lecture given in the 1960s. Cox set up the clip by saying that it was one of the best definitions of science, or the scientific method, that he'd ever heard. Clear and simple and told in less than a minute. Watch below.

"If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong...."
Here is a transcript from the clip:

"In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s really true. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature, or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

A bit more on the scientific method (in 10 minutes)
Below is the same clip with an additional nine minutes where Feynman explains, among other things, that guessing is not unscientific. "It is not unscientific to take a guess, although many people who are not in science believe that it is."

Feynman was a great communicator in part because he continually gave examples or told personal stories to illustrate his message. My favorite one here is his telling of his response to a person he met who believed that UFO sightings were real and evidence of extraterrestrial life visiting earth. "So I said I don't believe in flying saucers. My antagonist says 'Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove it's impossible?' I said no, I can't prove it's impossible. It's just very unlikely!" Feynman goes on to say that it is scientific to say what is more likely and what is less likely. Feynman summed up his reply to the man who believed in flying saucers like this:

"It is much more likely that the reports on flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence, rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence. It's just more likely, that's all. And it's a good guess. We always try to guess the most likely explanation, keeping in the back of our mind that if it doesn't work, then we must discuss the other possibilities."

Loads of Feynman lectures on video.