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March 2016

A most inspiring TED Talk: Dr. Hugh Herr

Recently, while researching the issue of generative design, I came across a short presentation on bionics by Bionics designer and MIT Professor Dr. Hugh Herr. The 8-minute talk was part of a keynote for Autodesk University 2015 on topics related to augmented cognition, generative design, additive manufacturing, etc. The things that people are able to do now with advanced CAD and other digital tools is remarkable. But when Dr. Herr took the stage to show a genuine, real-world example of human-robot collaboration, I was blown away by what I saw. When his talk was finished, I thought this was just the kind of thing that should be featured on TED. Sure enough, Dr. Herr had already spoken on the subject at TED in 2014. Watch the talk below or on Youtube.

Inspiring words
Dr. Herr's journey began in 1982 when both of his legs were amputated due to tissue damage from frostbite he incurred during a mountain-climbing accident. Doctors thought he'd never climb again. Herr aimed to prove them wrong. "At that time, I didn't view my body as broken," he says. "I reasoned that a human being can never be 'broken.' Technology is broken. Technology is inadequate. This simple but powerful idea was a call to arms, to advance technology for the elimination of my own disability, and ultimately, the disability of others." Herr shared his own story to make a larger point:

"Every person should have the right to live life without disability if they so choose -- the right to live life without severe depression; the right to see a loved one, in the case of seeing-impaired; or the right to walk or to dance, in the case of limb paralysis or limb amputation. As a society, we can achieve these human rights, if we accept the proposition that humans are not disabled. A person can never be broken. Our built environment, our technologies are broken and disabled. We the people need not accept our limitations, but can transcend disability through technological innovation. Indeed, through fundamental advances in bionics in this century, we will set the technological foundation for an enhanced human experience, and we will end disability."

This is such a great example of the power of the visual to amplify the narrative. If we think of story as the struggle to overcome an obstacle, we can see how this kind of application of technology really lends itself to storytelling. The technology behind the solution and all the information, facts, and data are obviously important. Correct information & data are crucial. But people remember most the stories they hear…and see. Therefore, we have an obligation to make certain those stories are authentic, honest, and true. Dr. Herr’s story has all of that. It’s not about being slick or perfect on stage, it’s much more important to be real and to show and tell your story from the heart while at the same time supporting the narrative with a logical framework. 

• Biomechatronics at MIT

• Dr. Hugh Herr's bio page at MIT

Human Imperfection & the Art of Making a Connection with the Audience


To be human is to be imperfect. Yes, we expect absolute perfection and precision when it comes to things like airplanes, automobiles, or the engineering behind the bridge we drive across everyday. And people naturally assume that the products they purchase will perform to at least the standard advertised. But with aspects of life that require a degree of human expressiveness, absolute perfection is not only impossible to produce, it usually would not lead to better results even if it were. Consider a musical performance, a form of human expression that has much in common with interpersonal communication, including presentation and public speaking. Today computers can generate music that sounds virtually indistinguishable from music created by actual musicians. Yet in study after study, when people are asked to choose between two versions of a song, they almost always choose the version played by human beings. But why? A 2013 New Yorker Magazine article exploring the mysteries of sound and music addresses this question. In this article, Adam Gopnik reports on the work of Daniel Levitin who found that people prefer listening to the sound of a human playing a musical piece—even though the human-created version had tiny errors—over that of a computer perfectly playing the same piece.

The New Yorker piece says that Daniel Levitin measures the imperfections by looking at Vibrato (not landing perfectly on the note) and Rubato (not keeping perfectly on the beat).

"Expressiveness is error. Just as, at a subliminal level, Choueiri could make music come alive in space by introducing tiny errors into the amplitude and timing of the XTC wave, Levitin could show that what really moves us in music is the vital sign of a human hand, in all its unsteady and broken grace. (Too much imperfection and it sounds like a madman playing; too little, and it sounds like a robot.) Ella singing Gershwin matters because Ella knows when to make the words warble, and Ellis Larkins knows when to make the keyboard sigh. The art is the perfected imperfection."

Perfect imperfections
We can see the attraction humans have to "expressiveness as error" in many art forms. In his classic work The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura discusses the affinity that the Tea masters had for asymmetry and irregularity as reflections of the natural world. Naturalness is essential, and imperfections are seen as important aspects of the natural world. Soetsu Yanagi, in his 1972 book The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, says the Tea masters found depth in the irregular and imperfect. But again, why? Yanagi suggests that the answer is related to the idea of freedom.

"Why should one reject the perfect in favour of the imperfect? The precise and the perfect carries no overtones, admits no freedom; the perfect is static and regulated, cold, and hard. We in our own human imperfections are repelled by the perfect, since everything is apparent from the start and there is no suggestion for the infinite. Beauty must have some room, must be associated with freedom. Freedom, indeed, is beauty. The love of the irregular is a sign of the basic quest for freedom."

The aim is neither to be perfect nor imperfect
In the realm of art, such as the art of Tea, beauty is not to be found in the perfect or the imperfect, Yanagi says. Instead beauty can be found "...where such distinctions have ceased to exist, where the imperfect is identified with the perfect. If we apply this to the art of a presentation we can say that an authentic, engaging delivery is one which is perfectly imperfect.

In a sense, people are not attracted to the music because it’s perfect, their attracted to it because it’s not. People are attracted to you not because you are perfect, but because you are not.

Dave Grohl's 2012 Grammy acceptance speech
Dave Grohl often speaks on the power of the imperfect human element in good music. His words ring true for musical performance, and they apply to other arts such as public speaking and presentation.

“To me this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do… It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about sounding absolutely correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [your heart] and what goes on in here [your head]." (Emphasis mine.)

Later Dave Grohl clarified things in a press release. He is not anti-digital, he says.

"The simple act of creating music is a beautiful gift that ALL human beings are blessed with. And the diversity of one musician’s personality to the next is what makes music so exciting and…..human. That’s exactly what I was referring to. The human element. That thing that happens when a song speeds up slightly, or a vocal goes a little sharp. That thing that makes people sound like PEOPLE. Somewhere along the line those things became 'bad' things, and with the great advances in digital recording technology over the years they became easily 'fixed.' The end result? I my humble opinion…..a lot of music that sounds perfect, but lacks personality. The one thing that makes music so exciting in the first place." (Emphasis mine.)

 "Sounds perfect, but lacks personality." This I think is what Soetsu Yanagi was referring to when discussing art. That "perfect sound" seems cold, hard, and impersonal. There is no room to move in the perfect, there is no freedom. I do not know exactly what it is that is attractive in the irregular or the imperfect but it may have something to do with our natural attraction to freedom. "Freedom, indeed, is beauty," Yanagi said.


All this talk of imperfection is not to suggest that you wing it or that you take a cavalier approach to presentation delivery. Yes, we prepare well and we aim for perfection as best we can in the moment, knowing full well that real perfection is not attainable. But if we strive for that which we may call perfect, we may just be able to achieve excellence. Salvador Dalí apparently said "Don't be afraid of perfection. You'll never attain it.” We will not attain it, but by aspiring toward it we may just attain a level of excellence that is a worthy contribution to the audience before us. And knowing that perfection is not actually possible helps us to relax a bit, which in fact helps us to be in the moment and that much closer to something approaching "perfection."

On making mistakes
Usually when we talk of imperfections, naturalness, and engagement we are talking about tiny errors, imperfections that may not even be noticed by the audience. But sometimes bigger errors, when dealt with honestly and with good humor, can bring you closer to an audience as well. In the video clip below you can see the great Sir Paul McCartney forget chords at the beginning of a song he's played thousands of times before. I loved his way of dealing with it. When it's live, stuff happens. That's life. Relax, you are only human. If Sir Paul can make mistakes, you can too. Besides, people do not want your perfection, they yearn to see your humanity.

Interesting Reads
You will find that the lessons in these books go far beyond art and beauty.

Book_of_tea        Craftsman

Another fantastic read is  Brene Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. See her TED talk here. It's wonderful.

Presentation Zen workshops in Washington DC, March 21-22


Ideas on Stage
will hold more Presentation Zen Experience seminars, beginning in Washington DC, March 21-22. The first seminar was held last October in Paris and it was a big success. Participants loved it; the feedback was fantastic. The facilitator for these seminars is once again the incomparable Phil Waknell, co-founder of Ideas on Stage, the premier presentation design and training company in Europe. I will not attend these workshops personally, but the content is all designed by me in cooperation with Phil and his team of storytellers and designers at Ideas on Stage.

I have been impressed by the team at Ideas on Stage over the years and they do a great job facilitating the seminar. The content will cover (1) Preparation techniques of a live talk, (2) How to design simple and effective visuals, and (3) Tips and tricks for delivering your talk in a way that is natural yet dynamic.

Phil Waknell facilitating the Presentation Zen Experience seminar in Paris.

Plan2  Plan1
Participants work on developing their presentations in analog style first.

The great thing about seminars like this is not just the content that you get, but it’s also about the relationships that you make while there for the day (or two). The seminar is interactive and there are opportunities to get to know the other participants who are coming from all over the world. Get more details and register here. If you know of someone who could use some presentation training, please pass this information along.

Future Presentation Zen seminars by Ideas on Stage

Washington DC: March 21-22
Paris: April 14-15
Barcelona: June 9-10
Germany: July (city, dates tba)
New York: September (dates tba)
Paris: October/November (dates tba)
London: December (dates tba)

Learn more about this cool seminar on the Ideas on Stage site.