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We humans

When words and pictures work together

May 27, 2014 /

Presentations are tricky beasts. That is, giving a really good one is much, much harder than it looks. Here at TED we think about this a lot, working with speakers to help them give the best talk possible. Irritatingly, the most important lesson of all is that there is no formula for success. What works for one person would make another look like a goofball. Sometimes, visuals are just as important as words, helping to clarify and edify; other times, they get totally in the way.

Sure, there are some hard and fast rules that all speakers should always abide by (don’t even think about reading out text from a slide, and beware the siren call of bells and whistles in Powerpoint or Prezi). But in general, speakers have to do the hard work of figuring out what they want to say and what they want a viewer to grasp, and then decide how to bring the two together in the most compelling manner.

A good example of words and pictures working well together comes with Jon Mooallem’s TED Talk, The strange story of the teddy bear, and what it reveals about our relationship to animals, in which he runs through the history of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Mooallem’s message is a sobering one — that the human imagination has become an ecological force and that the stories we tell about wild animals have real consequences on those creatures’ chances of survival. But he chose to make his case via a lyrical romp through history, beginning with the 1902 story of President Roosevelt sparing the life of a black bear and prompting a plush toy craze and then going from there. And he backed up his case with the use of gorgeous drawings by the San Francisco-based illustrator, Wendy Macnaughton. As he spins his yarn, the drawings quietly appear behind him, adding a different style of humor and whimsy to a talk already filled with both. They don’t intrude on the experience of listening to the story, but they sure do embellish it. Added bonus, the images are lovely to look at out of context too. Enjoy.

All images copyright Wendy Macnaughton.