Bill Gates at TED

In his talk at TED, Bill Gates released a jar full of mosquitoes, sending them out to feast on some of the world’s best & brightest blood. “Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” he said. “I brought some. Here, I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.” He then waited a few minutes before reassuring the crowd that the mosquitoes were malaria-free.

A bit mean, maybe, but at least he broke through to people’s emotions.

He also used a nice comparison: “There is more money put into baldness drugs than into malaria,” Gates quipped, triggering laughter. “Now, baldness is a terrible thing and rich men are afflicted. That is why that priority has been set.”

I’ll link to the video once it’s posted.

“We let polluted air speak for itself”

How do you convince people that air pollution is a problem? You let them see it for themselves. Check out this very smart outdoor campaign in Hong Kong. (Thanks to Choleena at Tantramar for the tip.)

On bathroom signage

One of my favorite coffee shops here in Raleigh is part of a strip mall, and the businesses all share a common bathroom. Recently, someone started locking the communal bathroom, and a sign was scotch-taped to the door. In that inimitable management-font-style, the sign read: “THE BATHROOMS HAVE BEEN LOCKED FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE.” 

Well, no. In most civilizations, it is considered more convenient to simply push open the door than to request a key from the overworked barrista. But no matter.

One day I asked one of the barristas what gives with the locked bathroom, and she said, “We had to lock it because a crazy homeless man was smearing his feces on the wall, and the janitor threatened to quit.”

OK, that gave me a dramatically more favorable attitude toward the lockup. And it made me wonder — isn’t there something to be said for the cold, hard, gross truth: “THE BATHROOMS HAVE BEEN LOCKED TO KEEP THE CRAZY, FECES-SMEARING HOMELESS GUY OUT. SO WE KNOW IT’S A HASSLE FOR YOU TO GET THE KEY, BUT JEEZ, THINK ABOUT THE JANITOR.”

Jokes aside, I do think there’s a communication moral buried in here. By keeping me at arm’s length from the real issue, the management allowed me to jump to false conclusions. (I assumed that the landlord was trying to keep non-paying customers from using the facilities, and I fumed about how petty that was.)

Wouldn’t our audience understand us better, and feel more empathy for us, if our instinct was to give them a glimpse of our reality rather than try to obscure it?

Daily Show statistics

The other night Jon Stewart mentioned that if you commit murder, you’ve got a 48% chance of going to jail. Versus if you’re an Illinois Governor, you’ve got a 50% chance. (4 out of the last 8 Governors have ended up in the clink.)

Beyond War: The audio version

In the book, we tell a story about a group called “Beyond War,” which tried to mobilize public opinion against the nuclear arms race. As part of their anti-nukes presentations, they’d do a demonstration that involved dropping BBs in a bucket. (See full passage below for context.) Now you can hear what it sounds like for yourself. (Thanks to Dan O’Day for the clip.)


The use of vivid details is one way to create internal credibility–to weave sources of credibility into the idea itself.  Another way is to use statistics.  Since grade school, we’ve been taught to support our arguments with statistical evidence.  But statistics tend to be eye-glazing.  How can we use them while still managing to engage the audience?

Geoff Ainscow and other leaders of the “Beyond War” movement in the 1980s, were determined to find a way to address the following paradox: When we see a child running with scissors, we wince.  We shout at them to stop.  Yet when we read in the newspaper about nuclear weapons—with the power to destroy millions of children—it only provokes, at best, a moment of dismay.

“Beyond War” was started by a group of citizens who were alarmed by the arms race of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  By then, the combined Soviet and American nuclear arsenals were sufficient to destroy the world multiple times.  The “Beyond War” participants went door-to-door in their neighborhoods, hoping to  galvanize a public outcry against the arms race.

They struggled with how to make credible their belief that the arms race was out of control.  How do you make clear to people the staggering destructive capability of the world’s nuclear stockpile?  It’s so intangible, so invisible.  And yet telling stories, or providing details, seems inadequate: To grapple with the nuclear arms race requires grappling with the scale of it.  Scale relies on numbers.

“Beyond War” would arrange “house parties”—a host family would invite over a group of friends and neighbors and invite a Beyond War representative to speak to them.  Ainscow recounts a simple demonstration that the group would use in its presentations.  Ainscow would carry a metal bucket to the talk.  At the appropriate point in the presentation, he’d take a BB out of his pocket and drop it in the empty bucket.  The BB would make a loud clatter as it ricocheted and settled.  He’d say, “This is the Hiroshima bomb.” He would spend a few minutes describing the devastation of the Hiroshima bomb, the miles of flattened buildings, the tens of thousands killed immediately, the larger number of people with burns or other longer term health problems.

Next, he’d drop 10 BBs into the bucket.  The clatter was louder and more chaotic.  “This is the firepower of the missiles on one U.S. or Soviet nuclear submarine.”

Finally, he’d ask the attendees to close their eyes.  He’d say, “This is the world’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons.”  Then, Ainscow would pour 5,000 BBs into the bucket (one for every nuclear warhead in the world).  The noise was startling, even terrifying.  He says, “The roar of the BBs went on and on.  Afterward there was always dead silence.”

This approach is an ingenious way to convey a statistic.  Let’s unpack it a bit.  First, ”Beyond War” had a core belief: “The public needs to wake up and do something about the arms race.”  Second, they determined what was unexpected about the message: Everyone knew that the world’s nuclear arsenal had grown since World War II, but no one realized the scale of the growth.  Third, they had a statistic to make their belief credible—i.e., that the world had 5,000 nuclear warheads, when a single one was enough to decimate a city.  But the problem was that the number 5,000 means very little to people.  The trick was to make this large number meaningful.

The final twist was the demonstration—the bucket and the BBs which added a sensory dimension to an otherwise abstract concept.  Furthermore, the demonstration was carefully chosen—BBs are weapons, and the sound of the BBs hitting the bucket was fittingly threatening.

Notice something that may be counter-intuitive: The statistic didn’t stick.  It couldn’t possibly stick.  No one who saw the demonstration would remember, a week later, that there were 5,000 nuclear warheads in the world.

What did stick was the sudden, visceral awareness of a huge danger—the massive scale-up from World War II’s limited atomic weaponry to the present worldwide arsenal.  It was irrelevant whether there were 4,135 nuclear warheads or 9,437.  The point was to hit people in the gut with the realization that this was a problem that was out of control.

This is the most important thing to remember about using statistics effectively.  Rarely will statistics be meaningful in and of themselves.  Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship.  It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than to remember the statistic.