Paul Conroy: The Faces of War: A Glimpse Through Photojournalism @ TEDxLisboa

Journalism—the practice of reporting on events, people and facts—is a powerful method of storytelling. The (unbiased) goal is to tell us what happened, where it happened, who was involved, and what they said. When it’s done well, there’s an opportunity for us to see the world around us through a slightly different lens.

Journalists often develop their stories in a secondhand fashion with information from outside sources. But the most impactful reporting happens on site, inside the action as it’s taking place. Not only is there a story about the events, people, and facts, there’s a second story unfolding at the same time. It’s the journalist’s personal story. A narrative which reveals what’s happening to them, as well as what they’re thinking and feeling.

This is especially true for photojournalists who work in conflict zones. A soldier engaged in battle will have some degree of agency, but anyone with a camera instead of a weapon does not possess that advantage.

As a curator and advisor for TEDxLisboa 2023, I had the honor of working with award-winning photojournalist Paul Conroy on his talk. While most speakers I work with are sitting in a safe place—at their office or home—Paul was on the front lines in Ukraine, in a city that was being bombarded by Russian forces.

Paul Conroy at TEDxLisboa 2023 Social Media

Whenever we spoke Paul’s face was lit only by the glow from his laptop screen.

“I can’t turn on any lights or the Russians will target the building I’m in.”

He took a short break from the front lines to give this talk, but he’s now back in Ukraine. His talk is not about the conflict he’s covering today—he’ll need to give that talk one day—but rather about his harrowing adventure while in Syria with Marie Colvin. Her passion for telling stories of warfare ended up costing her life. It was Paul’s honor to tell the world this story.

“So, once again, I’m back to shining lights in dark places, the haunts where despots and dictators like to operate. Once again, camera in hand, I’m back to peeling onions.

To get the full picture of Paul’s experience in Syria with Marie, I recommend reading his book, Under the Wire.

Under the Wire by Paul Conroy

The full story would take many, many hours to tell, but Paul masterfully crafted a narrative that spans less than 20 minutes, yet takes you on a journey to hell and back. He choose to reveal the story in ten steps, and he calls out each one along the way. Unusual for a TEDx Talk, but I found it to be an effective way of pacing the story.


One – Assignment

Home for me in 2012 was a 17th century cottage set in the Devon countryside. I’d been in Libya for a year covering the revolution with my dear colleague Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times. I’d met Marie in Syria in 2003 when we were both trying to break into Iraq illegally, and we’ve been best friends ever since then.

The piece of my Sunday afternoon was broken with a call from the Sunday Times picture desk. “Paul, we need you to go into Syria, meet Marie in Beirut,” said Andrew.

Trouble had been brewing in Syria since the start of the Arab Spring, but now Assad was shooting protesters in the streets. By midnight that night I was at Heathrow Airport, shoving 20,000 pounds down my boots, in my jacket. There was a limit of 10,000, and I just hadn’t read the paper.

So the next day I met up in Beirut with Marie and we started planning our trip into Homs. We knew the city was under siege. We’d been watching it streamed on the internet, and the journalists coming out were telling us it’s too much, it’s over for us. And Marie just laughed, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “It’s what we do.”

She’d once given a speech where she said we were there to bear witness, and she used the analogy that getting to the heart of any story was like peeling back the layers of an onion, and when you got to the core of the onion, that was the story, that was where you needed to be.

Two – Beirut, meeting the smugglers

We spent a few weeks in Beirut meeting up with representatives of the Free Syrian Army. They were the armed group opposing Assad, and they finally gave us a location and a time, and we had to meet up with a guy called ‘Beardy Man’, that was his name.

Two o’clock the next day in Starbucks we sat opposite Beardy Man and two other guys, and he has got a big beard, and he’s got his laptop out and he’s assessing us. By assessing, I mean he’s Googling us, reading Marie’s stories and looking at my pictures. And after a while he just leans back, gives a thumbs up, and goes, “You’re in.” We’d passed the Beardy Man test.

Three – The journey to the mountains

On a cold chilly morning in February the Free Syrian Army loaded us in to a rickety old van with other people, fare-paying passengers, and we began the drive north to Syria.

We were going in illegally. We had no visas. We’d both been banned from Syria years ago so it was hopeless. But our fixer, Lena, had been told by Lebanese intelligence in Beirut that any journalists found in the vicinity of Homs were to be executed, and their bodies were to be thrown onto the battlefield.

As we neared the mountains, a sense of doom kind of settled on both of us. We could hear explosions in the distance, and we knew too well that them explosions, the source of them explosions, were where we were headed, Syria.

Four – Crossing the border

We waited for hours in what was little more than a shepherd’s hut while the Free Syrian Army fed us big bowls of meat stew, which we sat there eating. Eventually at midnight they called us outside. “Stay close,” warned a shadowy figure, there are many soldiers.

So we spent the next hour tiptoeing through a deserted village, a minefield, around these army checkpoints, and all the time following the only visible sign of our guide, which was his white training shoes in the night. And as we skirted the army checkpoints, occasional shots rang out, but after an hour we were in Syria, we’d made it in.

Five – The road to Al Bueda

We travelled by car, van, motorbike, avoiding regime and Hezbollah checkpoints. It took about three days to travel 30 kilometers, as all the time the Syrian army hunted the press and the journalists with the same murderous intent. The regime were everywhere in Syria, there were no safe spaces.

Army vehicles patrolled the roads, and the checkpoints were random and often. Progress was painfully slow. We never undressed, we never took off our boots, and every night before we went to sleep we planned an escape route out into the olive groves.

Six – The tunnel from hell

In the middle of a cold wet field at midnight the FSA led us into a tunnel. It was actually a three foot high sewer drain, concrete, with no lights. There was very little air, and the heat build up was intense. The only way we could carry our kit was strapped to our chests, and because of the height of the tunnel we kind of had to walk bent double.

As we progressed down the tunnel we were passing people evacuating the wounded and the dying. This tunnel was a lifeline to Baba Amr, a small sunny neighborhood in Homs that was considered the beating heart of the revolution.

Everything came through this tunnel, some of it on the back of a motorcycle that burnt up precious oxygen for those on foot, and we carried on walking bent double for three miles. At the end of the tunnel they pulled us out into a warscape that was akin to one of Dante’s inner circles of hell.

As I looked around I could see the still smoldering skeletal remains of buildings, and it was all lit by the pale light of a full moon. We were driven at breakneck speed through a barrage of RPGs – that’s rocket propelled grenades – and heavy machine gun fire until we arrived drained and exhausted at the media centre.

The media centre was the source of all information coming out of Syria during the revolution. But the reality was, it was a three-story building. Inside there were twenty young Syrians, wrapped in blankets against the cold, all murmuring into Skype. The only light was the pale blue glow off their laptop screens.

Seven – The widow’s basement

While we were in Homs, we’d heard talk that there was a basement where all the women and the children who’d lost husbands and fathers were sheltered. It was one of the few shelters in Homs and it was known as The Widow’s Basement. The camera always affects people’s reactions when you pull one out, so I got Marie to go down first, and I sat at the top of the stairs with a long lens taking shots.

This picture captures exactly what Marie and I saw. This is the true face of the victims of war. This was our story. This was the core of the onion. Inside the basement one woman had given birth, but due to malnutrition she couldn’t breastfeed, so the baby was being fed on a mixture of sugar and water.

While Marie interviewed the tragic victims, I wandered round taking shots of the elderly, the children, and the dying. Wale our beloved translator, he heard of the death of one of his friends during one of Marie’s interviews, which was absolutely heartbreaking. But Marie shone. This is why we did what we did. These were the people who had the least control over their destiny in any war situation.

Eight – The field clinic

After the widow’s basement we ran to the field clinic. It was the run of death. Explosions ripped up the tarmac behind us as Assad’s gunners fired round after round of rocket and artillery fire. We arrived at the basement, ears ringing, nerves shredded, and they dragged us into the doorway.

We were greeted by Dr. Mohammed and a scene of absolute carnage. The dead and the dying filled up every gurney, every bed. The floor was awash with blood, and the medical staff dragged and stacked bodies anywhere they could find the space. They worked with first aid kits. There were no CT scanners or x-ray machines, just bandages and plasters of Paris. It was actually one of the worst places I’d been in any war zone.

Nine – Death and injury

On the 21st of February, both Marie and I agreed we weren’t going to get out alive, so we should do stories on BBC, CNN and Channel 4. Marie told the heartbreaking story of a young toddler who died of shrapnel wounds to the stomach, and the images went out to the world.

About midnight, not long after the interview, it was about midnight, there was a knock at the door, and I was like, “Who the hell is that?” We opened the door and there was three French journalists, Edith Bouvier, William Daniels and Remi Ochlik, and they’d just come in through the tunnel.

So the next morning, me and Marie woke up at 5am to go back to the field clinic. Before we left the building there were two almighty explosions, one 100 meters either side of the building and we waited 30 seconds, and then there were two more explosions, this time no more than 50 meters away.

I realized at that point in time what they were doing, they were bracketing, they were walking the shells in on the building. Thirty seconds later, the first shell hit the media centre. It destroyed the roof and the ceiling, and everything fell on top of us.

The second shell hit the back of the building where Marie and I had just been sleeping. That was destroyed. The third shell exploded somewhere in the building, and that filled the room with black acrid smoke and concrete dust. Seconds later, the fourth shell hit, killing Remi and Marie instantly.

I was still conscious, and I’d felt a pressure on my leg, so I leaned down to investigate, and as I touched my leg, my hand went through and came out the other side. And for a few moments I stood there wiggling my hand. I grabbed the artery inside to see if that was still intact. It was.

I grabbed the bone, that wasn’t broken, but I knew I had a few minutes to get a tourniquet on, otherwise I would bleed to death. So I grabbed the scarf from around my neck, wrapped it round, pulled it as tight as I could. But after a few minutes, I was still bleeding out.

I saw an ethernet cable in the rubble, so I grabbed that, wrapped that round, grabbed a piece of wood from the building, and pulled that as tight as I could. After about 20 minutes, the Free Syrian Army came, dragged me out of the rubble, and took me to the field clinic where Dr. Mohamed was stood there and he’s like, “Hello Paul, what’s wrong with you?”

And I’m going, “I’ve got a hole in my leg.” And he’s going, “Oh so you have.” So, Dr. Mohamed grabs a toothbrush and a bottle of iodine, and my leg is about that big, the hole, and he just pours iodine in with a toothbrush and spends 10 minutes scrubbing my leg.

And every time it nearly got clean, another shell had hit the building and concrete dust would fall in, so he’d have another go. And I was going, “Is that a toothbrush?” He’s going, “No, no, no, it’s a medical brush.” So eventually, he says, “We’ve run out of stitches.” And I was like, “Uh oh.” I said, “What are you going to use?”

He goes, “We’ve got this.” And he had an office staple gun. And I mean, he put about 40 staples into my leg, and there were no painkillers, so that was fun.

Ten – Born again

Myself, Edith, William, and Wale spent the next five days under heavy bombardment in an FSA safe house. It was the most intense artillery I’d ever known. Minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, they just bombed and hit that building. After six days, the FSA came in and said, “Paul, everything is gone.”

The water tanks on the roof had been hit, the food supplies had run out. And they said, “Whatever happens, we will take you out tonight.” They piled us into five different pickups, and throwing all caution to the wind, we just drove straight at the front line.

The Assad’s forces responded with mortars, rockets, sniper fire, and machine gun fire. And believe me, that was the trip from hell, we managed to get through. Miraculously, we made it to the tunnel, and they tied a rope around my waist and dropped me into this hole, and then they put me on the motorbike that we’d used to ferry supplies. So I thought, great, getting a lift out.

So we’re on the motorbike, going down the tunnel, and we get about three-quarters of the way down, and the motorbike stops, and I look up, and the tunnel is blocked. I thought, oh dear God, no. We got a torch, and you could just see at the very top of the blockage, they’d carved a mini tunnel about the size of someone’s head and shoulders through the blockage, and I was like, uh-oh.

So they picked me off the motorbike, and they pushed me up towards this hole. And there’s no lights. This is all in the dark. The only way I could do it was to put my hands in like that, and pull myself through this blockage.

I got about two meters in and stopped dead. What had happened is a piece of the steel reinforcing bar had gone in my leg and out the other side. And so now I was pinned inside a tunnel, in a tunnel. And they’re going, “Hurry up.”, and I’m going, “Okay.”

So I’m like that, and I know what I’ve got to do in my head. I know I have to rip that wound wide open and actually make it bigger in order to get it off this metal bar. So I gritted my teeth, bit my tongue, and spent five minutes making the hole in my leg a lot bigger.

Eventually, I did that, and I crawled another meter or so through this tunnel, in a tunnel, and I fell out the other side into a pool of mud, and I could feel the water swilling through my leg. “Whatever I say guys, put me on a piece of plastic.” And together, they carried me out. And finally, I escaped the tunnel.

For the next five days, I traveled across Syria on the back of a motorbike. They put some plasters on my leg. I don’t know what it was, but my leg was essentially hanging off. Drove across the tunnel on the back of a motorbike across Syria.

Occasionally, we stopped at farms that were friendly to the cause, but, you know, we never actually got to sleep. And against all odds, I made it to Beirut, where the British ambassador, Tom Fletcher, and his family welcomed me into their home.

Two days later, the Sunday Times arranged a medical evacuation. And I remember really clearly, I was at Beirut airport, we’d sneaked in with the SAS, and I’m on my wheelchair like that, and the British military attache walks over, and he’s like, he leans in, salutes, and in the poshest British voice, he goes, “I believe things got a little fruity out there, sir.” He was the master of British understatements.

So, I wrote this speech and rehearsed this speech in Kherson on the Ukrainian front line as the Russians were pulverizing the city. In fact, this is the first time, or second time, I’ve read it through without an explosion, so well done, Portugal. But Kherson exists in a state of terror. Where once there were 300,000 people, there are now 10,000 people, and the Russians are dismantling the city.

Every day, people crushed by the horror of war leave on the buses going out. But this is how we gather a story. It’s a long shot from grabbing a shot on a cell phone and posting it on Instagram.

We live in dangerous times where misinformation can directly affect events on the ground, and the need for objective, impartial journalism has never been greater. I think photojournalism still has the power to affect outcomes in war.

Why else would I be there?

But for a story to have true impact, you have to report from the scene, and not from a safe distance. So, once again, I’m back to shining lights in dark places, the haunts where despots and dictators like to operate. Once again, camera in hand, I’m back to peeling onions.

Thank you.

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Journey Jamison on The Moth Mainstage at the BAM Harvey Theater

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Journey Jamison, we are taken into a scene that few of have ever experienced, especially at the age of 15. But in a broader sense, I’ve heard many personal stories about how people reacted during an emergency, and you may have such a story to tell. The details that Journey provides bring audience members into her experience as the scene plays out.

But there’s also a larger story at play here, as Journey realizes how her training prepared her for that situation, and in turn, she was able to provide that same training to the victim’s family, thus bringing that wisdom full circle. Think about how story worthy experiences from your life contain such a circular narrative.


When I was nine years old, my best friend died. We’d spent the entire day together at an amusement park and she’d been struggling to breathe. So when we got home her dad tried to get her as much help as she could, but it just wasn’t enough, and at three o’clock that morning, she died of an asthma attack.

It was always really hard for me to deal with because I’d helped her with her asthma before, and I just felt like I could have done something. So five years later, when my mother and I found ourselves at a grassroot gunshot wound first aid training, I was immediately intrigued. Now, some of you might be thinking, “Gunshot wound first aid, what?”

But I’m from Chicago, and the lack of resources in our communities makes that training so much more important. We don’t have any trauma centers on the South Side of Chicago where I’m from. So I knew the importance of this training and I paid attention. I sunk my teeth in, I got trained two months later, and I’ve been doing workshops all over the city. Yeah, I know how to apply an occlusive dressing with a credit card, but I was still just a regular teenager.

And so, the following summer, I was coming home from my very first day. I come home, I turn on the TV, I crank up the AC, just like any other day, and then I hear it. Back to back gunshots that sounded like they were right next to me, just back to back, to back. And I just thought to myself, “Is this real? Is this serious?”

You hear all the time about gun violence in Chicago, but I’d never come face to face with it like that before. So I jump in gear. I know that I have this training that I can help people, but I know that the first step to being a first aid responder is knowing that the scene is safe and prioritizing my own safety.

So I glanced out the window, and I’m staring almost like I can see through the window, and I’m like, “What is going on?” I’m seeing people who are kind of running away from a gas station and towards my apartment complex. And I knew I had the tools to help. And I never imagined going outside and putting myself in danger to help anybody.

But it turns out that I didn’t have to, because seconds later, my back door flies open, and a young man, 19 years old, comes in holding his neck. It’s bleeding. And he’s just saying over and over again, “I’ve been shot, can you help me, can you help me?” And without hesitation I just said, “Yes.”

And from that moment, it was autopilot. I lay him down on the floor. I’m asking him questions about who he is. I asked him first, “Can I call 911 for you?” ‘Cause we emphasize that a lot in our first aid trainings. That you had to ask for consent for people because they’re their own person, bodily autonomy.

So I asked him, he says, “Yes.” I get on the phone with the operator. They’re giving me a bit of a hard time, but I put my feelings aside and prioritize the safety of the wounded. They say they’re sending a person on the way. I say thank you. I go back to Peta. I’m asking him more questions about who he is, I want him to feel safe.

He tells me where he’s from – the same apartment complex that I’m from – Oakwood Shores. He tells me he wants to go to college, that he’s 19, that he’s confused. And then I kind of realize I’m taking this all in. I’m 15 years old. I’m home alone with a man who’s been shot in the neck, and I’m giving him first aid. I should probably call my mom.

So I take out my phone, and I guess you can call it a mother’s intuition, because as soon as I am about the press call, my phone rings. It’s my mom.

She’s like, “Hi Journey.”

I’m like, “Hi mom.”

She’s like, “What’s up?”

I’m like, “Mom, you are not going to believe this. There’s a man, he’s in my house, fire, gunshot wound. He’s on the floor, I’m giving him first aid.”

She’s like, “Are you serious?”

I’m like, “No mom, why would I lie about this?”

She’s like, “Okay, okay, okay.”

And I can hear the car unlocking, and the car starting up, and I’m like, “Okay, she’s on her way, good.”

So for a second there, it’s just me and Peta, and I’m trying to examine exactly what is happening. He has two wounds. An entrance wound and an exit wound. The bullet went through his neck and up through his jaw. So I’m trying to apply pressure on both sides to get his blood to clot so the bleeding can slow down.

A few seconds later, my mom comes. And you would think that she might be like, kind of hysterical, kind of crazy, but she’s not, because she’d been through the training too. And for a few moments, it’s calm. Peta is calming down, his blood is starting to clot, the bleeding is not so drastic, and it’s calm. And then somehow, some way, people start to flood into my house. Bystanders, I guess, who had seen what was going on.

And my mom, she does a great job at keeping Peta’s privacy. Keeping questions away from him so that he’s not getting more stressed out – shout out to my mom, she’s in the audience – and so we’re just kind of juggling this thing, me and my mom, we’re doing this together, I’m taking care of Peta’s body, she’s taking care of Peta’s surroundings, and then the police come.

And I feel like it’s not a secret that black and brown people are not trusting of law enforcement, quite frankly, it just makes us anxious. And my mom, she didn’t want that kind of energy in our house, she was trying to persuade them like, “There’s no crime scene here. Can you wait outside? It’s very crammed in our apartment.”

But eventually she gave up her battle when they threatened to arrest her. And so eight police officers crowd into our tiny apartment, just watching me apply pressure to this young man. And after the police come which, after the police come, after my mom gets there, the fire department finally gets there. Not the ambulance, but the fire department. So that just gives you a glimpse of what healthcare is like in Chicago. The ambulances don’t really come to our communities that fast.

So the fireman gets there and he’s coming in to check Peta’s vitals and I have my hands over his neck, and he says, “You need to take your hand away.” And I was so overwhelmed and I just had all these feelings of doubt and I just reluctantly pulled my hand away, and just as I thought would, he starts bleeding again.

And I’m just looking at the guy like And then another fire man comes in and he says, “Actually she needs to put her hand back there, you’re doing a good job. And I looked at him and I said, “Okay, I knew it.”

So I am continuing to apply pressure and keep my hand on his wound while they’re taking his vitals and preparing him to get in the ambulance. So then, a few, maybe five or six minutes later, the ambulance does come. They take him on a gurney. They take him away. And luckily my mom was able to get some information from his mentor who was there, so we could follow up with him later.

So my mom, she rushes all these people out of our house, and I go outside, and it’s so chaotic. The ambulance is there, the police is there, my neighborhood is there, the news station is there, and they’re kind of looking to me like this “Shero,” and I’m kind of very overwhelmed, and so instead of fielding questions, I took my story with me, and my experience with me, and I come back inside. I closed the door, I wash my hands, I grab my cell phone and my keys, and me and my mom get in the car. I zone out and I’m just replaying in my mind what just happened.

Then I snap out of my trance, and the car stops, and we’re at the beach. And I’m just like, “Oh my God, what is going on?” And she looks at me and she’s like, “Come on,” and I’m like, “Okay,” and we proceed to join a group of women on the sand doing yoga. And my mom just looks at me in her tree position, and she goes, “Self care.” And I was like, “Okay,” and I was just so grateful, that I had a mom who emphasized that a lot when I was growing up, and that I had the opportunity to really process what just happened in my life.

So, that happened, and then I resumed my life as a normal teenager. I go to camp. Conflict resolution camp, by the way. But I go to camp. I go to camp in Maine. And then I come back, and I’m in the car with my mom and she’s like, “Hey, I got in touch with Peta’s family, and, you know, he thinks you saved his life.”

And I never thought about it like that. For me, I was just in the right place, at the right time, with the right information, and I did the right thing. But to him, I saved his life. So that’s what it was.

So few days later, I see him. I visited him and I said, “Hey, look I know it was really cool that I was able to help you, but I was trained to do that, and I was equipped with the right tools, so how cool would it be if you were equipped with the same tools, and you can help your mom, or your brother.

And he’s like, “That sounds pretty interesting.”

And I’m like, “So do you want me to like, I can set up a training. I can set up a workshop. I’ll come to you.”

He’s like, “Aight, bet.”

So about two or three months later, we were able to train his whole entire family of about like 25 people ranging from three years old to 60 years old. And we trained his whole family in his apartment, and it was the most empowering thing for me.

And maybe some of you are saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry, this young girl had to go through that.” But it’s not something I feel embarrassed about or sad about. It was the most changing thing that I’ve ever been through. And it’s shown me the circle of change. You know, you go to school, and you learn about stories, and you learn about how there’s a plot, and that plot is like a hill, it starts the beginning, and then the rising action, and the climax, the falling action, and then the resolution.

But change, instead of it being a hill, it’s like a circle. And me training his family was this entire experience coming full circle, because I started at a training just like that one. And so maybe he could do something like I did, or I could do more things, but it was so empowering for me as a 15 year old girl to have that kind of experience.

So it changed my life for the better, and it showed me that I can change the world if I wanted to. And I guess it just kind of made me feel like I didn’t have to be afraid anymore of where I’m from and my community. I didn’t have to fear walking outside because I was empowered with the tools that I had. Sorry guys. And I thought about it, and I hear all the time, “Children are the future.”

And I’ll tell you guys, I’m a child, I’m a teenager, and it’s super intimidating. You know it’s like 400 years of slavery, an eternity of sexism, it’s intense, and you guys are like, and you guys are like, “It’s you, it’s you,” and I’m like, “Oh my God,” but this experience showed me that I don’t have to be the future, because I can be right now.

Thank you.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

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Simon Anholt: Which country does the most good for the world? @ TEDSalon Berlin

I had the pleasure of attending a special TED event in 2014. TEDSalon Berlin was just a one day affair, yet it featured a number of compelling talks that served as examples of impactful stories on global issues. This post is an analysis of a talk given by Simon Anholt.

Watch Simon Anholt’s TED Talk. We all know that some countries are much more concerned with the fate of the entire world, but how can the level of a country’s goodness be measured? It seemed to be an impossible task to me, but Simon describes how it can be done, and it remains one of my favorite TED Talks.

Do you want to live in a powerful country, a rich country, a happy country, or a good country? Regardless of how you answer the question, the underlying point of this talk (in my opinion) is to encourage us to think differently about how we perceive countries around the world. Will your story shift people’s perceptions?


(my notes in red)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the world recently and how it’s changed over the last 20, 30, 40 years. Twenty or 30 years ago, if a chicken caught a cold and sneezed and died in a remote village in East Asia, it would have been a tragedy for the chicken and its closest relatives, but I don’t think there was much possibility of us fearing a global pandemic and the deaths of millions. Twenty or 30 years ago, if a bank in North America lent too much money to some people who couldn’t afford to pay it back and the bank went bust, that was bad for the lender and bad for the borrower, but we didn’t imagine it would bring the global economic system to its knees for nearly a decade.

This is globalization. This is the miracle that has enabled us to transship our bodies and our minds and our words and our pictures and our ideas and our teaching and our learning around the planet ever faster and ever cheaper. It’s brought a lot of bad stuff, like the stuff that I just described, but it’s also brought a lot of good stuff. A lot of us are not aware of the extraordinary successes of the Millennium Development Goals, several of which have achieved their targets long before the due date. That proves that this species of humanity is capable of achieving extraordinary progress if it really acts together and it really tries hard.

But if I had to put it in a nutshell these days, I sort of feel that globalization has taken us by surprise, and we’ve been slow to respond to it. If you look at the downside of globalization, it really does seem to be sometimes overwhelming. All of the grand challenges that we face today, like climate change and human rights and demographics and terrorism and pandemics and narco-trafficking and human slavery and species loss, I could go on, we’re not making an awful lot of progress against an awful lot of those challenges.

So in a nutshell, that’s the challenge that we all face today at this interesting point in history. That’s clearly what we’ve got to do next. We’ve somehow got to get our act together and we’ve got to figure out how to globalize the solutions better so that we don’t simply become a species which is the victim of the globalization of problems.

Setting the stage is an important element of any idea-driven story. If the intent of your idea is to make things better, your story needs to describe the current state of affairs with regards to your topic. In this talk, Simon spends two minutes framing the status quo around the notion of globalization. His take is that, while it has brought us many benefits, our global society has struggled to implement solutions to critical issues.

Can you identify a key element that your story revolves around? One that will serve as a launching point for the journey you’ll be taking your audience on?

Why are we so slow at achieving these advances? What’s the reason for it? Well, there are, of course, a number of reasons, but perhaps the primary reason is because we’re still organized as a species in the same way that we were organized 200 or 300 years ago. There’s one superpower left on the planet and that is the seven billion people, the seven billion of us who cause all these problems, the same seven billion, by the way, who will resolve them all. But how are those seven billion organized? They’re still organized in 200 or so nation-states, and the nations have governments that make rules and cause us to behave in certain ways.

And that’s a pretty efficient system, but the problem is that the way that those laws are made and the way those governments think is absolutely wrong for the solution of global problems, because it all looks inwards. The politicians that we elect and the politicians we don’t elect, on the whole, have minds that microscope. They don’t have minds that telescope. They look in. They pretend, they behave, as if they believed that every country was an island that existed quite happily, independently of all the others on its own little planet in its own little solar system.

This is the problem: countries competing against each other, countries fighting against each other. This week, as any week you care to look at, you’ll find people actually trying to kill each other from country to country, but even when that’s not going on, there’s competition between countries, each one trying to shaft the next. This is clearly not a good arrangement. We clearly need to change it. We clearly need to find ways of encouraging countries to start working together a little bit better. And why won’t they do that? Why is it that our leaders still persist in looking inwards?

Simon describes one aspect of how the political systems operate by using a visual metaphor – microscope vs. telescope. The audience easily understands the difference between focusing on a cell vs. seeing the entire universe. Do you need to provide detailed explanation to make your point clear, or is there a metaphor that can accomplish the same thing in a shorter span of time? Also note how he uses questions as a way of transitioning into the next section.

Well, the first and most obvious reason is because that’s what we ask them to do. That’s what we tell them to do. When we elect governments or when we tolerate unelected governments, we’re effectively telling them that what we want is for them to deliver us in our country a certain number of things. We want them to deliver prosperity, growth, competitiveness, transparency, justice and all of those things. So unless we start asking our governments to think outside a little bit, to consider the global problems that will finish us all if we don’t start considering them, then we can hardly blame them if what they carry on doing is looking inwards, if they still have minds that microscope rather than minds that telescope. That’s the first reason why things tend not to change.

The second reason is that these governments, just like all the rest of us, are cultural psychopaths. I don’t mean to be rude, but you know what a psychopath is. A psychopath is a person who, unfortunately for him or her, lacks the ability to really empathize with other human beings. When they look around, they don’t see other human beings with deep, rich, three-dimensional personal lives and aims and ambitions. What they see is cardboard cutouts, and it’s very sad and it’s very lonely, and it’s very rare, fortunately.

But actually, aren’t most of us not really so very good at empathy? Oh sure, we’re very good at empathy when it’s a question of dealing with people who kind of look like us and kind of walk and talk and eat and pray and wear like us, but when it comes to people who don’t do that, who don’t quite dress like us and don’t quite pray like us and don’t quite talk like us, do we not also have a tendency to see them ever so slightly as cardboard cutouts too? And this is a question we need to ask ourselves. I think constantly we have to monitor it. Are we and our politicians to a degree cultural psychopaths?

The third reason is hardly worth mentioning because it’s so silly, but there’s a belief amongst governments that the domestic agenda and the international agenda are incompatible and always will be. This is just nonsense. In my day job, I’m a policy adviser. I’ve spent the last 15 years or so advising governments around the world, and in all of that time I have never once seen a single domestic policy issue that could not be more imaginatively, effectively and rapidly resolved than by treating it as an international problem, looking at the international context, comparing what others have done, bringing in others, working externally instead of working internally.

Simon presents three examples as an answer to the question of why leaders still look inward. Knowing that a problem exists is different from understanding why that problem exists. What’s the narrative behind your problem? What points do you need to share with your audience so that they gain a basic understanding?

Since idea-driven stories need to come from a place of credibility – people are less likely to accept an idea if the person presenting it is not an expert on the subject – Simon also takes this opportunity to begin sharing the fact that he professionally studies this topic by stating, ‘I’ve spent the last 15 years or so advising governments around the world’.

And so you may say, well, given all of that, why then doesn’t it work? Why can we not make our politicians change? Why can’t we demand them? Well I, like a lot of us, spend a lot of time complaining about how hard it is to make people change, and I don’t think we should fuss about it. I think we should just accept that we are an inherently conservative species. We don’t like to change. It exists for very sensible evolutionary reasons. We probably wouldn’t still be here today if we weren’t so resistant to change.

It’s very simple: Many thousands of years ago, we discovered that if we carried on doing the same things, we wouldn’t die, because the things that we’ve done before by definition didn’t kill us, and therefore as long as we carry on doing them, we’ll be okay, and it’s very sensible not to do anything new, because it might kill you. But of course, there are exceptions to that. Otherwise, we’d never get anywhere. And one of the exceptions, the interesting exception, is when you can show to people that there might be some self-interest in them making that leap of faith and changing a little bit.

So I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 or 15 years trying to find out what could be that self-interest that would encourage not just politicians but also businesses and general populations, all of us, to start to think a little more outwardly, to think in a bigger picture, not always to look inwards, sometimes to look outwards. And this is where I discovered something quite important.

In 2005, I launched a study called the Nation Brands Index. What it is, it’s a very large-scale study that polls a very large sample of the world’s population, a sample that represents about 70 percent of the planet’s population, and I started asking them a series of questions about how they perceive other countries.

And the Nation Brands Index over the years has grown to be a very, very large database. It’s about 200 billion data points tracking what ordinary people think about other countries and why. Why did I do this? Well, because the governments that I advise are very, very keen on knowing how they are regarded. They’ve known, partly because I’ve encouraged them to realize it, that countries depend enormously on their reputations in order to survive and prosper in the world.

If a country has a great, positive image, like Germany has or Sweden or Switzerland, everything is easy and everything is cheap. You get more tourists. You get more investors. You sell your products more expensively. If, on the other hand, you have a country with a very weak or a very negative image, everything is difficult and everything is expensive. So governments care desperately about the image of their country, because it makes a direct difference to how much money they can make, and that’s what they’ve promised their populations they’re going to deliver.

Simon expands on his expertise in detail by describing a study that he launched, and he also introduces the concept of brand – how people perceive things – in the context of a country’s reputation. As you’ll see, he uses ‘brand’ as a bridge to ‘good’.

So a couple of years ago, I thought I would take some time out and speak to that gigantic database and ask it, why do some people prefer one country more than another? And the answer that the database gave me completely staggered me. It was 6.8. I haven’t got time to explain in detail. Basically what it told me was the kinds of countries we prefer are good countries.

We don’t admire countries primarily because they’re rich, because they’re powerful, because they’re successful, because they’re modern, because they’re technologically advanced. We primarily admire countries that are good. What do we mean by good? We mean countries that seem to contribute something to the world in which we live, countries that actually make the world safer or better or richer or fairer. Those are the countries we like.

This is a discovery of significant importance – you see where I’m going – because it squares the circle. I can now say, and often do, to any government, in order to do well, you need to do good. If you want to sell more products, if you want to get more investment, if you want to become more competitive, then you need to start behaving, because that’s why people will respect you and do business with you, and therefore, the more you collaborate, the more competitive you become.

Now at the midpoint of his talk, Simon summarizes what his study found, that ‘in order to do well, you need to do good’. Ideas come from a combination of personal experience and scientific research. It doesn’t necessarily mean the idea is correct, but in a well told story there exists a logical progression which leads to the idea’s formation in the mind of the speaker.

This is quite an important discovery, and as soon as I discovered this, I felt another index coming on. I swear that as I get older, my ideas become simpler and more and more childish. This one is called the Good Country Index, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. It measures, or at least it tries to measure, exactly how much each country on Earth contributes not to its own population but to the rest of humanity.

Bizarrely, nobody had ever thought of measuring this before. So my colleague Dr. Robert Govers and I have spent the best part of the last two years, with the help of a large number of very serious and clever people, cramming together all the reliable data in the world we could find about what countries give to the world.

And you’re waiting for me to tell you which one comes top. And I’m going to tell you, but first of all I want to tell you precisely what I mean when I say a good country. I do not mean morally good. When I say that Country X is the goodest country on Earth, and I mean goodest, I don’t mean best. Best is something different.

When you’re talking about a good country, you can be good, gooder and goodest. It’s not the same thing as good, better and best. This is a country which simply gives more to humanity than any other country. I don’t talk about how they behave at home because that’s measured elsewhere. And the winner is Ireland.

According to the data here, no country on Earth, per head of population, per dollar of GDP, contributes more to the world that we live in than Ireland. What does this mean? This means that as we go to sleep at night, all of us in the last 15 seconds before we drift off to sleep, our final thought should be, godammit, I’m glad that Ireland exists.

And that, in the depths of a very severe economic recession, I think that there’s a really important lesson there, that if you can remember your international obligations whilst you are trying to rebuild your own economy, that’s really something. Finland ranks pretty much the same. The only reason why it’s below Ireland is because its lowest score is lower than Ireland’s lowest score.

About three quarters of the way into his talk Simon reveals the primary point of the story – the Good Country Index – and the results of his study. But results and reasons are different, so he then examines his findings in greater detail. For your story, what did you learn along the way? What did you conclude from your research?

Now the other thing you’ll notice about the top 10 there is, of course, they’re all, apart from New Zealand, Western European nations. They’re also all rich. This depressed me, because one of the things that I did not want to discover with this index is that it’s purely the province of rich countries to help poor countries. This is not what it’s all about.

And indeed, if you look further down the list, I don’t have the slide here, you will see something that made me very happy indeed, that Kenya is in the top 30, and that demonstrates one very, very important thing. This is not about money. This is about attitude. This is about culture. This is about a government and a people that care about the rest of the world and have the imagination and the courage to think outwards instead of only thinking selfishly.

I’m going to whip through the other slides just so you can see some of the lower-lying countries. There’s Germany at 13th, the U.S. comes 21st, Mexico comes 66th, and then we have some of the big developing countries, like Russia at 95th, China at 107th. Countries like China and Russia and India, which is down in the same part of the index, well, in some ways, it’s not surprising. They’ve spent a great deal of time over the last decades building their own economy, building their own society and their own polity, but it is to be hoped that the second phase of their growth will be somewhat more outward-looking than the first phase has been so far.

And then you can break down each country in terms of the actual datasets that build into it. I’ll allow you to do that. From midnight tonight it’s going to be on, and you can look at the country. You can look right down to the level of the individual datasets.

Simon’s slides are very busy, with more data than can be comprehended in such a short talk, but showing the different categories and rankings provides its own sense of credibility to the conclusions being drawn. Simply showing a list of countries with overall rank would be much easier for the audience to read, but far less effective in making his point.

Striking a balance between presenting too much and too little data is always a challenge when deciding how much to share. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. It’s something you have to determine for yourself. If you have the time, rehearse with different versions of your slides before making a final commitment.

Now that’s the Good Country Index. What’s it there for? Well, it’s there really because I want to try to introduce this word, or reintroduce this word, into the discourse. I’ve had enough hearing about competitive countries. I’ve had enough hearing about prosperous, wealthy, fast-growing countries. I’ve even had enough hearing about happy countries because in the end that’s still selfish. That’s still about us, and if we carry on thinking about us, we are in deep, deep trouble.

I think we all know what it is that we want to hear about. We want to hear about good countries, and so I want to ask you all a favor. I’m not asking a lot. It’s something that you might find easy to do and you might even find enjoyable and even helpful to do, and that’s simply to start using the word “good” in this context. When you think about your own country, when you think about other people’s countries, when you think about companies, when you talk about the world that we live in today, start using that word in the way that I’ve talked about this evening.

Not good, the opposite of bad, because that’s an argument that never finishes. Good, the opposite of selfish, good being a country that thinks about all of us. That’s what I would like you to do, and I’d like you to use it as a stick with which to beat your politicians. When you elect them, when you reelect them, when you vote for them, when you listen to what they’re offering you, use that word, “good,” and ask yourself, “Is that what a good country would do?”

And if the answer is no, be very suspicious. Ask yourself, is that the behavior of my country? Do I want to come from a country where the government, in my name, is doing things like that? Or do I, on the other hand, prefer the idea of walking around the world with my head held high thinking, “Yeah, I’m proud to come from a good country”? And everybody will welcome you. And everybody in the last 15 seconds before they drift off to sleep at night will say, “Gosh, I’m glad that person’s country exists.”

Ultimately, that, I think, is what will make the change. That word, “good,” and the number 6.8 and the discovery that’s behind it have changed my life. I think they can change your life, and I think we can use it to change the way that our politicians and our companies behave, and in doing so, we can change the world. I’ve started thinking very differently about my own country since I’ve been thinking about these things. I used to think that I wanted to live in a rich country, and then I started thinking I wanted to live in a happy country, but I began to realize, it’s not enough. I don’t want to live in a rich country. I don’t want to live in a fast-growing or competitive country. I want to live in a good country, and I so, so hope that you do too.

Simon’s conclusion includes a call to action for the audience – to think differently about their own country from the standpoint of doing good – ‘good being a country that thinks about all of us’. What shift in perception do you want your audience to adopt after hearing your story? When they leave the theatre will they think of the world (and their place in it) differently?

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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Hans and Ola Rosling: How not to be ignorant about the world @ TEDSalon Berlin

I had the pleasure of attending a special TED event in 2014. TEDSalon Berlin was just a one day affair, yet it featured a number of compelling talks that served as examples of impactful stories on global issues. This post is an analysis of a talk given by Hans RoslingOla Rosling on how knowledge, or a lack of knowledge, shapes our view of the world. For a better future, we need to understand today.

Watch Hans and Ola Rosling’s TED Talk. The numbers that are being presented represent serious topics, yet the focus in not on digging into the trends, but to highlight how our perceptions about these trends are so often wrong. It’s a fun talk to watch, which doesn’t often happen with statistics, yet inspires us to use caution before jumping to conclusions.


(my notes in red)

Hans Rosling: I’m going to ask you three multiple choice questions. Use this device. Use this device to answer. The first question is, how did the number of deaths per year from natural disaster, how did that change during the last century? Did it more than double, did it remain about the same in the world as a whole, or did it decrease to less than half? Please answer A, B or C. I see lots of answers. This is much faster than I do it at universities. They are so slow. They keep thinking, thinking, thinking. Oh, very, very good.

Quite different from the reserved style of most TED speakers, Hans brings the energy level up immediately with the tone, volume, and passion in his voice. The digital interaction with the audience also differentiates this talk from a simple narration and makes the audience a character within the narration.

And we go to the next question. So how long did women 30 years old in the world go to school: seven years, five years or three years? A, B or C? Please answer.

And we go to the next question. In the last 20 years, how did the percentage of people in the world who live in extreme poverty change? Extreme poverty — not having enough food for the day. Did it almost double, did it remain more or less the same, or did it halve? A, B or C?

Now, answers. You see, deaths from natural disasters in the world, you can see it from this graph here, from 1900 to 2000. In 1900, there was about half a million people who died every year from natural disasters: floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruption, whatever, droughts. And then, how did that change?

Gapminder asked the public in Sweden. This is how they answered. The Swedish public answered like this: Fifty percent thought it had doubled, 38 percent said it’s more or less the same, 12 said it had halved.

This is the best data from the disaster researchers, and it goes up and down, and it goes to the Second World War, and after that it starts to fall and it keeps falling and it’s down to much less than half. The world has been much, much more capable as the decades go by to protect people from this, you know. So only 12 percent of the Swedes know this.

Hans uses a chart to map the answers for the first question based on a research study, then displays the actual answer as a line which proceeds across the chart along the time axis. It’s a powerful way to overlay a statistical answer in conjunction with a prediction of the answer.

So I went to the zoo and I asked the chimps. The chimps don’t watch the evening news, so the chimps, they choose by random, so the Swedes answer worse than random. Now how did you do? That’s you. You were beaten by the chimps. But it was close. You were three times better than the Swedes, but that’s not enough. You shouldn’t compare yourself to Swedes. You must have higher ambitions in the world.

Adding humor to a statistical story block isn’t the easiest thing to do, but Hans is a natural comedian alongside his talent at following the science. Can you insert a lighthearted comedic moment while sharing data? Some topics don’t lend themselves to humor, so be mindful.

Let’s look at the next answer here: women in school. Here, you can see men went eight years. How long did women go to school? Well, we asked the Swedes like this, and that gives you a hint, doesn’t it? The right answer is probably the one the fewest Swedes picked, isn’t it? Let’s see, let’s see. Here we come. Yes, yes, yes, women have almost caught up. This is the U.S. public. And this is you. Here you come. Ooh. Well, congratulations, you’re twice as good as the Swedes, but you don’t need me —

So how come? I think it’s like this, that everyone is aware that there are countries and there are areas where girls have great difficulties. They are stopped when they go to school, and it’s disgusting. But in the majority of the world, where most people in the world live, most countries, girls today go to school as long as boys, more or less. That doesn’t mean that gender equity is achieved, not at all. They still are confined to terrible, terrible limitations, but schooling is there in the world today. Now, we miss the majority. When you answer, you answer according to the worst places, and there you are right, but you miss the majority.

Beyond the numbers themselves, and how different groups faired when predicting, Hans offers an insight as to why so many people got the answer wrong. We tend to be more aware of where problems exist, not successes. He doesn’t mention it, but in my experience that’s because the news focuses on problems over successes. I’d like to see that topic analyzed in parallel, but that would make for a much longer talk.

What about poverty? Well, it’s very clear that poverty here was almost halved, and in U.S., when we asked the public, only five percent got it right. And you? Ah, you almost made it to the chimps. That little, just a few of you! There must be preconceived ideas, you know. And many in the rich countries, they think that oh, we can never end extreme poverty. Of course they think so, because they don’t even know what has happened. The first thing to think about the future is to know about the present.

This last line is a fundamental perspective that Hans is bringing into this talk – that we need to know about the present and understand what is really going on now in order to consider what the future might look like.

These questions were a few of the first ones in the pilot phase of the Ignorance Project in Gapminder Foundation that we run, and it was started, this project, last year by my boss, and also my son, Ola Rosling. He’s cofounder and director, and he wanted, Ola told me we have to be more systematic when we fight devastating ignorance. So already the pilots reveal this, that so many in the public score worse than random, so we have to think about preconceived ideas, and one of the main preconceived ideas is about world income distribution.

Look here. This is how it was in 1975. It’s the number of people on each income, from one dollar a day. See, there was one hump here, around one dollar a day, and then there was one hump here somewhere between 10 and 100 dollars. The world was two groups. It was a camel world, like a camel with two humps, the poor ones and the rich ones, and there were fewer in between.

Continuing with his fun approach to numbers, Hans uses a prop to not only point at the graph behind him, but to elicit a laugh from the audience. Props are an old trick, but you don’t see them so often anymore, so it’s a refreshing change.

But look how this has changed: As I go forward, what has changed, the world population has grown, and the humps start to merge. The lower humps merged with the upper hump, and the camel dies and we have a dromedary world with one hump only. The percent in poverty has decreased. Still it’s appalling that so many remain in extreme poverty. We still have this group, almost a billion, over there, but that can be ended now.

The challenge we have now is to get away from that, understand where the majority is, and that is very clearly shown in this question. We asked, what is the percentage of the world’s one-year-old children who have got those basic vaccines against measles and other things that we have had for many years: 20, 50 or 80 percent?

Now, this is what the U.S. public and the Swedish answered. Look at the Swedish result: you know what the right answer is. Who the heck is a professor of global health in that country? Well, it’s me. It’s me. It’s very difficult, this. It’s very difficult.

However, Ola’s approach to really measure what we know made headlines, and CNN published these results on their web and they had the questions there, millions answered, and I think there were about 2,000 comments, and this was one of the comments. “I bet no member of the media passed the test,” he said.

So Ola told me, “Take these devices. You are invited to media conferences. Give it to them and measure what the media know.” And ladies and gentlemen, for the first time, the informal results from a conference with U.S. media. And then, lately, from the European Union media. You see, the problem is not that people don’t read and listen to the media. The problem is that the media doesn’t know themselves. What shall we do about this, Ola? Do we have any ideas?

Ola Rosling: Yes, I have an idea, but first, I’m so sorry that you were beaten by the chimps. Fortunately, I will be able to comfort you by showing why it was not your fault, actually. Then, I will equip you with some tricks for beating the chimps in the future. That’s basically what I will do.

But first, let’s look at why are we so ignorant, and it all starts in this place. It’s Hudiksvall. It’s a city in northern Sweden. It’s a neighborhood where I grew up, and it’s a neighborhood with a large problem. Actually, it has exactly the same problem which existed in all the neighborhoods where you grew up as well. It was not representative. Okay? It gave me a very biased view of how life is on this planet. So this is the first piece of the ignorance puzzle. We have a personal bias.

The talk pivots in two respects at this point. Hans give the floor to his son, Ola, and it shifts from demonstrating that the public and media has a lack of awareness when it comes to important statistics, to explaining why that is and what can be done about it.

It’s pretty much at the half way mark, which is common in a problem / solution style talk. It’s important that your audience have a solid understanding of your topic before you present your idea for creating better outcomes in the future.

We have all different experiences from communities and people we meet, and on top of this, we start school, and we add the next problem. Well, I like schools, but teachers tend to teach outdated worldviews, because they learned something when they went to school, and now they describe this world to the students without any bad intentions, and those books, of course, that are printed are outdated in a world that changes. And there is really no practice to keep the teaching material up to date. So that’s what we are focusing on. So we have these outdated facts added on top of our personal bias.

What happens next is news, okay? An excellent journalist knows how to pick the story that will make headlines, and people will read it because it’s sensational. Unusual events are more interesting, no? And they are exaggerated, and especially things we’re afraid of. A shark attack on a Swedish person will get headlines for weeks in Sweden. So these three skewed sources of information were really hard to get away from.

Having presented the reasons for our general lack of knowledge, Ola uses a slide to help focus the audience’s mind on those three topics – Personal bias, Outdated facts, and News bias. The subject is far more complex than this, but for a talk under 20 minutes, it’s important to direct your narrative to the most important ideas. See if you can do that in three or less.

They kind of bombard us and equip our mind with a lot of strange ideas, and on top of it we put the very thing that makes us humans, our human intuition. It was good in evolution. It helped us generalize and jump to conclusions very, very fast. It helped us exaggerate what we were afraid of, and we seek causality where there is none, and we then get an illusion of confidence where we believe that we are the best car drivers, above the average. Everybody answered that question, “Yeah, I drive cars better.”

Okay, this was good evolutionarily, but now when it comes to the worldview, it is the exact reason why it’s upside down. The trends that are increasing are instead falling, and the other way around, and in this case, the chimps use our intuition against us, and it becomes our weakness instead of our strength. It was supposed to be our strength, wasn’t it?

So how do we solve such problems? First, we need to measure it, and then we need to cure it. So by measuring it we can understand what is the pattern of ignorance. We started the pilot last year, and now we’re pretty sure that we will encounter a lot of ignorance across the whole world, and the idea is really to scale it up to all domains or dimensions of global development, such as climate, endangered species, human rights, gender equality, energy, finance.

All different sectors have facts, and there are organizations trying to spread awareness about these facts. So I’ve started actually contacting some of them, like WWF and Amnesty International and UNICEF, and asking them, what are your favorite facts which you think the public doesn’t know?

Okay, I gather those facts. Imagine a long list with, say, 250 facts. And then we poll the public and see where they score worst. So we get a shorter list with the terrible results, like some few examples from Hans, and we have no problem finding these kinds of terrible results. Okay, this little shortlist, what are we going to do with it?

Well, we turn it into a knowledge certificate, a global knowledge certificate, which you can use, if you’re a large organization, a school, a university, or maybe a news agency, to certify yourself as globally knowledgeable. Basically meaning, we don’t hire people who score like chimpanzees. Of course you shouldn’t. So maybe 10 years from now, if this project succeeds, you will be sitting in an interview having to fill out this crazy global knowledge.

Part one of the solution is to create a knowledge certificate…

So now we come to the practical tricks. How are you going to succeed? There is, of course, one way, which is to sit down late nights and learn all the facts by heart by reading all these reports. That will never happen, actually. Not even Hans thinks that’s going to happen. People don’t have that time. People like shortcuts, and here are the shortcuts. We need to turn our intuition into strength again. We need to be able to generalize. So now I’m going to show you some tricks where the misconceptions are turned around into rules of thumb.

Part two of the solution is how to achieve that knowledge…

Let’s start with the first misconception. This is very widespread. Everything is getting worse. You heard it. You thought it yourself. The other way to think is, most things improve. So you’re sitting with a question in front of you and you’re unsure. You should guess “improve.” Okay? Don’t go for the worse. That will help you score better on our tests. That was the first one.

There are rich and poor and the gap is increasing. It’s a terrible inequality. Yeah, it’s an unequal world, but when you look at the data, it’s one hump. Okay? If you feel unsure, go for “the most people are in the middle.” That’s going to help you get the answer right.

Now, the next preconceived idea is first countries and people need to be very, very rich to get the social development like girls in school and be ready for natural disasters. No, no, no. That’s wrong. Look: that huge hump in the middle already have girls in school. So if you are unsure, go for the “the majority already have this,” like electricity and girls in school, these kinds of things. They’re only rules of thumb, so of course they don’t apply to everything, but this is how you can generalize.

Let’s look at the last one. If something, yes, this is a good one, sharks are dangerous. No — well, yes, but they are not so important in the global statistics, that is what I’m saying. I actually, I’m very afraid of sharks. So as soon as I see a question about things I’m afraid of, which might be earthquakes, other religions, maybe I’m afraid of terrorists or sharks, anything that makes me feel, assume you’re going to exaggerate the problem. That’s a rule of thumb. Of course there are dangerous things that are also great. Sharks kill very, very few. That’s how you should think.

With these four rules of thumb, you could probably answer better than the chimps, because the chimps cannot do this. They cannot generalize these kinds of rules. And hopefully we can turn your world around and we’re going to beat the chimps. Okay? That’s a systematic approach.

Ola provides four methods of improving your odds when it comes to guessing trend lines, but are you convinced they will work? I’m not speculating either way. I’m simply asking the question because if you’re creating a problem / solution, idea-driven narrative, what will matter most is whether the audience buys into your idea.

Now the question, is this important? Yeah, it’s important to understand poverty, extreme poverty and how to fight it, and how to bring girls in school. When we realize that actually it’s succeeding, we can understand it. But is it important for everyone else who cares about the rich end of this scale? I would say yes, extremely important, for the same reason. If you have a fact-based worldview of today, you might have a chance to understand what’s coming next in the future.

We’re going back to these two humps in 1975. That’s when I was born, and I selected the West. That’s the current EU countries and North America. Let’s now see how the rest and the West compares in terms of how rich you are. These are the people who can afford to fly abroad with an airplane for a vacation. In 1975, only 30 percent of them lived outside EU and North America. But this has changed, okay?

So first, let’s look at the change up till today, 2014. Today it’s 50/50. The Western domination is over, as of today. That’s nice. So what’s going to happen next? Do you see the big hump? Did you see how it moved? I did a little experiment. I went to the IMF, International Monetary Fund, website. They have a forecast for the next five years of GDP per capita. So I can use that to go five years into the future, assuming the income inequality of each country is the same.

I did that, but I went even further. I used those five years for the next 20 years with the same speed, just as an experiment what might actually happen. Let’s move into the future. In 2020, it’s 57 percent in the rest. In 2025, 63 percent. 2030, 68.

And in 2035, the West is outnumbered in the rich consumer market. These are just projections of GDP per capita into the future. Seventy-three percent of the rich consumers are going to live outside North America and Europe. So yes, I think it’s a good idea for a company to use this certificate to make sure to make fact-based decisions in the future.

It gets a bit heavy with the rapid fire numbers towards the end, and while I come away with the impression that, once again, my assumptions were wrong, I’m not sure that I come away with the feeling that the certificate is a good idea. That’s largely due to the fact that the certificate itself was not fully explained.

One of the challenges that you’ll deal with in presenting an idea with impact is getting the audience to understand both the problem and solution in a short period of time. In this case, my view is that accomplishing that task would need twice the amount of time.

This is where rehearsing in front of other people becomes extremely valuable. Without telling your audience what your talk is about, just present it, then ask them what they thought the talk was about and ask for their opinion as to whether your talk shifted their perception. If people are unclear at the end, another editing cycle is called for.

Thank you very much.

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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Just Another (Storytelling) Day

It’s January 1st, 2021. In one sense it’s just another day, with another sunrise, and another sunset. But our embrace of the Gregorian calendar has a way of altering our perception of time, and we, therefore, perceive ourselves as having exited one year (past) while entering another (future) at the stroke of midnight. Never mind that there are 24 time zones, and so, two dozen strokes to mark the occasion. Time, like story, is never a simple contemplation.

This “out with the old, in with the new” mindset belies the fact that nothing has actually changed. The scourge of human trafficking and climate change, religious fundamentalism, radicalized racism, pandemic passivism, and sociopathic narcissism still ravage humanity and the planet. Millions strive to change this narrative, but these are very stubborn stories.

But if midnight serves as a reset button, a way to recalibrate, to turn the page and begin writing a new narrative, then it can be a redeeming process. As the year 2020 was coming to a close I spent a few days around Christmas with my family in Sweden and thought a lot about the impending stroke of midnight that would occur after my return to Portugal.

Morning View Outside Stockholm December 2020

The extended dark mornings reminded me of the dark reality humanity was dealing with. Having endured nearly four years of the worst American president in history. A man who has publicly turned his back on 7.8 billion people – yes, even his most loyal supporters – condemning the earth to decades of environmental catastrophe. Adding to the darkness, a pandemic that was long ago predicted, and yet criminally ignored, ravaged country after country. By the time midnight arrived on December 31st over 83 million would be infected, resulting in over 1.8 million coronavirus deaths.

Yet there were lights shining within the darkness, represented by stories that I had heard throughout the year. Stories from friends, family, and many strangers. Stories of loss and disappointment, of dreams that were put on hold, or cancelled altogether. Lives that had shifted from confidence to unnerving uncertainty. Yet each story contained the seed of a different future. One that appreciated the connectedness of humanity, one that cast a light on the illusion of separateness. Was darkness serving a higher purpose?

This consideration of how dark times shape us was on my mind when an email arrived from the amazing poet Silvi Alcivar, offering an insight into the nature, and the benefit, of embracing that which has always existed in our world – darkness.

“and i keep thinking about how all the darkness of these days is really showing us where there is light, who holds it, what we have to offer of our own, and how the darkness seems to have a necessary place too. the moon knows this. and the stars. and the roots wintering in earth. and the creatures no one has ever seen who live in depths of ocean humans will never touch. and the dark itself.” ~Silvi Alcivar

I studied my fellow passengers as they boarded the return flight to Lisbon. Everyone was wearing a mask, which on the one hand was reassuring, but masks hide the emotions that play a vital role in telling our in-the-moment story. I wondered why they were there, what their reason was for ignoring – as I had done – the advice of medical experts to stay home over the holidays. What did the season mean to them? How had their year been, and what stories would they create in 2021? Truth told, each of us lives within our own mystery.

And despite the safe practices required by the airline, the reality was that we were taking a risk vs staying at home. But at the same time we were choosing life. We had decided to include others as characters in our story, creating a richer narrative. That’s not a defense of the decisions we had made, just a raw explanation, and it posed a difficult question:

If we find ourselves in the midst of darkness,
how do we choose to live life?

How will you choose to live life on January 1st, after the imagined stroke of midnight sounds and we put 2020 behind us? Will you frame the new year as a new start, or a new chapter, or maybe just another day of storytelling in your exceptional, yet mysterious life?Wheat Stalk Close Up Stockholm 2020

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