Samantha Nutt: The real harm of the global arms trade @ TED Talks Live

TED Talks Live were held at The Town Hall Theater in NYC, in November of 2015. I had the pleasure of attending all six nights to hear speakers present impactful Ideas Worth Spreading. This post is an analysis of a talk by Samantha Nutt that reveals the damage caused by global arms trade.

Creating a concise narrative about a global issue is difficult due to the fact that the problems and solutions are far reaching, affecting millions if not billions of people across multiple continents. In this case there is a contrast between the countries that are selling arms around the world, and the countries which are experiencing the consequences of those arms sales.

Watch Samantha’s TED Talk. If you’re are developing an impactful story about a far reaching social issue, note how she frames the problem and solution. The credibility comes from the fact that Samantha has lived in the middle of the violence. You can find additional information on her website: War Child USA.


(my notes in red)
Some of you may have noticed that my last name is Nutt. And if you did, you are forgiven for wondering how a Nutt managed to end up in a war zone. I actually was offered, right out of medical school, and accepted a volunteer contract to work with UNICEF in war-torn Somalia, that was worth one dollar. And, you see, I had to be paid this dollar in the event that the UN needed to issue an evacuation order, so that I would be covered. I was, after all, heading into one of the world’s most dangerous places. And by now, some of you may be asking yourselves, and I just want to reassure you, that I did get half the money up front.

A common way to begin a story about an important social topic is for the speaker to provide critical background which will set the stage for what’s to come. Samantha tells the audience that 1) she had just graduated from medical school, 2) she accepted a contract with UNICEF, and 3) she was heading to war-torn Somalia. Though it’s serious topic, she takes the opportunity to wrap it in a bit of humor.

But you see, this is how, with 50 cents in my pocket, I ended up in Baidoa, Somalia. Journalists called it the “city of death.” And they called it the city of death because 300,000 people had lost their lives there — 300,000 people, mostly as a result of war-related famine and disease.

This statistics story block states that 300,000 people had lost their lives in the city of Baidoa, Somalia. That’s a startling number for any city, but at the time of this talk the population of Baidoa was around 800,000. Would the impact be different if that second number had been mentioned? That’s something to consider whenever you’re quoting a statistic – quote it alone, next to another number for comparison, or with a range of numbers to illustrate a trend.

I was part of a team that was tasked with trying to figure out how best to respond to this humanitarian catastrophe. It was right on the heels of the Rwandan genocide, and aid money to the region was drying up. Many aid organizations, unfortunately, had been forced to close their doors. And so the question that I was asked to specifically help answer, which is one that aid workers ask themselves in war zones the world over, is: What the hell do we do now? You know, the security environment in Somalia at that moment in time — and nothing has really changed too much — can best be described as “Mad Max” by way of “A Clockwork Orange.”

She paints an overall picture of a dire situation – humanitarian catastrophe, aid money drying up, lack of security – then shifts to a specific experience in the next story block. That’s a common storytelling technique. Think about films you’ve seen that start with a wide shot of a scene, then zoom in to a tighter shot that’s personal and action oriented.

Instead of simply saying the security in Somalia was chaotic, she uses an analogy, comparing the state of security to a pair of chaotic and dysfunctional movies. Samantha knows that the audience in front of her is familiar with the style of these two movies, as they are well known in the Western world. But half the world may not get the reference. That’s not necessarily a bad decision, when to use an analogy is the storyteller’s choice, but I do recommend that storytellers consider their audience whenever they use analogies.

And I remember very distinctly a couple of days after my arrival, I went up to a feeding clinic. There were dozens of women who were standing in line, and they were clutching their infants very close. About 20 minutes into this conversation I was having with this one young woman, I leaned forward and tried to put my finger in the palm of her baby’s hand. And when I did this, I discovered that her baby was already in rigor. She was stiff, and her little, lifeless hand was curled into itself. She had died hours before of malnutrition and dehydration.

I later learned that as her baby was dying, this young woman had been held for two days by some teenage boys who were armed with Kalashnikov rifles, and they were trying to shake her down for more money, money she very clearly did not have. And this is a scene that I have confronted in war zones the world over; places where kids, some as young as eight — they are this big — and those kids, they have never been to school. But they have fought and they have killed with automatic rifles.

From 300,000, a large number that is hard to fully grasp, Samantha tells the story of one woman and her baby. She then explains why the baby died and brings the topic of weapons into the narrative. Note her use of a simple hand gesture to signify the height of an eight year old. The audience knows that eight year olds are shorter than adults, but seeing her hand next to her body provides a visual reinforcement that she’s talking about kids. Is there a point in your story where a hand gesture can add emphasis?

Is this just the way the world is? Some will you tell you that war is unavoidably human. After all, it is as old as existence itself. We say never again, and yet it happens again and again and again. But I will tell you that I have seen the absolute worst of what we as human beings are capable of doing to one another, and yet I still believe a different outcome is possible. Do you want to know why? Because over 20 years of doing this work, going in and out of war zones around the world, I have come to understand that there are aspects of this problem that we, all of us, as people occupying this shared space, that we can change — not through force or coercion or invasion, but by simply looking at all of the options available to us and choosing the ones that favor peace at the expense of war, instead of war at the expense of peace.

Samantha now shifts the focus outward again, this time to include the entire world. The issue she’s addressing extends far beyond Somalia. She’s been to ‘war zones around the world’, so we have a sense of her credibility, her knowledge of the crisis. It’s at this point she mentions the fact that there are things each of us can do to address the problem. We’re engaged with the story in a new way. We’re not just learning about an important issue, we have been invited to be part of the solution.

How so? Well, I want you to consider this: there are at least 800 million small arms and light weapons in circulation in the world today. The vast majority of civilians, like that young baby, who are dying in war zones around the world, are dying at the hands of various armed groups who rely on a near-infinite supply of cheap, easy and efficient weapons to rape, threaten, intimidate and brutalize those civilians at every turn. How cheap? Well, in some parts of the world, you can buy an AK-47 for as little as 10 dollars. In many places in which I have worked, it is easier to get access to an automatic rifle than it is to get access to clean drinking water.

And so now the important part: Can anything be done about this? To answer that question, let’s take a look at this map of the world. And now, let’s add in all of the countries that are currently at war, and the number of people who have either died or have been displaced as a result of that violence. It is a staggering number — more than 40 million people. But you will also notice something else about this map. You will notice that most of those countries are in the Global South. Now, let’s look at the countries that are the world’s top 20 exporters of small arms in the world. And what do we notice? Well, you see them in green. You will notice that those are mostly countries in the Global North, primarily Western countries. What does this tell us? This tells us that most of the people who are dying in war are living in poor countries, and yet most of the people who are profiting from war are living in rich countries — people like you and me.

Two statistics open this section of the narrative – 800 million small arms, and AK-47s going for as little as ten bucks. Frightening indeed. But to illustrate the next two numbers – 40 million people affected and the top 20 exporters of small arms – Samantha uses a visual aid to illustrate the point, and she takes the opportunity to boil the numbers down to the conclusion that rich countries are supplying arms to the poor countries where most of the people are dying. If you’re using numbers in your story, is there a way for you to bring those data points to a logical conclusion?

And then what if we go beyond small arms for a second. What if we look at all weapons in circulation in the world? Who does the biggest business? Well, roughly 80 percent of those weapons come from none other than the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany. It’s shocking, isn’t it?

A majority of people (in my opinion) will know that most of the worlds weapons come from a handful of countries, and a similar number may even know which countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council, but few have made the connection between the two. It’s not uncommon that people are aware of certain facts, but the interrelationship is not obvious to them. Revealing facts in a story can be impactful, but revealing correlations even more so.

Now, some of you might be saying at this moment in time, “Oh yeah, but OK, hang on a second there … Nutt.” Grade school was spectacular for me. It was, really, a wonderful experience.

When to inject a touch of humor? Sometimes in the middle of a serious dialogue. The key is to keep it brief, as you don’t want to completely break the flow of your narrative, and in this fashion, Samantha quickly returns to the subject at hand.

But you might be saying to yourselves, You know, all of these weapons in war zones — they’re not a cause, but an effect of the violence that plagues them each and every single day. You know, places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where they need these weapons to be able to maintain law and order, promote peace and security, to combat terror groups — and surely this is a good thing.

The opposite viewpoint story block is often used to address questions or different perspectives that may be on the minds of some audience members. Some speakers avoid going there, but in this case, Samantha puts in on the table. As you’re crafting your storyline ask yourself whether some audience members might be thinking, “But wait a minute…”

Let’s take a look at that assumption for just one moment, because you see there has been a boom in the small-arms trade since the start of the War on Terror. In fact, it is a business that has grown threefold over the past 15 years. And now let’s compare that to the number of people who have directly died in armed conflict around the world in that same period. What do you notice? Well, you notice that, in fact, that also goes up roughly three to fourfold. They basically go up and end at the same point.

Statistics related to different situations can be confusing to any of us. It can be hard to get a clear picture of what the speaker is saying, which is when a chart, such as the one that Samantha uses, can bring the correlation to light. But numbers and trends can be deceiving, and another level of explanation may be needed, which is what Samantha does next.

Now, we can have a circular argument here about whether this increase in fatalities is a response to the increase of small arms, or the other way around. But here’s what we should really take away from this. What we should take away from this is that this is a relationship worth scrutinizing, especially when you consider that small arms that were shipped to Iraq for use by the Iraqi Army, or to Syria for so-called moderate opposition fighters, that those arms, many of them, are now in the hands of ISIS; or when you consider that arms that were shipped to Libya are now actively drifting across the Sahel, and ending up with groups like Boko Haram and al Qaeda and other militant groups. And therein lies the problem. Because, you see, small arms anywhere are a menace everywhere, because their first stop is rarely their last.

Everyone know about second hand markets for many of products – cars, electronics, even clothes – but how many of us have given much thought about such sales channels when it comes to weapons? While the initial sale may be legal, the second or third may not be. Often tossed into the category of ‘unintended consequences’, is there an aspect of your story that is similar? A situation whereby the original intent is not how things turned out, or where the consequences ripple out.

Spending on war per person per year now amounts to about 249 dollars — 249 dollars per person, which is roughly 12 times what we spend on foreign aid, money that is used to educate and vaccinate children and combat malnutrition in the Global South. But we can shift that balance. How do we do this? Well, it is essentially a problem of both supply and demand, so we can tackle it from both sides.

Samantha previously stated that small arms trade had tripled in the past 15 years, but now she provides another way to view the issue. At first the statistic of $246 may not seem like a lot of money, but it becomes significant when we hear that it’s 12 times what is spent on foreign aid. When you quote a number, is there a way to provide the audience with another way to look at it, to see that number through a different lens?

On the supply side, we can push our governments to adopt international arms transparency mechanisms like the Arms Trade Treaty, which makes it so that rich countries have to be more accountable for where their arms are going and what their arms might be used for. Here in the United States, the largest arms-exporting country in the world by far, President Obama has rightly signed the Arms Trade Treaty, but none of it takes effect, it isn’t binding, until it is approved and ratified by the Senate. This is where we need to make our voices heard. You know, the curbing of small arms — it’s not going to solve the problem of war. Increased control mechanisms won’t solve that problem. But it’s an important step in the right direction. And it’s up to all of us who live in those rich countries to make change here.

Samantha presents a partial solution to the problem – the Arms Trade Treaty – and makes an explicit call to action – make our voices heard – in order for this solution to be implemented. Social issues always have a connection to legislation. It may be awaiting approval, or in some cases, laws already exist, but are not being enforced. Your story can raise awareness to such situations.

What about on the demand side? You know, there are generations around the world who are being lost to war. It is possible to disrupt that cycle of violence with investments in education, in strengthening the rule of law and in economic development, especially for women. I have personally seen just how incredibly powerful those kinds of efforts can be around the world.

Samantha states that it’s possible to disrupt the cycle of violence by way of education, rule of law and economic development, and that she’s personally seen how powerful these efforts can be, but she doesn’t provide an example to illustrate her point. It left me wanting to hear about at least one of her experiences. This is a common occurrence.

If you’re speaking out on a social issue, and are offering a solution, can you provide proof that your solution works? Something along the lines of, “Here’s a case where my idea was implemented, here are the positive results, and if we can replicate this solution into other locations or processes, more people will be helped.” This approach takes a hypothetical solution and makes it tangible. Something people can grasp.

But here’s the thing: they take time, which means for you as individuals, if you want to give, please, by all means do it. But know that how you give is just as important as how much you give. Regular contributions like monthly contributions are a far more effective way of giving, because they allow humanitarian organizations to properly plan and be invested over the long term, and to be present in the lives of families who have been affected by war, wars that many of us, frankly, all too quickly forget.

While the first call to action was political – ratifying a treaty – Samantha brings up a second option – making regular contributions to humanitarian organizations. The advice sounds logical, yet once again, I was wanting to hear an example of how donations of this type result in reducing the level of global arms trade or violence.

When I first got on that plane for Somalia as a young doctor, I had no idea what it means to live with war. But I can tell you that I know what it means now. And I know what it means to lie in bed in the pitch-black night and listen to that haunting “pop-pop-pop-pop-pop!” of automatic gunfire, and wonder with absolute dread how many minutes I have left until it will be right on top of me. I can tell you that it is a terrifying and agonizing fear, one that millions of people around the world are forced to confront each and every single day, especially children. Over the years of doing this work, unfortunately, war has killed far too many people close to me. And on at least a couple of occasions, war has very nearly killed me as well.

In circular fashion, Samantha takes us back to the beginning, when she became a volunteer after medical school, and didn’t know what it felt like to live in a war torn city. With emotional detail, she describes what she experienced, and felt, and the audience is there with her. The reason most speakers are on the stage talking about a social issue is that they’ve been in the middle of the problem and want to share their experience. Others experience the world through your eyes.

But I firmly believe, which is why I get up and do what I do every single day, that we can make different choices here. Because you see, war is ours, as human beings. We buy it, sell it, spread it and wage it. We are therefore not powerless to solve it. On the contrary, we are the only ones who can.

In a final call to action she brings everyone into the picture with the basic reality that ‘we’ are causing the problem, and only ‘we’ can solve it. This is true of all social issues. Society creates such problems – injustice, poverty, discrimination, climate change – and only society can create the needed solutions. If this is the kind of story that you’re working on, define the problem(s) and solution(s) clearly. There is an emotional side of the story, but also a logical side. Weaving them together is something Samantha does well.

Thank you very much, and I want to wish you the greatest success.

As you watch Samantha’s TED Talk, listen intently and think about what parts of the story worked for you, and whether there were any places where you wanted to know more, or you became confused. Review your own manuscript in similar fashion. And when you rehearse, ask those listening the same thing. How deep you go is always limited by time constraints, so choose your words wisely as you reveal as much information and emotion as possible.

[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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We were all humans until…

It had been awhile since this anonymous quote crossed my path, but I recently noticed it on a friend’s social timeline and realized it had achieved a newfound sense of resonance with me.

We were all humans until race disconnected us, religion separated us, politics divided us, and wealth classified us.

From a storytelling perspective it felt as though we had somehow stopped telling our story of connection, commonalty, a shared human heredity, and most importantly, a united future.

Hate and discrimination had somehow become acceptable, with divisiveness and rancor the norm. Religious travel bans, violence against people of color, and the continued verbal and physical abuse of women have defiled what America was striving to become – a land of open arms and caring hearts, a land that opted for hope over fear, that embraced love over hate.

“We are a nation not only of dreamers, but also of fixers. We have looked at our land and people, and said, time and time again, “This is not good enough; we can be better.” – Dan Rather, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism

Multi-Ethnic Hands in Peace

As I continue to work with a wide array of speakers, from universities, research institutes, major corporations, prison inmates, and special forces, I’m reminded that our stories have the power to heal all wounds, bridge all chasms, and unite all humans.

On a daily basis we have the choice to stand up and say, “This is not good enough; we can be better.” In doing so we can change this sadly fractured American narrative. But it requires our stories to be told, our voices to be heard, and our compassion to be felt.

June 2020 Update

It’s been a week since police killed George Floyd on May 25, 2020, adding his name to a lengthy list of victims that now includes: Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, Jeremy McDole, Jonathan Sanders, Ezell Ford, Andy Lopez, Akai Gurley, John Crawford III, Antonio Martin, Walter Scott, Jonny Gammage, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner.

The world grieves, families cry, people take to the streets in protest, while the president of the United States proclaims, “We have our military ready, willing and able, if they ever want to call our military. We can have troops on the ground very quickly.”

The answer? That’s the question on everyone’s mind. I hear various words mentioned – love, empathy, compassion, equality, justice. But words are not an answer. Someone says we need to embrace and celebrate our diversity. I agree, but how do we get from here to there?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Johnson at the White House on July 2, 1964. Though we should remember that Johnson’s signature came after a 54-day filibuster in the United States Senate. Equality was a struggle then, and remains so to this day, nearly 56 years later.

Learn more about the coaching process or
contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

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Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved