Unleash the Hans Rösling in You

by Pierre Morsa

If you ever talked with me about my favorite TEDx talks, then I am sure I mentioned the late Hans Rösling, one of my all-time favorite TED speakers. On paper, he didn’t really start with an advantage; he spoke English with a strong foreign accent, and his key topic was statistics and demographics, something most of us associate with good sleep, not with great presentations.

Yet, Hans’ enthusiasm and passion on stage, combined with his unique way to use numbers to tell meaningful stories, meant that his presentations were always a high point of any TED conference.

However, few people know that everyone can use the same tools as Hans Rösling for free. They are available on the gapminder.org website, and all you need to do to use them in a presentation is to give proper attribution. For example, I recently used gapminder.org to create a map of the world showing how the population living in cities doubled in the last forty years. Saying a number is one thing, but being able to see that number as a clear animated infographic is much more efficient.

Gapminder.org is going to give you the initial material, the starting point: the data and the animated infographics. But Hans’ killer skill apart from other statisticians is how he used data to tell meaningful stories.

Hans’ secret was that he didn’t talk about numbers, he used number to illustrate the stories he told.

Take for example his fantastic talk about the evolution of India and China. He is not showing historical data about China and India (and the rest of the world). What he actually does is tell the story of how key historical events and the march towards sovereignty of these countries affected their development. Check in particular how he ironically talks about China’s great leap forward with central planning, and you actually see a huge drop in life expectancy.

Among Hans’ other skills: setting up the context to make sure that people have the necessary information to understand his story. He takes time to explain the historical context, and takes great care to explain the meaning of each element of his graph: each axis, the bubbles, the year, etc.

Hans is so popular that TED has a list of his best talks on their website. If you work for a large organization such as the World Bank, the AFD or the OECD, I highly recommend that you steal some of Hans’ magic.

Hans Rösling

Image : CC BY 2.0, Pierre Omidyar, Wikipedia