An Afternoon with Hans Rosling – Part 3

This is the third and final post about Hans Rosling’s presentation in Geneva, Switzerland which I had the pleasure of attending. The previous two posts can be found here and here. In this post, I share some additional reflections on Rosling’s 90-minute talk on global health trends. 

Rosling made the data meaningful

Rosling’s Gapminder technology is great at bringing data to life. But once the data had been displayed on the screen, Rosling would either use the computer mouse or walk over to the screen with a long stick and explain the axes, key subsets, trends, etc. He would also pose rhetorical questions about the data so that the audience could better understand its relevance.

Lesson: Make the data meaningful for the audience. Explain key aspects of a chart or graph and put things into context.

Rosling used props effectively

Hans Rosling’s presentation wasn’t just supported with fancy software to present data; Rosling also used a very common household item as an effective prop.

In the clip below, Rosling uses 10 rolls of toilet paper to explain his projections for population growth. The result is both humorous and effective.

Lesson: Simplicity is effective; simplicity works.

Rosling had a wonderful sense of humour

I wish that I had kept track of the number of laughs that Rosling got during his presentation. As interesting as it was, it was also filled with some great humour. I particularly appreciated Rosling’s self-deprecating humour.

For example, when talking about the success of the Gapminder software that has made his presentations so famous, Rosling acknowledged that the software was developed by his son. He then said that in Sweden (where he is from) they have a patriarchal society, so as the father, he is entitled to half of the credit.

Rosling received a glowing introduction that highlighted his international celebrity. Soon after he began speaking, Rosling commented on his fame, saying that he had an extremely high fame to impact ratio … because he had had little impact. Later, he asked a question and few people knew the response. “You see,” Rosling quipped, “high fame, no impact!”

On his getting older, Rosling joked, “I told my kids, as long as I can read world health statistics, don’t turn off the respirator!”

As a final example, here is a short clip from Hans Rosling’s presentation in which he shows the changes in countries average incomes and life expectancies over the years. Near the end, he highlights the paths taken by China and the United States and it is interesting. But note the humour when he gives the reason for China’s recent acceleration in average income. (In case you cannot hear it because of the laughter, Rosling says, “Mao Tse-tung died here. And then Deng Xiaoping turned to the right. Vroooom!”)

Lesson: Humour is important. It builds rapport with the audience and helps keep the energy level high. Use humour properly. It is OK to poke fun at yourself, but be careful when it comes to others, especially when they are in the audience. Much depends on how well you know the audience, the nature of the humour and the context.

Rosling with passion

For all of his humour, Rosling was dead serious about the subject matter. He spoke with great emotion and conviction, using eye contact, gestures and vocal variety. He became quite emotional when discussing why people should not use expressions like “population bomb” or “population explosion”. (“Populations and people are good things; bombs and explosions are negative things. The two should not go together.”)

He also stated his mission clearly and forcefully: “To fight ignorance with a fact-based world view that everyone can understand.”

Lesson: Be passionate about your subject and find a reason why your audience should care about it too.

While on stage, Rosling was himself

In the first post of this series, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to chat with Rosling before his talk. I also heard him chatting with a couple of other people. His demeanour on stage was exactly the same as it was when he spoke to people one-on-one. So when he was speaking (on stage), he was being completely natural, and it showed.

Lesson: Be natural, be yourself.

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