Analysis of a speech by Apollo Robbins

Apollo Robbins, Genteman Thief

This is a tremendously fun speech to watch. If you have not heard of Apollo Robbins, you will enjoy his 8-minute TED Talk.

Robbins is a professional pickpocket and one of the best in the world. He has studied human behaviour, human attention, and how to misdirect that attention. David Copperfield has called Robbins “my favourite thief”.

In this highly entertaining and interactive talk at TEDGlobal 2013, Robbins puts on a masterclass in misdirection for the audience.

Below is the video of Robbins’ speech. It is followed by my analysis of what I thought that Robbins did well. Before you read the analysis, though, there are two things that you should note:

1.  Be sure to watch the entire video because the analysis contains spoilers! Yes, spoilers.

2.  When Robbins asks the audience to do something – for example, close your eyes – play along and do it as well. Trust me.

Good opening

Apollo Robbins opens with two provocative questions: (a) Do you think it’s possible to control someone’s attention? (b) Even more than that, what about predicting human behaviour?

After each question, Robbins pauses for a few moments to let the audience think about the questions and how they would answer. Opening your talk with a provocative question is a great way to hook your audience’s attention.

Simplicity

Starting at about 1:50, Robbins explains his approach to attention and misdirection. He notes that there are several “fancy” models of attention, but he likes to keep it very simple. Robbins then explains the concept of attention using the metaphors of a surveillance system and a security guard.

He uses simple images to convey his idea and also provides a concrete example of attention that he calls the “cocktail effect”. And he does all of this in less than a minute and a half.

Being able to distill complex ideas into a simple explanation is the hallmark of a great speaker. Simplicity is powerful and much more effective than complexity.

Audience involvement

Robbins involves the audience in his talk in several ways:

1.  He gets them to think about the icon at the bottom right of their smartphones without looking. Then he gets them to check it. Then he asks them what time it was on their phones. (0:39 – 1:24)

2.  He gets them to close their eyes and asks them what he is wearing. (1:24) and then asks them the same question (eyes open this time) at the very end of his talk.

3.  He brings Joe, one of the audience members up on stage with him. (4:13)

High energy

Robbins is extremely energetic, especially when Joe is on stage with him, and that energy is infectious. If your energy level is high on stage, your audience will feel it and be energized as well.

Great humour

Robbins injects humour throughout his talk.

1.  “Good. Just taking inventory. You’re like a buffet. Hard to tell where to start, so many great things.” (3:50)

2.  “I won’t put my hand in your pocket. I’m not ready for that kind of commitment. Once a guy had a hole in his pocket, and that was rather traumatizing for me. I wanted his wallet, he gave me his number. Big miscommunication.” (5:02)

3.  “Open your hand. Thank you very much. I’ll cheat if you give me a chance.” (5:22)

4.  “We’ve got a little guy. He’s union, works up there all day.” (6:50)

5.  There are many other examples.

Humour is a powerful thing in public speaking. As John Cleese said, if you can get the audience laughing, they will like you more and they will be more receptive to your ideas.

Good conclusion

There are three things that Apollo Robbins with his conclusion.

First, he does a great callback to the beginning by asking his audience what he was wearing. The audience’s surprise at the realization that Robbins was now wearing something different than what he had been at the beginning of the talk is great to see. (By the way, were you surprised too?)

Second, he reinforces his message: “Attention is a powerful thing. Like I said, it shapes your reality.”

Third ends with a provocative question for the audience: “So, I guess I’d like to pose that question to you. If you could control somebody’s attention, what would you do with it?”

Robbins does fidget a bit at the end by pacing forward and backward, and clapping his hands. It would have been better to come front and centre, stand still and leave the audience with his final words. He also should have remained on stage for the applause; leaving early deprives an audience of the opportunity to show its appreciation for the speaker.

Apollo Robbins is great at what he does

The way in which Apollo Robbins performs his craft – the manipulation of the poker chip; the pickpocketing of Joe’s money, cards and watch; the change of clothes that catches most of the audience off guard – is spectacular to watch. A true master at work.

If you would like to know more about Apollo Robbins and see some other videos in which he explains his techniques, visit his website.

Photo courtesy of Apollo Robbins

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

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I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

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John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

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