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.


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

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 × one =


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.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

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.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

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.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

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.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International