This article reviews a thought-provoking speech by Dan Pink about the surprising science of motivation, which was delivered at TED in 2009.
Pink delivers a masterful speechwhich demonstrates many strong speech techniques, including:
The strength of this speech isn’t surprising at all, given Pink’s former role as chief speechwriter for Al Gore.
This is the latest in a series of speech critiques here on Six Minutes.
I encourage you to:
The opening of the speech is very strong. The first words of the speech — “I need to make a confession…” — create mystery and draw the audience in immediately. The humor woven into this opening invoked strong laughter from the audience, but may not have been the best choice. (see below)
The other noteworthy element of the opening is the way that Pink frames his speech as not a story, but a case [1:34 -- these are references to speech times which you can use to view specific parts of the speech]:
“I don’t want to tell you a story. I want to make a case. I want to make a hard-headed, evidence-based, dare I say lawyerly case for rethinking how we run our businesses.”
This is speechwriting genius. In just a few sentences, Pink establishes the framework around his topic. Given that his audience is likely to be skeptical (because his primary message goes against conventional business wisdom), he assures them that what he’s about to say is not a fictional story, but a solid case— a clear, truthful, logical argument.
He specifically refers to the audience as “Ladies and gentlement of the jury…” [1:51] to cement this framework. Later in the speech, he twice references this framework.
In most circumstances, self-deprecating humor is a wonderful speechwriting tool. You get the audience laughing, and you risk offending nobody, because the humor is about you.
However, the self-deprecating humor in this speech pokes fun at the very thing on which Pink has hinged his argument — on his ability to demonstrate a solid, legal case. He playfully (and perhaps modestly?) points out his poor law school performance, and the fact that he’s never worked as a lawyer. This has the effect of undermining his credibility. The skeptical audience member might argue that if he isn’t a smart lawyer, then maybe he can’t put together a strong case, and if he can’t put together a strong case, then perhaps the case being presented in this speech is weak.
The lesson? When using self-deprecating humor, don’t poke fun at your expertise in a way which weakens your credibility.
A few ways in which Pink builds strong logos include:
A few ways in which Pink successfully raises his ethos include:
About half-way through the speech, Pink makes the first explicit connection between his topic and the audience in the room. He says:
This flatters his audience, because it implies that they are all engaged in truly difficult and challenging work. (i.e. they don’t have careers doing mechanical tasks) More importantly, it makes his speech message more personal. From that moment on, every time Pink references “the candle problem”, each member of the audience hears “my problem”. Having your audience personalize your message is one powerful way to persuade them.
This was not a “fluff” speech by any definition. On the contrary, it is packed with thought-provoking ideas. Yet, Pink wisely injects humor throughout the presentation:
The speech is about 18 minutes long, and includes 10 (mostly successful) attempts at humor. The timing of the humor is also noteworthy: 0:38, 1:00, 1:14, 4:00, 6:30, 8:33, 10:38, 11:10, 13:45, 14:30. Pink mixes humor every two minutes or so, with a little more in the first 90 seconds (to build a connection with the audience), and then none for the last three and a half minutes (to focus on a powerful closing argument). This humor strategy is worthy of emulation in your speeches!
This speech is packed with rhetorical devices, the most frequent of which is the use of triads. Pink employs the rule of three in a variety of ways, including both humor and his most serious statements. A few examples include:
The most memorable catch phrase in this speech was introduced with a slide, and spoken multiple times, at 5:18, 11:35, 17:28, and 18:02. This phrase is cleverly crafted, and is far better than an awkward alternative such as: “Present-day business practices are ignoring the knowledge by scientific research.”
Other uses of contrasting terms include:
Pink signals his conclusion with the words ”Let me wrap up” [17:23] followed a lengthy pause of four seconds. This pause is very effective in helping the audience get ready for the words which follow.
Pink then restates his signature phrase (“There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does…”) and adds “… and here’s what science knows.” He then follows this with three concise findings. Summarizing your arguments like this helps to aid understanding and memorability.
He concludes with an energetic call-to-action (using back-to-back triads) and a reference to his legal case framework (“I rest my case.”) I love the way that thisbookends the speech.
The majority of this review has been devoted to speechwriting techniques, but a full review of Pink’s delivery techniques could easily fill another article.
Although he could reduce the finger-wagging, his use of gestures and body language throughout the speech are superb. He matches his movements and gestures to the large venue. His energy and enthusiasm come through strong when viewing this speech.
As just one example, consider the three frames below, where Pink is indicating the low, medium, and high rewards. If this were a typical, boring PowerPoint presentation, a bar chart could have been used. On the contrary, Pink demonstrates that the most important visual is the speaker!
Similarly, the vocal variety demonstrated by Pink is worthy of emulation. His use of emphasis, pauses, and varied pace and volume are all well done. Not only does this help to convey his enthusiasm and convictions, but it aids understanding and adds drama throughout.