Hari Patience-Davies breaks down one of the best opening statements ever used for a TED Talk, and the lessons storytellers and speakers can learn from it.
In 2010 Jamie Oliver spoke at TED about the importance of food education and the dangers of obesity:
“Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead through the food that they eat.”
It’s a doozy of an opening statement. Four people are going to die in the next 18 minutes. Episodes of 24 have begun with less dramatic statements. And our speaker, the chef Jamie Oliver, says it in such a casual tone that as an audience member you might blink. Or even need a moment. Four people are going to die in the next 18 minutes? Can that be right?
I’m a big fan of Jamie Oliver’s 2010 TED talk, Teach every child about food. It has, in my opinion, one of the best openings of any TED talk ever. The assertion that four people are about to die is dramatic and shocking – a classic hook to get the audience’s attention.
“Find the most dramatic set of numbers you can and put them front and centre in your presentation,” is advice I’ve given to pitch teams and presenters time and again.
Oliver does that and he does it well. But it’s not the only hook he utilises to get the audience onside.
Inside of the first minute, after introducing himself, he plays a little word game with the audience and their expectations:
“America, you’re at the top of your game.”
Which is the kind of statement any audience of Hollywood movies and TV shows will be familiar with. It’s typical of the patriotic hyperbole that those of us who aren’t from the US hear reiterated again and again in American culture. As the movie Team America from the creators of South Park parodied it – “America, F*ck Yeah!”
And then he punctures that patriotism bubble.
“This is one of the most unhealthy countries in the world.”
Wham. Another blink from the audience. Another moment where things didn’t go quite as they were expecting. Another reason for them to pay attention.
Oliver follows up this undermining of the myth of American superiority by getting personal and by using another great hook technique – make them move.
“Can I please just see a raise of hands for how many of you have children in this room today? Put your hands up? …Aunties and uncles as well. Most of you. Okay.”
Having established that most of the room has their hands up, he delivers the final wham line of his opening:
“We the adults of the last four generations, have blessed our children with the destiny of a shorter lifespan than their own parents. Your child will live a life ten years younger than you because of the landscape of food we have built around them.”
Another shocking statistic, but this one is personal. Your child will not live as long as you did. Someone you love is now affected – this is no longer an abstract thought experiment where four strangers will die in the next 18 minutes. Your family is now on the line.
Oliver starts with the big scary statistic about death, he then takes a cliche about superiority of the country where he is delivering the TED talk (captions on the screen reveal this is all happening in California) and subverts, and then he is able to make the big scary statistic which some may be able to dismiss as abstract or other, and he relates it to your family or the children in your life.
- Shocking statistic
- Subversion of the norm
- Localisation then personalisation
Along with a “raise your hands if” action to ensure that anyone he hasn’t hooked via the shocking nature of the numbers, he might be able to jolt to life by engaging in a physical movement.
This is a very well planned and effective opening for a speech.
It’s really a shame the rest of the speech doesn’t work quite as well.
Oliver combines statistics with personal stories throughout the speech, arguing that food needs the same kind of societal reaction and revolution that cigarettes and smoking had in the Twentieth Century. He uses clips from his TV show and argues about how there are three areas which need to be addressed – food education in schools, along side food production for supermarkets and the types of meals served by the big fast food names. It’s all good content, but the tight effective structure of the opening 90 seconds never reappears.
Delivery wise, Oliver’s presentation is actually slightly undermined by his tone and visible frustration. He clearly really cares about this, but he runs the risk of alienating his audience in a couple of different ways.
Well, he never stops moving. It’s nicely compensated for by the video editing, lots of quick cuts from multiple cameras sewn together into a cohesive whole – but if you were an audience member in the room, a speaker who never stops moving, and looks away from the audience as frequently as Oliver does, runs the risk of losing their connection with the audience.
This speed of movement is also reflected in how quickly he speaks. In his opening Oliver uses pauses very well – giving the audience time to absorb some those shocking statistics. But as the speech goes on he speeds up and pauses less, and he has so many ideas that there’s hardly time to take in one potential solution before he’s moved on to the next one.
Despite talking very fast, Oliver also runs over. And he can do that. Obesity is a big problem, and Oliver is a leading campaigner in this area. He’s a chef with a television show, and with that pedigree it doesn’t matter that he goes over his allotted time (you can see the clock on stage counting down the last 30 seconds he has to speak when there’s still 4 more minutes of speech to go. As a celebrity invited on stage as an award winner he has the authority to ignore time limits, no one is going to kick him off stage. Not all of us are so lucky.
Oliver has so much content in this speech it’s hard to parse all of it. Even now, when I’ve seen this TED talk several times, the bit that stays with me isn’t his proposed solution to the problem, it’s that opening statistic. As a storytelling and presentation coach, I frequently give advice to teams and individuals to find that key metric, that shocking statistic to open with. But there is a danger in this approach – if the metric is too strong, it can overwhelm everything that follows and leaves your audience with a solid memory of what the problem is but little recollection of what your proposed solution was.
In the last few minutes of his speech Oliver reveals that he found local sustainable funding to take a school from serving junk food onto fresh food – and that only cost $6500 per school. He doesn’t say if that’s a monthly cost, or what is included in that $6500, or where the funding came from. But in the terms of a per school cost that’s potentially incredibly small and very doable.
But the number gets lost – it comes in too late in the speech – Oliver has spent too long talking about the problem for there to be any space left in the audience’s brains for the solution. But what else could he have done?
Oliver could have take that number $6500 per school, and brought it in earlier. Perhaps even as a fourth section of the opening section. We could still have had our shocking statistic (“Four Americans who are alive will be dead through the food that they eat”), our undermining of the expected norm (“you’re at the top of your game / one of the most unhealthy countries in the world”), the raising of hands to make it personal (“your child will live a life ten years younger than you”) and then he could have added one more thing:
“And for a couple of grand, only $6500 per school, we can change that.”
Wham. Hook, line and sinker. Problem and solution. You’ve got the audience: they recognise the problem and now they want to know how we can solve it for only six grand a school.
TLDR: What can we learn from this speech?
- Start strong – a good opening will keep your audience’s attention even if what follows is not as well done.
- You don’t just need to rely on one hook technique to engage your audience, you can use several.
- A big shocking statistic is great, but being able to make that personal to your audience is even better.
- Including too much content in your speech means you will probably overrun – no matter how fast you talk.
- If you move too much, and talk too fast you may lose the connection with some of your audience in the room – but good video editing can compensate for that.
- Don’t leave explaining the solution until too late – to ensure it sticks in the brain as much as the problem it needs an early introduction and can also be used to capture your audience’s curiosity as a hook.