I have a toy called 20Q. It is an electronic version of the old standby game “Twenty Questions” in which one player thinks of an animal, vegetable, or mineral and the other players try to guess the word within twenty yes-no-or-sometimes questions. One of the questions my 20Q device asks is, “Does it bring joy to people?” If the word you have in mind is something like “kitten” or “cake,” the answer is a clear yes.
If your word was more along the lines of “dirt” or “data,” you might think that question would be harder to answer. But after watching the latest Hans Rosling TED video, “Religions and Babies,” there’s no way I could answer anything but “yes” to the question about whether data brings joy to people.
In this video, Rosling takes on a couple of politically charged topics: religion and population growth. Certainly not presentation topics you would expect to bring joy to people. But I got goose bumps when I watched the video. The goose bumps popped up on my arms around 04:45 when Rosling said, “Let’s start the world” and started the animation on his data visualization. Not because the numbers were so fascinating – but because I could feel his passion as he was storytelling, and because I got a visceral sense for the implications of the numbers by watching the dots fall on the chart like bubbles in a lava lamp.
The data storytelling unveiled the truth in an indisputable way, and there is something thrilling about that. Apparently I’m not the only one – you can see joy on the faces of the people in the audience when he finishes this section of his presentation.
You can see joy and delight on the faces of people in the audience again when Rosling pulls out a bunch of cardboard boxes that had contained notebooks distributed to attendees at the TEDx event. He stacked the boxes on the stage in a specific arrangement to help the audience visualize world population growth trends by age group over time. The lesson? You don’t need fancy technology to deliver a fabulous data storytelling performance.
Rosling started out his research with the question, “Do some religions have a higher birth rate than others — and how does this affect global population growth?” He concluded from the data that there is no major difference between religions when it comes to number of babies per woman. But he did identify a correlation between income and number of babies (the countries that have many babies per woman have lower income) and, interestingly, countries that have high mortality rates have the fastest population growth because the death of a child is compensated by one more child. Wow. Storytelling is a core human communication skill — the primary one, I would argue. And those who are great at it can really, truly change the world.