Science Communication Exercise: Why is Jeremy Jackson's TED Talk So Effective?

By Chris Mooney | September 16, 2010 7:56 am

I’m doing more sci comm training, and as I prep, I’ve found another great video that teaches a great lesson.

Here it is: Marine biologist Jeremy Jackson’s TED Talk, “How We Wrecked the Oceans.” In my opinion, it’s a very effective talk…but the question is, why? What makes it work?

I have many ideas about this–and the answer is multifaceted–but I’d like to hear what others think:


Comments (13)

  1. It’s a combination of the senses that make arguments. The ability to compare visually the impact of what is going on, the use of analogies to relate the “scientific” pictures for a lay-person, and the context in time between past and present (and future) really make for a very memorable talk. His specific technique in delivering the talk to me is not necessarily memorable: there’s no cliche’s that one walks away with from this presentation. But very carefully he discusses natural observation and draws it back to one undeniable truth: humanity did this.

  2. Guy

    He focuses on the problem at hand. You don’t here any complaints that if people were just less religious and more scientific the world would be all better. He spells out what the real issues are(greed and the growth mentality) and that the planet just can’t support us if we continue down the same path. It will probably get a lot worse before it gets better. People need to wake up to reality at some point.

  3. Miles

    I hear environmentalists declaring the only way to reduce our harmful impact on the earth is to stop caring about growth and being selfish. I just can’t hear a president campaign on “ending growth,” though. It’s not the way large human societies work. And it seems to me like that kind of language is not helpful. It riles up the base and gets them passionate about saving the earth, but for everyone else it turns them off to be told that they are the problem, the problem is apocalyptically huge, and the only way to solve it is to dismantle capitalism. A better lobby would use the language of market corrections for externalities, making consumers pay for destruction of the commons, not letting them pass costs off to taxpayers. Now that talking point plays well with voters at large.

    Say stuff like, “the oceans are our legacy, and those bastards screwing it up for the rest of us need to pay us if they want to keep doing it.” The first part inspires people, as oceans have a typically positive imagery; the second part outrages people – They have been Victimized; and it sounds doable. None of this pie in the sky, we have to reverse the basic wiring of humanity to have an effect. It also shifts blame from the public at large to individuals, so the public doesn’t have as much cognitive dissonance to it. And finally, it sounds less like gov’t overstepping its bounds, mere taxation instead of rules and regulations forbidding things.

    How that thinking would be applied to nitrogen pollution or ocean floor trawling: set up a permanent bureau to calculate the total cost of damage to fisheries, loss of ecotourism, and loss of habitat (like the increased prevalence of jellyfish, toxic bloom, etc. that could potentially create a health hazard and the increased levels of carbon pollution caused by mass die offs of algae, etc.). Once you have the total cost of an activity, tax that activity so that those agents engaging in it pay for their own mess and also have an incentive to finally stop.

  4. I think the talk was good for its expressed purpose and its specific audience. The sportfishing pictures were especially useful – they show in clear terms what’s happening. The speaker is reasonably engaging, and remains within himself. He uses decent analogies. He makes a clear case that something is horribly wrong, and it has a man-made origin. I could sum up his talk in two words: “We’re fucked.”

    I think where the talk falls a bit short is it’s 99% stating the problem and 1% saying we need to do something about it – he gives no specific ideas as to what you do about it. A “call to action” is reasonably useful, because I’m sure there are people who simply aren’t aware of the state of the world’s oceans, but I think in many ways we’re past that. You can’t predict global catastrophe without showing people a way out of it – saying “we’re too greedy” isn’t enough.

    Chris, I sort of liken it to the book you wrote with Sheril – it struck me as a call to arms, and provided some general framework on a path forward, but I got the sense you didn’t think it was appropriate or valuable for you to provide much in specifics. In short, “we’re fucked” is a great talking point, but it’s not a communications strategy.

    This is certainly unfair to the speaker – he wasn’t asked to solve the world’s problems, just talk about them. But I think this is a point that many scientists still have trouble embracing. Many think it isn’t the role of scientists to proscribe solutions but to collect and analyze data. For those who want to propose solutions, there are legitimate and honest disagreements over specific options. I say we can’t afford to wait any longer for scientists to step up and lead.

    What I missed in his speech is how his work (and science generally) provides us with a way forward. What you’re doing with media training is critical and quite good, but I don’t want anyone to confuse it with a comprehensive communications STRATEGY. I think this may be a conversation for another day, but if scientists aren’t ready to explain how their work provides solutions and aren’t ready to spell out what those solutions are, media training is a bit like watching the little Dutch boy do his thing.

  5. I also think that there were some aspects of the talk that could be improved. The techniques that were very good and should be copied in other science talks:

    – Quick payoff to lingering questions. Long attention spans and memories are good, but to make an impact on people with what you’re saying, it’s good to not give them time to get distracted. His technique was to show a picture, describe the situation, immediately show the impact of human activity, and describe the way human activity caused the change.

    – Analogies can be overused and I’ve gotten into trouble with them in my own talks, but they’re absolutely necessary, and using the right one works wonders. Making analogies as simple as possible is crucial so that nobody will miss what you’re talking about or think too much about the analogy and not enough about what you’re demonstrating with it.

  6. Sean McCorkle

    Jackson’s vocal delivery is relatively understated and at a good pace; it works well. However, its the “before and after” images that deliver the biggest impact, especially the sport fishing pair as David Wescott said above. Also the sea floor scraped clean of life. Most of us who are not divers never see IN the ocean, just the top of it, except maybe in nature shows. Pictures sway people.

    He makes a very important point about lack of outcry from population at large because they’re largely shielded from direct impact (availability and price of fish at the store). Thats similar to public apathy towards energy when gas is cheap. They’re direct experience is telling them nothing’s wrong. I think thats why images are effective – they make an impression which is closer to power of direct experience.

    He also does a nice job of ramping up the the examples that conveys the seriousness of the issue, culminating with his prediction of what the oceans will be like in a few decades. As I alluded when Sheril posted this back in June, what he describes is not unlike the environmental nightmare portrayed in the film”Soylent Green”.

  7. remouse

    I’m no expert, but I can see the collapse coming no matter what we do. In order to save the planet ask yourself this,” Are you willing to live your life without electricity & motorized transportation?” Be honest.

  8. Mr Z

    For me, I think the reason that it was easy to listen to and experience is not simple. He used humor, but it was delivered in a way that did not prompt laughter. He used analogies which you had to think about, but it was not hard to imagine the comparisons. He delivered the facts in a straight forward manner as though he were lecturing a class about events from 235 years ago. The presentation bristled with facts, but it didn’t hurt trying to absorb the information. The mechanisms of the problems described were described in such a way that is both light and penetrating for the average Joe. He has a lot to say about how people are damaging the oceans, but did not single out any one person or group – it’s a global problem and presented that information in a way that seemed he expects his audience to be thinking in global terms. The presentation expected the audience to be of certain demeanor, and does not push the listener beyond that while presenting the facts.

    On the other hand, it was almost as though you were looking at ‘what I did on summer vacation’ presentation… except you end with a feeling of urgent need to do something about it. He did not leave anyone in the audience feeling that it was not their problem, or that they couldn’t do anything about it. It would seem that he’s all but inviting you to join in some effort, but never mentions what that effort or group is. Like those commercials where you have to watch the whole thing just to figure out what they are advertising. It’s unobtrusively “in your face” and inviting you to get more involved without telling you how, where, when, or what, just what is going to happen if you don’t.

  9. Guy

    It’s unobtrusively “in your face” and inviting you to get more involved without telling you how, where, when, or what, just what is going to happen if you don’t.

    There’s lots of ways to get involved. How about instead of waiting for some to tell you what you need to do, show some initiative and do something on your own? It could be a small community project like distributing pamphlets about the problem so that people without Internet access can learn about it. There’s also environmental groups that work to protect ocean resources that are always looking for help. It’s not that tough to get started.

  10. Chris Mooney

    Some really interesting comments here. None of them are wrong…all of them are getting at two key aspects of why the talk is successful:

    1) Jackson’s style and personality
    2) The really great use of analogies and images

    But there’s something nobody’s caught on that really struck me as the most powerful aspect of all. It happens in the last 2 minutes.

  11. I found his use of narrative in the first part quite engaging. The end of the speech includes a moral argument, which scientists could certainly use more. He gets a little more intense in the last 2 minutes, but otherwise I’m not sure what you’re picking up on.

    Aaron Huertas
    Union of Concerned Scientists

  12. Chris Mooney

    Bingo, that’s what I meant…when he says “it’s not about the fish….” reframing to make it about “us.” That’s the move that makes the whole speech, I feel. It’s that moral move.

  13. Eric the Leaf

    I am of a different opinion. I think the moral argument (greed, selfishness) could be his least powerful argument: Here’s why:

    That we are greedy and selfish are value judgments. How did that come to be? We have become expert at usurping for ourselves environments, territory, and natural resources from both other species and from other human populations. But this process was well underway thousands of years ago and has continued virtually without interruption to the present day. Were our ancestors that, for whatever reason, began to settle into sedentary villages exploiting domesticated plants and animals, and who spread agricultural practices through continental Europe and along the Mediterranean coast selfish and greedy? How far back do we trace the origin of human greed, if that is even the proper description? I think it’s something else, but I don’t know what to call it. Is it human nature? I don’t like that either. As a practical matter, as noted upthread, moral arguments are generally unpersuasive and met with defensiveness and resistance.

    On the other hand, in the very same breath Jackson identifies “growth” as the key problem (much as has our brother GM). Growth may even be the consequence, purposeful or not, of previous good intentions and rational thought. Then again, try undermining this key notion of the industrialized world.

    This is my opinion–I don’t expect many others here to agree.

    In other lectures, Jackson in fact does outline the kind of action needed to “solve” the problems he addresses (to that list I would add several more perils, but this is not the moment). These actions include (1) capping and reducing nutrient runoff in part by removing subsidies from, and taxing the use of fertilizers and pesticides, (2) capping and reducing carbon emissions, and (3) obtaining fish entirely from aquaculture—mostly tilapia, sardines, and anchovies, oysters and the like. And all of this must happen within 20-30 years. It is clear from his demeanor and tone that he places little faith in those actions ever taking place.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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