[Profile picture of Ruben Verborgh]

Ruben Verborgh

Selling a story in one minute

TEDxGhent was looking for original videos—and I wanted to get in mine.

In my hometown Ghent, an exciting contest took place: PhD students could to send in a one-minute video about their research. Winners get to give a talk at TEDxGhent, a local edition of the famous TED conferences. I badly wanted to participate, so I had to find an original and effective way of selling my message in one minute. My goals: tease the audience, entertain the audience, and, ultimately, activate them to vote.

TEDxGhent is a local edition of the world-famous TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conferences, where diverse speakers come together to spread inspiring ideas. Normally, only well-known and (semi-)famous people get to give a TED talk. However, this year, the TEDxGhent organizers launched a contest for PhD students. Two of them could win an own TED talk

Participants had to create a one-minute video to convince the panel they can give an inspiring and engaging talk about an interesting topic. One part of this panel are the TEDxGhent organizers, who select one participant, and the other part is the public, who select another participant by voting. In this blog post, I’ll write about how I designed my video for the contest.

[Still of Ruben Verborgh's TEDxGhent contest movie]
My TEDxGhent contest video features computer science in the living room.

Creating the story

I wanted to introduce people to my research domain, the Semantic Web. However, as most research topics, this is a very abstract concept. Therefore, the first task was to write a story people could relate to. This story should clearly show the difference between the world with and without the Semantic Web. To be most effective, it should tell about people and everyday life.

Now what’s one of the most fun things you can imagine that involves people and lots of day-to-day tasks? This is where the idea of a bunch of friends and a dinner party started. It’s a simple concept where the Semantic Web could play a visible role, with a clear before and after situation. And since everyone can imagine the before situation (organize the dinner party yourself), I save a lot of time by not having to explain it.

So here’s the main storyline. You want to have a dinner party with your best friends. Your Semantic Web agent can help you with that: it can check the food preferences of your friends, and will give you a recipe to cook something you all like. Furthermore, it will check with the refrigerator whether it has the necessary ingredients, and order the missing ones in your local store. Meanwhile, it can start heating the oven and instruct the cocktail machine to shake some drinks. Now, I had to find an engaging way to tell this story.

Explaining high-tech stuff with low-tech props

To avoid falling into the classic technology trap of making things too flashy and far-fetched, the Semantic Web should be introduced as a human-friendly technology that would actually seem nice to be around. I imagined the video somewhat becoming a campfire story, something I would like to spontaneously tell when visitors ask me about my research. Since I wanted to give the story more power by accompanying it with functional back­ground music, I elaborated on the campfire idea and decided to start the video with me playing the guitar in my living room.

To illustrate the main story, I could have chosen digital slides or computer-generated graphics. Then I realized it would become way more interesting to do the exact opposite: resort to good old hand-made animation to make the story tangible. I would use magnets for the main characters of the story, and a little camera trick when the Semantic Web does its magic.

When designing the animation, it was important to match key points in the story with physical actions. Either the camera zooms in on the relevant characters, or the magnetized actors are moved or touched by hand. The most crucial point is where the difference between before and after is explained, and it is therefore accentuated by pulling the tape off the whiteboard. This makes Semantic Web technologies and their effect on the characters clearly visible.

[Still of Ruben Verborgh's TEDxGhent contest movie]
Pulling the tape marks the story’s turning point: this is where the Semantic Web comes in.

Telling the story of the viewer

The crucial part of storytelling, I learned from Jean-luc Doumont: it’s not about youcommunication is about the audience. This is why I don’t start with introducing myself, what I do, etc. It’s just boring to start talking about yourself straightaway. Instead, engage the audience: give them a reason why they should care to listen to you. My first two sentences therefore connect the audience to their story:

When I tell people my job is building the future Web, they say:
“Oh great, I love the Internet—it has changed our lives in so many ways.”
Then I look at them and say:
“Did you know we’ve only seen this much of the Web?”

Thereby, the story becomes indeed the story of the viewer. It becomes your story. I’m talking about your mobile phone, your friends, your local store. Only in the end, there’s the me in the picture: I want viewers to vote for my TEDxGhent video. So there it is: one minute, one message, and a whole lot of communication strategy.
Are you convinced of the Semantic Web now? ;-)

Ruben Verborgh

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