Article Category: Speech Critiques, Speechwriting

Speech Critique:
Dan Pink (TED 2009)

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 speech which demonstrates many strong speech techniques, including:

  • A powerful opening, which establishes a framework utilized throughout;
  • Building of ethos and logos;
  • Well-timed use of humor;
  • Employing contrast and the rule of three;
  • Powerful conclusion; and
  • Superb delivery.

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:

  1. Watch the video;
  2. Read the analysis in this speech critique; and
  3. Share your thoughts on this presentation in the comment section.

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The Opening – Superb and Yet Flawed

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.

  • Let me marshall the evidence, because I’m not telling a story. I’m making a case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury…” [9:05]
  • I rest my case.” [18:28 – the final words of the speech]

But, there’s a small flaw…

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.

Build Logos and Ethos

Aside from the self-deprecating humor, this speech is very strong in both logos (logical argument) and ethos (credibility of the speaker).

A few ways in which Pink builds strong logos include:

  • This is not a feeling… [joke] … This is not a philosophy… [joke] This is a fact… [joke]” [8:33]
    This passage was one of the most emphatic in the entire speech, and it strikes at the heart of the audience opposition.
  • Some of you may look at this and say ‘Hm. Sounds nice, but it’s utopian.’ But I say ‘nope’. I have proof.” [16:02]
    Again, Pink directly addresses the opposing point of view, and then proceeds to offer tangible, real evidence to support his claim.
  • The speech is littered with references to both academic research as well as case studies taken from contemporary businesses. He specifies institutions, names, and quotations. In doing so, Pink makes it clear that his central argument is not just a theory; it is grounded in reality.

A few ways in which Pink successfully raises his ethos include:

  • Through the speech, Pink cites academic research at globally recognized institutions, including Princeton [3:08], MIT [9:10], Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago, the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, and the London School of Economics (“alma mater of 11 Nobel Laureates in Economics”) [10:48]. As the named institutions all have high ethos, referencing them in this way adds credibility by association to Pink.
  • I spent the last couple of years looking at the science of human motivation.” [5:07] This particular line was delivered in an understated way, but I think it boosts his credibility considerably.

Make it personal (and flattering)

About half-way through the speech, Pink makes the first explicit connection between his topic and the audience in the room. He says:

  • Think about your own work… everybody in this room is dealing with their own version of the candle problem” [7:49]

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.

Use Humor

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:

  • “I need to make a confession. I did something I regret… in a moment of youthful indiscretion, I went to law school.” [0:38]
  • “I graduated in the part of my law school class that made the top 90% possible.” [1:00]
  • “I never practiced law a day in my life. I pretty much wasn’t allowed to.” [1:14]
  • “Now this makes no sense, right. I’m an American. I believe in free markets. That’s not how it’s supposed to work…” (into the reality show joke which didn’t get much laughter) [4:00]
  • Fade-in effect on slide (also with color) to add “For Dummies” to “The Candle Problem” [6:30]
  • “This is not a feeling. I’m a lawyer, I don’t believe in feelings.  This is not a philosophy. I’m an American, I don’t believe in philosophy. This is a fact. Or as we say in my home town of Washington, D.C. — a true fact.” [8:33]
  • “Is this some kind of touchy-feely socialist conspiracy going on here?” [10:38]
  • “London School of Economics. Training ground for great economic thinkers, like George Soros, Friedrich Hayek, and Mick Jagger.” [11:10]
  • Atlassian joke [13:45]
  • “Fedex days” joke [14:30]

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!

Employ the Rule of Three

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:

  • “(1) This is not a feeling… [joke] … (2) This is not a philosophy… [joke] (3) This is a fact… [joke]” [8:33]
  • “Too many organizations are making their decisions… based on assumptions that are (1) outdated, (2) unexamined, and (3) rooted more in folklore than in science.” [11:45]
  • (1) Autonomy, (2) Mastery, and (3) Purpose [12:40]
  • “(1) How they do it, (2) when they do it, (3) where they do it…” [15:40]
  • “… noone gets paid (1) a cent, (2) or a euro, (3) or a yen…” [16:33]
  • If we repair this mismatch between what science knows and what business does…
    If we bring our notions of motivation into the 21st century…
    If we get past this lazy, dangerous ideology of carrots and sticks…
    we can strengthen our businesses,
    we can solve a lot of those candle problems, and maybe, maybe, maybe,
    we can change the world. ” [18:02 — concluding argument]

Use Contrast

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:

  • “This is one of the most robust findings in social science [pause]… and also one of the most ignored.” [5:00]
  • “That’s actually fine for many types of 20th century tasks. But for 21st century tasks…” [5:40]
  • “Routine, rule-based, left-brained kind of work” [7:25] versus “Right-brained, creative, conceptual.. ” [7:45]
  • “… productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down” [15:53]
  • “This is the titanic battle between these two approaches. This is the Ali-Frasier of motivation.” “intrinsic motivators versus extrinsic motivators… autonomy, mastery, and purpose versus carrots and sticks” [17:05] — Pink amplifies the contrast between these approaches by invoking a comparison to the historic boxing match.

Make Your Conclusion a Concise Call to Action

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 this bookends the speech.

Add Energy with Your Gestures and Vocal Variety

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.

More About the Science of Motivation

After watching this speech, I’m eager to learn more about the science of motivation. I’m going to be checking out two books written by Dan Pink:

Both are highly rated on amazon. I’m curious to hear if you have read these books and, if so, what are your impressions?

Your Thoughts?

What did you think of this speech? What are the best aspects of this speech? How could this speech have been made even better?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

This article is one of a series of speech critiques of inspiring speakers featured on Six Minutes.
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