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.

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.

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Comments icon28 Comments

  1. Tony Osime says:

    But, there’s a small flaw…?

    I got the opposite impression. His speaking skills were so strong and he was so confident that he could self-depreciate and this ADDED to his credibility.

    In short, he was saying “I am so good, I am so confident that I can tell you how bad I used to be in law school”.

  2. Tony Osime says:

    The call to action could be better.

    Rather than sweeping generalizations

    “…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…”

    he should have given us three simple, specific actions to take.

    “The next time you have a problem think A M P, autonomy, mastery, purpose; autonomy, mastery, purpose; autonomy, mastery, purpose.
    The next time you have a problem:
    1) expand autonomy
    2) cultivate mastery
    3) inspire purpose

    If we do these 3 things, we can strengthen our businesses, we can solve a lot of those candle problems, and maybe, maybe, maybe, we can change the world…”

  3. John Kluempers says:

    Pink’s rhetorical skills are indeed masterful. One thing that disturbs me is his haste. With the exception of the pause before the summary, he seldom takes a significant break. By chance he pauses after the Mick Jagger joke, but only because the audience breaks out in loud enough laughter.

    Secondly, he is very antsy on stage. This may just be his persona, but the constant movement is a distraction to me.

    In response to Tony’s second comment: Yes, those final words, “We can change the world,” are just a cliché. You have very good, purposeful suggestions (AMP) that are possible for everybody, that to me would serve as a fitting ending.

  4. Joe Sharp Ph.D. says:

    This a brilliant analysis of a great speech.

  5. Very good analysis that gave me some ideas for my next Toastmasters evaluation.

    I would agree with Tony, however, with regard to Pink’s self-deprecatory remarks. In fact, I think the whole lawyer metaphor was just a way for him to get in his lawyer jokes.

    I also like Tony’s conclusion. The actionable goal is AMP–not changing the world.

    I didn’t get the Mick Jagger joke at all, and most people who don’t get a joke feel stupid. The worst thing you can do in a speech is make people feel stupid.

    I can see how his style might make John antsy–it’s very New York. In that respect, you’re not going to please everyone. The fact that you’re seeing closeups, however, probably exacerbates the impression that he’s moving a lot.

    It’s interesting that he starts off with a lot of ‘ums.’ I’ve seen many good speakers do this. After the first few minutes, the ‘ums’ disappear. I’m glad no one appears to be hung up on it, or the fact that he puts his hands in his pockets. He also rubs his hands together when he starts, which looks like a nervous gesture. As Andrew said in an article he wrote, however (about a few ‘uhs’), some of this makes a speaker look like an ordinary person and helps to establish rapport with the audience.

  6. Jack Rossin says:

    His opening, while glib, didn’t further his premise. When he “rested his case” it wasn’t focused enough on what the case was and the action to be taken. That should have led and closed the presentation.

  7. John Lesko says:

    Thanks for your occasional TED-based speech analyses. You are thoughtful and your observations most helpful.

    For those of us in Toastmasters — where speeches are typically shorter in duration — I do think that the format of a TED-presentation is a bit long. So if you’re up to the challenge, perhaps you might look at a shorter speech and I’d like to offer one for your examination and analysis.

    Do check out and comment on Dan Ariely’s much shorter talk on conflicts of interest. Keep up the blogging in the new year and good luck.

  8. Sam Eskridge says:

    I also agree with Tony on the self-deprecating humor Dan used in the opening. to me, Dan seed to focus the idea that he turned from doing something for which he was less than ideally suited, and pursued a better calling. I came away with the impression that Dan was right where he was supposed to be, and that made him more credible. As far as Dan movement is concerned: this was a clear signal of his high level of passion about his subject matter. The large movements are appropriate to the venue. The audience was fixed largely on the speaker because the presentation in cluded only a few appropriate, masterfully designed slides, each of which (except for the Candle Problem slides) was on screen for a long time. Dan used his movements to provide visual stimulation as well as supportive gestures.

  9. tilde andersson says:

    There is no doubt about it, he has got an excellent structure to his speech. Ethos, Pathos and Logos, they are all there in a perfect mixture. On top of that, he is a well presented person with a persuading voice.

    I do not at all believe that he is too confident. Perhaps it´s a girl thing, but he gives me the feeling that he knows what he is talking about. By constantly changing his voice, he makes the speech more intresting.

    I also believe the analysis was incredebly well written.

    In general, interesting material…!

  10. Mattias Olofsson says:

    It`s an interesting article with an awful lot thought behind it. It grabs me particulary because I´ve worked in a factory, and as such I am familiar with his claims. I cant do more then agree.

  11. David Eriksson says:

    I agree with Tony Osime. It was very clever to joke about his education, because he levels with the audience. They do understand that it is a joke because of his great knowledge in the area. Also, the use of several words from the vocabulary of a lawyer makes him trustworthy enough. Together with the few jokes in the beginning you come to realise that this is a very serious man with a serious point to make.

    Furthermore I think his use of the number 3 is splendid. “(1) Autonomy, (2) Mastery, and (3) Purpose [12:40]” This part is marvelous! He chooses to speak only about autonomy but he manages to strengthen its content by mentioning these other two headlines. And of course then he manages to work with the magic number 3, that everyone has relations with from listening to children stories, commercials and music.

  12. Gabriel Finnbogason says:

    I found this to be a very intriguing speech in which Pink combines the ethos, logos and pathos in an excellent way. This together with his use of the voice, lowering and raising it, creates an even stronger feeling for what he is proclaiming. In addition, he brings forth his topic in an interesting way and starts off with a mind catching beggining.

    I would say there are a few things to look into, which could strenghten his presentation. These are however, small details and in general it is a great speech for looking into the ethos, pathos and logos.

    Pink also has a great way of using body language, he is seldom seen taking a step back or having a sense of uncertainty. I believe this is of quite an importance since it raises credibility and increases the ethos.

    To summarize it all, a well thought up and presented speech in which the ethos, logos and pathos are clearly structured and shown.

  13. Mattias Olofsson says:

    Also a very well written speach,with a perfect balance of ethos, logos and pathos in his speaking.

  14. Arberesh Dervishaj says:

    I believe it’s a good speech and he gives the impression that he knows what he’s talking about. He keeps a strong voice and has a good mixture of Ethos, Pathos and Logos.

    He’s very confident and I believe that by using humor he makes the speech more interesting. He also makes the speech personal which makes his audience relate to what he’s talking about, and that is a big plus.

  15. Robert E says:

    That was a great speech! He used his voice and body language in a very convincing way. I also think that he wasn’t too confident, as many seem to think here. Instead the good confidence gave him more creadibility and togther with his passion and energy in the speech he really persuaded me.

  16. Therese Fohlin says:

    He demonstrate a strong experience as a speaker and is extremly well structured which gives him a strong ethos.

    As mentioned in the analysis above his well-formed arguments and knowledge within the specific area also gives him a strong logos which also makes him very persuasive.

    As he tries to find connections between the audience and his speech (draw parallels to their jobs) he creates an interest among the audience to listen to his specific solution to the presented problem. which was one of the important steps in becomming a great speaker.

  17. Anna K says:

    It is clear that Pink is an very experienced speaker and his great skills are probably a result of years of practise. I specifically like his humorious way of cathing the audience, although the humor at the beginning of the speech (when Pink speaks about his time in law school and work experience) ruins his ethos a little bit. Here I have to agree with the analysis below the clip, where it’s written that Pink’s humor at this point “has the effect of undermining his credibility”.
    Moreover, i like the way Pink uses his voice throughout the speech. It varies between a lower and higher tone, depending on what he wants to say. This variation made my attention last throughout the entire speech.
    The only “flaw” according to me was his use of gestures. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but i found his constantly moving hands quiet disturbing at some points. Of course it’s importand to use gestures (bodylanguage) while holding a speech but not to much because it can give you as listener an unserious impression.

  18. Julia Rokka says:

    I think that this speach is a pretty boring one. There is no doubt about the fact that Daniel Pink is a great speeker, and that he built the speach in a great way, but the subject is really boring.

    He uses Ethos, Logos and Pathos in the speach. First he tells the audience that he used to go too law school, and makes them believe that he really knows what he is talking about. Then he uses statistics over and over to make it sound more better and he constantlly says “this test was made by a scientist”. This way the audience gives him respect for beeing a person who knows more than they do. The Patos part is the one part that he doesn’t show that strong. He uses his bodylanguage and his tone and the speed in the voice to trigger emotions and he makes the audience laugh. Allthough, laugh may not be the best way in a speach to make him seem important. The whole thing togethur work and the audience give him the respect he needs to give them a great speach.

  19. Annie Olson says:

    I think it was a really good speach. The fact that he could manage to keep it seriously although he jokes a lot. It is a balancing act to make a spech that is both funny and seriously but I think i manage. He seems trustworthy since he has been going to law school.

    He uses all the tree ethos, pathos and logos and combines them very well. He has a very good voice to be a speaker even if the topic he talks about is kind of boring in my oppinion, he makes a bgood spech and it seems to me taht he had put a lot of thought into the speach. He has a great timing in everything and even though I think everything is rehearsed and determined some things in hes spechs seems quite spontaneous.

    The most importent thing, and what makes him moste convinsing is that he is very self confident.

  20. Simon Ehrnborg says:

    Great speech, great topic, very interesting.
    Daniel Pink really shows his best side here and delivers a speech with a clear passion.

    As the author of the analysis above states, Pink does convey ethos, pathos and logos. The humor he uses keeps the viewers interested and good-humored. And as stated above the only flaw in it is that it on one occasion messes with his credability. I reacted to that as well, but as mr. Osime talks about in his comment it did add to his speech, however I wouldn’t say that it added to his credability. I would rather say that it creates a more emotional connection to the viewers, where he sort of puts himself down from the metaphorical pedestal that is the stage, and becomes just one of them, with the sole exeption that he is not just passionate about the subject, he is also educated in it and has studied the facts.

    Anyhow, I think that the speech was great in every way.

  21. Fredrik Lingedal says:

    Pink combined the ethos, logos and pathos excellent and with passion added, as in the text, in a great way. the sence of matter or relevance for me was not that high, I could not relate to the subject. Although I thought the speech were going on fluently and his parts of humour helpt the otherwise, once again for me, irrelevant subject. Dan Pink is overrall a fine speaker.

  22. Pål Nilsson says:

    Pink has a great stage presence, he is credible and has a lot of statistics without being boring. I’m not too happy about the pacing of the speech though. At some points you could have a hard time to follow as Pink went into overdrive. His pathos was rather American, which is great for an American audience. The pacing was probably a way to make the speech feel more american and for Pink to seem more passionate.

  23. Gustav Hallberg says:

    He is a marvelous speaker, no doubt about it. I think he involves all the three important things that you need in a speech, ethos pathos and logos. From the very beginning he relates to the audience by degrading himself to “a human level” by joking about his education which makes his credibility rise and the audience to feel that he is not a person who is higher than them in the hierarki but instead that he is more like a friend who want to just talk to them, atleast thats the feeling i get. Furthermore i have to say that I find his use of his voice very interesting, he changes tone and speed which makes him seem very into his speech, sometimes he speaks to fast you might think but I just think he is trying to fool the listeners to believe it is all his passion and he is carried away. My beliefs on why he speaks so fast from times to times is that he just wants us to believe that he is so into his speech that he gets carried away although it is all very much thought through. There is a lot of facts and other statistics and it really could have made the speech really boring but he mixed it up very good and made the speech interesting and that is what I am the most impressed of.

    The analysis is really good and really examines the speech and i quote Joe Sharp Ph.D. “This a brilliant analysis of a great speech.”

  24. Angelica Bengtsson says:

    Though, his message is so hard to accept for the audience, that are those west world workers that should get a lower salary than the mechanical workers, he succeeds to persuade the audience that he has absolutely right. The flaw with this speech though is that he do not give suggestions of what one should do to change this fact – “There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” The audience leave the speech thinking “Omg, he’s right”, because his facts had so strong sources and Pink was so sure himself. But then the audience are troubled. By the message they can either hear “You should cut of your salary to get more motivated.” and think “I need those money! I’ll just ignore this speech…” What I miss from this speech is that he tell the audience what they should do: raise the mechanical workers salary and everyone should win. This message would be easy for everyone to absorb and understand.

    But then, maybe the purpose of the speech was to tell the audience (if they are creative workers) that they should not argue for a higher salary, because they do already earn much more than they should. Then this speech has right to be awkward. Then this speech is perfectly perfect.

  25. Leon says:

    What a thorough and interesting review… hoping for more of these TED talk reviews.

  26. Amita Bedi says:

    Well delivered, articulated and presented. Definitely thought provoking, captivating and kept listeners engaged, not only in terms of content but also how he “presented his case”. I loved every bit of it, but yes I agree he should not have been self critical at the outset as it definitely forces the audience to question the viability of his following statements.
    The incorporation of powerful adjectives could have further enhanced the speech thereby creating a sense of urgency. For instance detrimental, damaging, imperative, vital and so on.

  27. Craig Hadden says:

    Wow! What a heck of a lot of time it must’ve taken to create such a detailed review, with so many timeline references. Thanks for doing all that and then publishing the result. And the replies to your post have added a lot of value, too.

    It was only fairly recently I came across Dan Pink’s work and, like you, I found it so thought-provoking. He’s such a relaxed and inspiring speaker, and his ideas put the workplace in a new light.

    I’ve also got a procedural idea for consideration: YouTube now supports links that go straight to a specific point on the timeline, so in future posts, it’s possible to make some (or all) timeline references into links. Mind you, that could add a lot of work. So another approach could be to type the references in the form [1m30s], because that’s compatible with the format YouTube uses. That way, readers could copy-and-paste references of interest onto the end of a URL stub to jump straight to the relevant point in the video themselves. For more info on what I mean, please see my post at

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing such great resources on your blog.

  28. Claire says:

    I personally enjoyed the speech. It was very personal and it did not feel like a lecture, but more of a conversation. I believe the best aspects of the speech are Pink being able to incorporate humor and facts into one speech making it interesting.

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