You’ll rarely find the words “celebrity” and “statistician” in the same title, but Hans Rosling was both. Rosling passed away at the age of 68. His now famous TED Talks made Rosling a worldwide sensation, but his commitment to uncovering the story behind data, while educating and entertaining his audiences, will continue to inspire a generation of students, scientists and leaders.
In Rosling’s first TED talk in 2006, he used statistics to debunk myths of the developing world, revealing how world health and living standards are getting much, much better each day. Rosling was a professor of health in Stockholm, Sweden, where he tracked trends in global health and poverty. Instead of presenting slide after slide of dry, confusing statistics, Rosling used software—Gapminder— that he co-developed to bring statistics to life. Rosling said the software “unveils the beauty of statistics by turning boring numbers into enjoyable animations that make sense of the world.”
Rosling called himself an “edutainer.” He was one of the rare scientists who packaged complexity into presentations people really wanted to see, over and over. To Rosling, statistics need not be boring; statistics could tell a story.
Upon hearing of Rosling’s death, friend Melinda Gates wrote on her Instagram account: “Where others saw nothing more than statistics, Hans saw the chance to tell an incredible human story about our progress against poverty and disease…A data geek through and through, he used numbers to educate us, to entertain us, and to share his special brand of big-hearted, evidence-based optimism.”
You’ll find several Rosling videos on YouTube or TED.com that show just how he educated and entertained at the same time. In a BBC documentary called The Joy of Stats, Rosling takes the viewer on an amazing animated journey through 200 years of progress in 200 countries—in four minutes. “Having the data is not enough. I have to show it in ways that people both enjoy and understand,” Rosling says.
In one of my favorite Rosling demonstrations, he walked on stage and sat next to a washing machine. Yes, a washing machine with clothes tumbling in the window. He made the case that the washing machine was one of the greatest inventions of the industrial revolution. Why? The story he told explained his reason:
“I was only four years old when I saw my mother load a washing machine for the very first time in her life. My mother and father had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine, and the first day it was going to be used, even Grandma was invited to see the machine. And Grandma was even more excited. Throughout her life she had been heating water with firewood, and she had hand washed laundry for seven children. And now she was going to watch electricity do that work…To my grandmother, the washing machine was a miracle.”
It was a miracle because once the machine went to work, the Roslings went off to the library. Books taught Rosling’s mother to speak English and triggered Hans’ career as a professor.
“There’s nothing boring about statistics,” Rosling once said. “Especially not today, when we can make the data sing.” Whether he used animated slides or props, Rosling made data sing.
“Hans taught so many of us to remember—even on our saddest days—that we are all part of an amazing global success story,” remembers Melinda Gates. Rosling wasn’t alone. Over the past few months I’ve had conversations with several prominent data scientists who—like Rosling—are optimists. They are trying to show people that today is the best time to be alive in the history of civilization, that we are living in an age that is seeing the greatest improvement in global living standards…ever. Many of the experts, scientists and authors cite Rosling’s work as inspiring them to present data in a way that educates and entertains.
If you want to sell your ideas persuasively, make your data sing.
Read article on Forbes.com
photo: Hans Rosling (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)