The Red Thread in a TED Talk
This week, Tamsen Webster finds the Red Thread in a TED talk by Brian Little: “Who Are You Really? The Puzzle of Personality.” The presence of the Red Thread is often the difference between a good talk and a great one.
Watch the video for yourself first, and see if you can pick out the first four elements: the goal, the problem, the idea, and the change. Little doesn’t get into step five, the action, but that’s because he’s so focused on laying out a compelling case for a big idea and a surprising path to change.
See if you can pick out the elements for yourself, and then you can compare how Tamsen breaks it down to learn how to make the Red Thread work for you.
- “Who Are You, Really? The Puzzle of Personality” TED Talk
- TED Talk interactive transcript
- Me, Myself, and I: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being by Brian Little
Let’s find the Red Thread in a TED Talk. I like finding Red Threads in talks because often times the Red Thread, the presence of the Red Thread is the difference between a good talk and a great one.
In this case, let’s take a look a Brian Little’s recent TED Talk, “Who Are You Really? The Puzzle of Personality.” Brian wrote a book that the puzzle personality is a bit of an excerpt from, it’s called “Me, Myself and I: The Science of Personality.” Read it, loved it, which is one of the reasons why I found his talk in the first place.
But here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go watch the talk or go read the talk in the transcripts, and see if you can find the elements of the Red Thread. Because what you’ll see is that four of the five elements are there and they’re in the order that I suggested they always go. In other words there is, early, a statement of what this talk is about, what the goal of the audience is that he’s trying to help achieve. Second, what is the underlying problem that’s getting in the way of us achieving that goal? Third, a new idea, a core piece of information in this case that is something that we can’t unhear and that changes our understanding of the world as we saw it, and explains why the problem is such a problem. It also helps dictate the change that he’s asking for, a high level change that he’s asking people to make.
Now consistent with a lot of TED Talks, there isn’t a detailed explanation of the fifth piece which are additional actions you can take. Mostly because it’s time-bound and really what he’s doing is introducing this new idea up front, which means he wisely decided to use his time making the case for that rather than in giving you the how-to instructions to put the change in place. So go watch the talk, come back, or go pretend that you did and we’ll break it down.
Now I said up front he does include a statement of the goal and you can find it one minute in. He says, “And what we try to do in our own way is to make sense of how each of us, each of you, is in certain respects like all other people, like some other people, and like no other person.” In other words, the goal of the audience that he is trying to help achieve is helping us answer this question of how can we make sense of how we are either like people or not like people around us?
He goes on and tells some other stories, he gives a wonderful acronym for thinking through the reliable basis of understanding personality. And then a third of the way through the talk, it’s good timing based on the fact that this is a 15-minute talk, so about five minutes six minutes in, he states the real problem as he sees it. “So here are the consequences,” he says, “that are really quite intriguing. We’re not always what we seem to be.” In other words, we have this goal— we want to see how are we like or not like other people. He’s introduced a framework that helps us understand what the basis of being like or not like other people is, and then he introduces something that we may not realize, that’s getting in the way of our goal: the fact that we’re not always who we appear to be to other people, or we’re not always consistent.
He goes through and explains that a little bit more, he tells a very funny story about Charles which I recommend you go watch. Then just about three-quarters of the way through he introduces a one-two punch of an idea followed by the change. So now that we’ve got this problem, we’re not always who we seem to be, he introduces a new concept of something called “free traits.” And he summarizes that section of the talk, in other words the second third of the talk, with the idea statement which reads this way: “What are these free traits? “They’re where we enact a script in order to advance “a core project in our lives, and they are what matters.”
In other words, he’s saying right in the middle of that talk, two-thirds of the way through the talk, one third articulating the problem, one third articulating this new idea that the thing that we have to understand in order to solve a problem is that even though we’re not who we always appear to be, there is an answer to that. It’s something called free traits. In other words, there are certain things about us that are set in stone, but situationally other things change and those are the free traits.
Right after he introduces the idea, he introduces the change. He says, “Don’t ask people what type they are,” what kind of person, what personality they are, “Ask them, ‘What are your core projects in your life?’” And he uses that to start this final discussion of what are these core projects, how do they reveal these free traits? And ultimately he’s giving us the solution to achieving our goal. If we ask people this question, what are the core projects in your life? We start to get a sense of how are they like us, not like us, and ultimately as he promises, we get a better sense of ourselves. So that’s Brian Little’s Red Thread. Did you find it?