Visualizing the Sun Food Agenda with Michael Pollan

By Doug Neff

Duarte had the distinct pleasure of working with bestselling author Michael Pollan to turn his ideas about sustainability and food systems into a visual presentation for the PopTech conference last month. Plan to eat your lunch in front of the computer today so you can enjoy his presentation:

It’s rare that we’ll work with such a gifted natural storyteller. You can see Michael speak sans visuals here and here. So, to take advantage of Michael’s comfortable, engaging speaking style, we built into the presentation some key moments, opportunities for Michael to really connect with the audience.

Here’s two of them:

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Michael’s a bestselling author and journalist, so we knew his story would be top-notch. But we wanted a good way to invite the audience into the story. During our early conversations, Michael told us about an experience he once had, driving along I-5, encountering a feedlot for the first time. It was a compelling story, evoking instant recall for anyone who’s had the experience, so we used that setting as a starting point for the rest of the presentation.

In the video, as he describes his experience, notice how Michael also outlines the three main issues that he’ll be talking about in the rest of the presentation. This is a nice way of avoiding the traditional “overview” slide while still letting the audience know what’s coming.

(cc) Pop!Tech 2009 pictures courtesy Social media team at and
(cc) Pop!Tech 2009 pictures courtesy Social media team at and

Make it real for them

One of the challenges with Michael’s research is that the audience can easily get lost in the details. Climate change, health statistics, and energy use are pretty abstract concepts. We wanted the audience to walk out with something concrete, an experience that they would carry with them. What a perfect opportunity for a S.T.A.R. moment!

Michael had already told us that he wanted to help people understand the amount of oil used to create the fast food so many of us eat every day. So how much oil is in a fast food meal? Or in a single cheeseburger? Michael set out to do the research, and we started thinking about the best way to make a statistic “stick” with the audience.

We decided to let the audience see the cheeseburger right next to the oil it took to produce it. Not only that, but we added the element of suspense. How much oil would it take? Eight ounces? Sixteen? (26.2 ounces, in fact.)

As you can see, Michael pulled off the S.T.A.R. moment beautifully, even eliciting a laugh from the crowd when he tasted the oil at the end. If you were watching the Twitter feed during the presentation, you would have seen the oil statistic repeated over and over again. The statistic stuck.

The Last 10 Yards

In the end, our visuals can only carry a speaker so far. The rest is up to them and their ability to create an experience for the audience.

Michael recognized the importance and potential impact of his presentation on this audience, and he committed himself to practicing, over and over again, until he got it right. He performed the presentation in front of a Duarte audience on two separate occasions, tried it out on his journalism students at least once, and then rehearsed it several more times by himself. It shows. Never underestimate the importance of rehearsal.


Topics Covered

Storytelling, Visual thinking

Written by

Doug Neff

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