I presented 108 keynotes in 2015 when I worked at Salesforce. Earlier this year I jumped at the opportunity to work at IBM talking about Watson, and have since given 42 keynotes around the world, talking about marketing technology, trends in customer behaviour and the ethics and opportunities around AI and cognitive computing. Much of that time has been spent talking to executives about the value of IBM’s own cognitive computing system called Watson, and how he can analyse not just interactions, events and transactions of individuals, but the emotions, sentiment and behavioural analytics of audiences. Analysing emotions is hard, but the fact that Watson can do it faster and more accurately than any other computing system, makes it a fun technology to play with. It’s one of the reasons I joined IBM.

So I thought I would put Watson to the test…

“Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make but the stories you tell”. Seth Godin

In the short time I have been at IBM I have witnessed various engineers and IBM data scientists playing with Watson’s API’s in order to do all kinds of wonderful things. A few of them are:

Suffice to say that IBM has its fair share of emotional stories to tell.

I like the idea of having fun with technology, because it’s often in those playful moments that break through innovations are made. So it got me thinking ~ if a technology like Watson can help to analyse and create the perfect [dress / song / movie / piece of marketing content] AND can read over ten million records a second to help oncology consultants make more accurate diagnoses, then surely he can shed some light on my stage-dwelling ramblings? Could Watson analysis suggest the shape of the perfect keynote? Tell me what worked, what didn’t and why?

Nothing to lose, I thought. So I set to work, putting all of the presentations that I have performed over the last 6 months, asking Watson to analyse them for emotional context (using natural language processing and personality insights) – in order to attempt to find any correlations between the good keynotes, the average ones and the ugly ones. And yes there were a few ugly ones.

The results were staggering.

Not unlike the wonderful TED talk that Nancy Duarte gave a couple of years ago about the shape of the perfect presentation, it turns out that the shape of all my keynotes which received the highest audience scores, also had exactly the same shape!


Of course this small “eureka” moment means a lot more to me that it will to anyone else, but it reminds me that this technology is real – it’s not smoke and mirrors (there is no magical wizard hiding behind a curtain trying to make the demos work)! It’s technology that can help anyone solve problems, whether they are trying to cure diseases, send their customers the right email, or just understand why some of their presentations resonate with audiences more than others. I have been using a similar format for a couple of years ever since I learned that Steve Jobs used the same narrative format for his keynotes that Pixar used for all of their films.


  • (You can read more about these storytelling methods in these brilliant books).

So what is this magical shape?

Well it’s quite simple – it’s based upon the shape of a story that Nancy Duarte introduced me to a while ago, but I have refined it to include various emotional triggers appearing at specific parts of each presentation. I have reams of data that I won’t bore you with here, but I drew the shape of my successful keynotes as I was trying to interpret that data, based upon the personality insights API that Watson used to analyse all of my presentations.


It’s all very interesting stuff, but what was even more interesting to me was the reason why the less successful presentations weren’t as effective. Here’s four of the biggest insights I discovered from the analysis.

  • Too many slides. I got much higher scores when I spent 2 minutes on each slide, instead of the quick-fire cadence that I initially used, which averaged 1 minute per slide.
  • DarkPowerpoint. A new buzzword? The decks which were predominantly dark scored over 60% higher than the slides which used white backgrounds. This makes perfect sense. When my slides are dark, people focus more on me and the story I am telling. When my slides are white, especially when the screen is large, people take more notice of the screen and less notice of what I am saying. Dark slides fostered a more emotional connection with the audience. White slides were more analytical but much less memorable.
  • Too many words on each slide. I often try to base my slides on big ideas, small words and short sentences, but all too often I am tempted to include a couple of big ideas on each slide. The presentations which performed best had one compelling idea or statement on each slide, not two or three. People like simplicity.
  • Interactive content every 6 minutes. People’s attention spans are short. There is only so much text and talk that people can ingest. There is a reason TED talks are 18 minutes and usually have a typical three act structure (beginning / middle / end). Three acts with six minutes for each makes sure that the audience stays engaged. Where most presentations are concerned, cognitive scientists suggest that 90% of what we hear in presentations is often forgotten within 30 minutes. I was once in a Tony Robbins presentation masterclass where he explained that 60% of the content would be forgotten later that day. But he also explained how if you can make an emotional connection with the audience, people remember 60% of your content. Tony actually goes one step further and suggests that people can remember up to 80% if they use ‘motion’ as well as ‘emotion’ which is why he has people bouncing up and down and role playing during his presentations, but there’s only so many presenters who can pull that off credibly, and I’m not one of them. So what I noticed with my better keynotes was then every ten minutes I had an interactive element featuring in my presentation. Sometimes it was a demo, sometimes it was a video, other times it was audience participation. Whatever it was, as long as it was some kind of audience interaction or rich media, it seemed to have a huge impact upon the weight of my presentation.


Watson understood the emotional intent behind each of my highest performing slides (based upon feedback from audience surveys or feedback I noted after each presentation) – and attributed certain ‘feelings’ to each slide, recommended the type of emotions that certain slides should trigger.


Why are emotions so important? Aside from the obvious, many public-speaking coaches actually play down the importance of language and suggest emotional context is far more important. they often cite research published in 1967 by Professor Albert Mehrabian who claimed that only 7% of the effectiveness of communication was down to language, white 38% was directly linked to the tone of voice, and 55% from body language.

This is why I thought it would be really valuable to analyse the emotions behind my content, using IBM Watson’s Personality Insights engine. Analysing content from any source, it creates starburst diagrams like this, to help visualise the most dominant emotions.


The Most Effective Emotional Triggers for Each Slide

  • BLUE: Big 5 (Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Emotional Range, Openness)
  • GREEN: Needs (Excitement, Harmony, Curiosity, Self-expression, Liberty, Love, Practicality, Stability, Challenge, Structure)
  • RED: Values (Self-Transcendence, Hedonism, Self-Enhancement, Achieving Success, Open to Change, Excitement)

Translating those emotions at certain points of my “perfect” presentation (which it turns out should be no longer than 30 minutes, means that all of my presentations should fit into this template.


So, let’s compare what one of my old presentations looked like, compared to the new Watson “Perfect Keynote” model….



(One of my first IBM “official” keynote decks)




(My Madrid keynote from earlier this week “built” by Watson)



They look quite different don’t they?!


All of this just because of a simple story shape transforms the way that people receive, digest and understand information. This is why scientists, anthropologists and biologists like Prof. Brian Cox, Simon Sinek and David Attenborough are such successful speakers. They break down complex topics into stories that the average person on the street can understand.


“People are persuaded not by what you say, but by what they understand”. John Maxwell.


So what do my scribbles actually mean?


I could have created a sexy dataviz or extracted all of the data into Excel or Tableau but where would the fun in that be when you can draw it with coloured pencils, over a Rioja in the Ritz hotel in Madrid. So that’s what I did. I sat in the bar trying to make sense of all the data while I was taking my time drawing various shapes on graph paper. What you see above is the shape that best represents my perfect keynote. As with all analysis like this, what works for me probably won’t work for you, but that’s a good job. Because if it was that easy I’d probably be out of a job.


Breaking it down, these are my findings from Watson’s data about how I should structure my perfect keynote:

  • I seem to speak best when I start off with a cold open – much like a screen writer, a presenter or SNL or a comedian might do. Chris Anderson also says this in his TED book, where he analyses his favourite TED talks. I should never begin by listing my credits, my CV or whatever important reason I think people should spend the next half hour or so listening to me. This is bad. And audiences don’t really care. So many open should always include a short introductory anecdote about the journey we are about to discuss, and a memorable quote that triggers red emotional “values” such as openness to change, self-transcendence, hedonism (!) or conservation. I’m sure Maslow would agree.
  • Lead with content that immediately engages the audience, appealing to emotions “open” emotions such as adventurousness, authority challenging, excitement seeking, altruism or trust. Makes perfect sense – building trust – especially with an audience I’ve never met before.
  • Introduce a series of relevant trends – usually around attention spans and relationships – in order to establish authority and credibility that builds upon that trust.
  • Next, introduce a conflict. A challenge of some kind that gets people’s attention. I’ve just finished Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass and he claims ‘conflict’ is the most important part of any narrative. For my presentations, this means making some dark predictions about the future state of the world or the industry, and why it is getting harder to be a marketer because those attention spans are shrinking so fast.
  • And now, just like a good Disney movie, we need to introduce a hero or an uplifting moment of some kind to appeal to other blue “open” emotions such as excitement seeking, gregariousness, achievement striking or intellect. For me, this is where I tell an inspirational story of a brand like Red Bull, NHS, North Face or Mercedes and how they have used technology to do wonderful things. Of course, this section must also include another quote which resonates emotionally with my audience – (red) “value” based emotions such as self-enhancement or self-transcendence. Something that tells a meaningful story, not just a profitable or a loyalty based one.
  • But all is not well… Every good story has an “arc” that takes the audience on an emotional journey, and my better presentations were no different. So at this point I usually referred to a challenge or a conflict that might prevent you from emulating the hero (customer story / case study) that we just introduced. This dip is called “the cost of doing nothing”. eg. You could for example carry on as you are, trying to be slightly better or faster than you were previously, but not addressing the trends and predictions that we just laid out within your company, could have devastating economic consequences. Yes, I’m being dramatic, but that’s the whole point – Watson was showing me where to use which emotions most appropriately. For this section, I needed to speak to the green “needs” based emotional drivers such as stability, structure and harmony. Want to sustain your companies growth, break down those organizational silos, and increase the wellbeing and happiness of your customers and employees? Then let me show you exactly what you need to do.
  • And this call-to-action leads me to the finale of my presentation. Of course it’s dramatic. Every good keynote is not that much different to a play, a movie or a classic story. Which is why the ending to my best presentations featured a word of advice from someone who has been on the journey we have just described. This might be backed up by some evidence from an analyst to make sure that we are appealing to the head and the heart (good stories need logic and emotion). For the majority of my highest scoring keynotes, this ending offered something tangible like a report, as well as leaving the audience with a more optimistic view of the industry, and a more positive outlook on how to deal with the challenges that they will face over the next few years.


And to think, all of these insights came from a dumb computer who just ingested a ton of data, analysed it, understood my emotional intent, measured it against previous language of a similar substance, and then created some hypothesis about what to do with it. That my friends is the power of cognitive computing.

It was an incredibly arduous exercise as my data was raw and unstructured, but Watson’s findings have left me with a much better understanding of the style of presenting that suits me best. From this I have taken eight key takeaways that you may use of discard as you see fit.

8 Takeaways For My Perfect Keynote

  1. Never use a font size of less than 20 (when you are using 16:9 / 16:10 templates).
  2. Wherever possible use dark backgrounds not white ones.
  3. Try to keep one key message per slide.
  4. Never have more than 6 objects on any slide, but try to keep it to 3. (Each object could be a stat, a sentence, a picture, a link or a logo).
  5. However long my presentation is, I should average 1 slide every 2 minutes.
  6. Each presentation should feature three acts (a clear beginning, a middle and an end) and should contain at least one significant conflict which threatens the journey that I am trying to take the audience on.
  7. Break away from traditional slides and include an interactive element or some audience participation every 6 minutes.
  8. A call-to-action. I didn’t need Watson to tell me this, but where my content was structured around creating “emotion” with my audience, the call-to-action creates the kind of “motion” that Tony Robbins spoke about – and helps most of your story to be remembered.

Fascinating stuff isn’t it?

You can learn more about the kind of technologies I’ve been playing with at IBM.com/cognitive. And if you’d like to discuss any more of my findings behind the data, and would like an even geekier conversation, I’d be happy to oblige. Just drop me a note in the comments or say hello on twitter @jeremywaite.

“Whoever tells the best stories goes home with the most marbles”.

The Science (If you *REALLY* want to know)…

The Personality Models

The Personality Insights service from IBM Watson is based on the psychology of language in combination with data analytics algorithms. The service analyzes the content that you send and returns a personality profile for the author of the input. The service infers personality characteristics based on three models:

  • Big Five personality characteristics represent the most widely used model for generally describing how a person engages with the world. The model includes five primary dimensions:
  • Agreeableness is a person’s tendency to be compassionate and cooperative toward others.
  • Conscientiousness is a person’s tendency to act in an organized or thoughtful way.
  • Extraversion is a person’s tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others.
  • Emotional Range, also referred to as Neuroticism or Natural Reactions, is the extent to which a person’s emotions are sensitive to the person’s environment.
  • Openness is the extent to which a person is open to experiencing a variety of activities.
  • Each of these top-level dimensions has six facets that further characterize an individual according to the dimension.
  • Needs describe which aspects of a product will resonate with a person. The model includes twelve characteristic needs: Excitement, Harmony, Curiosity, Ideal, Closeness, Self-expression, Liberty, Love, Practicality, Stability, Challenge, and Structure.
  • Values describe motivating factors that influence a person’s decision making. The model includes five values: Self-transcendence / Helping others, Conservation / Tradition, Hedonism / Taking pleasure in life, Self-enhancement / Achieving success, and Open to change / Excitement.

The science behind the service

A well-accepted theory of psychology, marketing, and other fields is that human language reflects personality, thinking style, social connections, and emotional states. The frequency with which we use certain categories of words can provide clues to these characteristics. Several researchers found that variations in word usage in writings such as blogs, essays, and tweets can predict aspects of personality (Fast & Funder, 2008; Gill et al., 2009; Golbeck et al., 2011; Hirsh & Peterson, 2009; and Yarkoni, 2010).

IBM conducted a set of studies to understand whether personality characteristics inferred from social media data can predict people’s behavior and preferences. IBM found that people with specific personality characteristics responded and re-tweeted in higher numbers in information-collection and -spreading tasks. For example, people who score high on excitement-seeking are more likely to respond, while those who score high on cautiousness are less likely to do so (Mahmud et al., 2013). Similarly, people who score high on modesty, openness, and friendliness are more likely to spread information (Lee et al., 2014).

IBM also found that people with high openness and low emotional range (neuroticism) as inferred from social media language responded more favorably (for example, by clicking an advertisement link or following an account), results that have been corroborated with survey-based, ground-truth checking. For example, targeting the top 10 percent of users in terms of high openness and low emotional range resulted in increases in click rate from 6.8 percent to 11.3 percent and in follow rate from 4.7 percent to 8.8 percent.

Multiple recent studies disclosed similar results for characteristics that were computed from social media data. One recent study with retail store data found that people who score high in orderliness, self-discipline, and cautiousness and low in immoderation are 40 percent more likely to respond to coupons than the random population. A second study found that people with specific values showed specific reading interests (Hsieh et al. 2014). For example, people with a higher self-transcendence value demonstrated an interest in reading articles about the environment, and people with a higher self-enhancement value showed an interest in reading articles about work. A third study of more than 600 Twitter users found that a person’s personality characteristics can predict their brand preference with 65 percent accuracy.

The following sections expand upon these high-level findings to describe the research and development behind the Personality Insights service. For more information about studies that apply the service to tangible scenarios, see The service in action.


Understanding the personality models

For the Personality Insights service, IBM developed models to infer scores for Big Five dimensions and facets, Needs, and Values from textual information. The models reported by the service are based on research in the fields of psychology, psycholinguistics, and marketing:

  • Big Five is one of the best studied of the personality models developed by psychologists (Costa & McCrae, 1992, and Norman, 1963). It is the most widely used personality model to describe how a person generally engages with the world. The service computes the five dimensions and thirty facets of the model. The dimensions are often referred to by the mnemonic OCEAN, where O stands for Openness, C for Conscientiousness, E for Extraversion, A for Agreeableness, and N for Neuroticism. (Because the term Neuroticism can have a specific clinical meaning, the service presents such insights under the more generally applicable heading Emotional Range.)
  • Needs are an important aspect of human behavior. Research literature suggests that several types of human needs are universal and directly influence consumer behavior (Kotler & Armstrong, 2013, and Ford, 2005). The twelve categories of needs that are reported by the service are described in marketing literature as desires that a person hopes to fulfill when considering a product or service.
  • Values convey what is most important to an individual. They are “desirable, trans-situational goals, varying in importance, that serve as guiding principles in people’s lives” (Schwartz, 2006). Schwartz summarizes five features that are common to all values: (1) values are beliefs; (2) values are a motivational construct; (3) values transcend specific actions and situations; (4) values guide the selection or evaluation of actions, policies, people, and events; and (5) values vary by relative importance and can be ranked accordingly. The service computes the five basic human values proposed by Schwartz and validated in more than twenty countries (Schwartz, 1992).

For more on how Personality Insights are calculated based upon established >> http://www.ibm.com/watson/developercloud/doc/personality-insights/models.shtml#outputValues

If you enjoyed all that – you’ll LOVE this >>

Communications Designer @IBM • Climate Reality Leader • Lover of Old Business Books, Clever Technology and the NHS • Based in London, UK.

%d bloggers like this: