Shankar Vedantam at TC16

10 Nov 2016

Communication, Change and Motivation - Shankar Vedantam at TC16

Tim Archer

Shankar Vedantam, NPR's social science correspondent and the host of the Hidden Brain podcast, took the opening keynote on day two at Tableau Conference 2016 to talk about communication, change and motivation. Many of Shankar's thoughts and theories can be linked back to the world of data and analytics. This is particularly pertinent when we think about creating a culture within an organisation that will increase adoption of new solutions and tools. Fostering a culture where people want change will often be more beneficial than policies and standards dictating how data and analytics should be leveraged.

A common theme that ran throughout Shankar's session was our unconscious processing of information and being influenced by our experiences and surroundings. Take a moment to consider the two images below:

Shankar Vedantam Tableau Conference Keynote

In the first image most of us are compelled to dive into the numbers to look for an error, rapidly processing the sequence of the numbers – some would even try to work out if there is a pattern in the colour encoding. However, many of us would have struggled to spot 'the the mistake'. We rapidly process the information, and we fail to see what is actually there. In contrast, the second image of the moon allows people to see something that is not there. Some people see Einstein, whereas others will see Saddam Hussein – often depending on influences that the individual has been exposed to previously.


Shankar spoke at length about how communication methods can impact people's decisions and influence them. He shared examples where communication had the desired outcomes and instances where communication could lead people to actively refute what they are being told.

In one example Shankar told the story of the 'Insinko 1907', a tanker that experienced a terrible fire in 2002 which left it without power and satellite communications to put out a rescue call. The ship was spotted, and the crew were saved, however, the captain's puppy was left aboard the ship during the rescue of the crew. The story of the puppy spread throughout the USA and hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated to help bring the dog to safety. The story concluded with the US Coast Guard spending a reported $250,000 of taxpayers money to rescue the puppy (full story can be found here). What Shankar demonstrated with this example is how powerful a story is compared to raw data and visualisations. The fact that such amount of money donated by civilians may have helped thousands of other animals did not seem relevant. The story contributed to creating a narrative that grabbed people's imagination, encouraging them to be part of the solution.

We see the importance of stories in data analytics. It would be incorrect to assume that giving someone a visualisation will necessarily help them make a decision to improve a process or solve a problem. Visualisation and dashboards that provide context offer the user a story to follow or allow them to make their own story, enabling them to emotionally connect with their data and solve problems.


Shankar shared his thoughts on motivation and used data to help demonstrate why some people may be motivated to take certain courses of action – even if there is data to suggest that other courses of action may be more beneficial. He used penalty kicks in football as an example of how goalkeepers are motivated by the way in which fans react to their actions, rather than approaching a penalty kick in a rational fashion. Below is a table that describes the outcomes of 286 penalty kicks taken in European domestic and international games:

Shankar Vedantam Tableau Conference Keynote

It would appear from this data that goalkeepers do not like to stay in the centre of their goal. In fact, this blog goes further, analyses save success rates and come to the conclusion that goalkeepers are 50% more likely to save a penalty by staying in the centre of the goal. So why do they dive to the left or right? Perhaps because the fans motivate them to do so and will berate them if they simply stayed in the middle of the goal while the ball is struck either side of them, even if the odds are in their favour. They are motivated to impress their fans.


Change can be difficult as it can often present humans with the feeling of uncertainty – especially when people are told to change, rather than making their own conscious decision to drive or support the change. Shankar commented that people are often reluctant to act in a different way as they struggle to believe that the future benefit on offer will be realised – which may be traced back to an instance where they had been let down before.

Shankar used 'The Marshmallow Study' to describe this. The experiment offered children one marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows if they waited 5 minutes. However, the children that did wait 5 minutes were told that there was no second marshmallow. When the same children were a subject of the same study later on, they remembered being burnt and lost their trust, taking the option for a single marshmallow straight away.

Gaining buy-in and proving the benefits of a solution at the earliest stage is critical to overcoming people's 'Hidden Brain' that makes them reluctant to change. However, rather than convince people to change, Shankar stated that making people own the solution and drive the change will make it far more successful – something we have seen many times over when working with our clients.

Tim Archer

About the author

Tim Archer - Consulting Manager. I visualise data to help our clients see and understand their business better as a living! I enjoy visualising all sorts of data – particularly sporting and current affair data. My blog articles will usually pull together multiple sources of data to uncover interesting insights and offer different perspectives. No matter what the subject, they will always leverage visualisation best practices to present stunning insight to the masses.

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