Crowdsourcing Experiments

November 7, 2017

by LIOR ZOREF @lior

One of the moments that turn a good presentation into an extraordinary experience happens when the speaker conducts a surprising real-time experiment on stage to demonstrate their idea. When the experiment succeeds, the WOW-effect generates a better understanding of complex ideas.

I always try to hold an experiment on stage during my talks, ask the audience a question and demonstrate how their collective intelligence is better than most of them as individuals. Those experiments portray how the wisdom of crowds occurs in real time (and they are also a lot of fun).

During my TED talk, I recreated the famous Ox experiment. The Ox was only on stage for a minute, but that moment resonated in the minds of the audience and helped me deliver the idea that WE are smarter than ME.

Calculating an Ox weight is nice experiment, but to understand the power of crowdsourcing for businesses, I use a different experiment. After describing an industry challenge (which is different for each event), I ask people for their idea on how to solve this challenge. Here’s an example from Element Fleet event where I asked fleet managers how to improve their fleet costs.


Here are a few examples of the experiments I have performed (if you ever invite me for a talk, this will inspire you to think of an experiment that may fit your event).

First and foremost, if you can bring a real Ox (here’s a list of companies that help), I’m always happy to recreate my TED experiment. Here’s the Ox I had during a talk to the Fidelity Investment management team in Boston.

If providing an Ox is not an option, any other object relevant to the event context may do. Otherwise, I usually show this famous Spencer Tunick photo from the Dead Sea. I ask the audience how many people they think appear in this picture. Then I divide the answers into specific ranges (between 100 and 300, between 300 and 500, etc.), and ask people to raise their hand accordingly. We then estimate the average and see how close it is to the real number.

At one engagement, my contact said that they couldn’t bring a real Ox due to a budget constraint. They did, however, manage to bring a goat…

During another talk at an open amphitheater in front of 2,000 people, we released about 120 pigeons that flew over the crowd. I asked the participants how many pigeons they had seen.

An experiment doesn’t necessarily have to include animals. Here are a few examples where I used objects that made sense. Car manufacturers always love to bring a car of their make. Here are a couple of examples from an event Mercedes Benz held for high-end customers, and another at Element Fleet in Washington DC.

Photo by Edwin Remsberg

Similarly, at a talk to the police force, I asked what the motorcycle’s weight was as it entered the stage, while making a very loud noise that caught everyone’s attention.

During a talk at a large manufacturing plant, I was lifted on a large crane from the plant, and asked the participants to estimate its height…

The experiment could also be related to the location of the lecture. When I was invited to talk in Vegas, I jumped from the famous Stratosphere tower, which is 1,149 feet tall (350 meters). I showed a video recording of my jump to the audience and asked them to estimate the height of the tower. Here’s my jump (I still get nervous when I watch this!).

By now you are probably asking yourself, have I ever failed in one of these experiments?

Yes. At present, I’ve only failed once. Here’s that story (from my book, Mindsharing):

Yossi Vardi is a famous Israeli entrepreneur, investor, and a really nice guy. In 2012, Yossi was the moderator for the closing session of the Chief Scientist’s Annual Conference for Research and Development. The program promised that in this last session, “Speakers on the forefront of technological development will give dynamic and concise opinions on new trends.” Yossi asked me to be on the panel.

I wanted to demonstrate crowd wisdom in real time for this audience. An ox was out of the question, so I decided to see whether crowd wisdom could guess the weight of a person.

Yossi volunteered to be that person. Yossi is a bit chubby. He is also a great sport.

He stood at the center of the stage and slowly turned in a circle so the crowd could get a view of him in all his glory. Each person guessed his weight, and I quickly calculated an estimated average.

Then, with the crowd’s answer in hand, I dramatically turned to Yossi for the reveal. I asked him if the crowd was right, had they accurately guessed his weight?

Yossi slowly shook his head. No. The crowd had not guessed his weight. They weren’t even close. It was the first time that crowd wisdom had failed me. Yossi was happy, because it was obvious the crowd thought he weighed much less than he did, and while this made the audience laugh, I was puzzled and confused.

After the panel session ended, I was anxious to understand why the experiment had failed. I asked a few people what their estimate had been. They immediately apologized and said, “We’re sorry. We didn’t want to embarrass him in public by guessing his real weight.”

An embarrassed crowd is quite rare. The crowd had failed at guessing Yossi’s weight, but they had imparted their own wisdom into the experiment.

Yossi and I had thought the whole experiment would be funny. The crowd taught us otherwise. They had refused to play because I had made them uncomfortable. Since then, I never publicly embarrass someone in service to an idea, even if he happily volunteers to participate.

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