Under the hood: Cameron Russell’s TED Talk

In 2012, Cameron Russell took the TED stage. She wore a beautiful black dress and high heels and presented herself as a model. She certainly looked like a model, so no one in the audience was really surprised. But before moving on with the talk, she did something that no one had done on TED before. She changed her outfit on stage. And by doing that, she changed her persona. 

The contrast between the fashionable, sexy outfit and the plain, everyday dress and shoes achieved the desired effect. This visual metamorphosis worked perfectly. It was well scripted and designed. After less than a minute, the audience saw an entirely different person in front of them. They saw the real person talking to them instead of the model’s well-crafted image. Instead of making herself the center of attention, Cameron Russell had managed to shift the focus to what she had to say. 

It was more than just a gimmick. The two outfits and what they represent, the change in our perception, and the fact that this change happened in less than a minute and using the simplest means created tension. This tension would not have been possible if Cameron had worn the plain outfit when we first saw her. But this contrast did much more than just catch everyone’s attention. It managed to set the tone for the entire talk. It was a statement: “I am about to show you that your perception of modeling, and me as a model, is wrong. In fact, it is a lie.”

Thanks to this well-played contrast, the keynote of the talk came to life in front of our eyes. 

Tension Captures Our Attention 

Visual artists and designers know just how powerful tension is. The human mind is programmed to tune into areas of tension where a pattern is broken or our expectations for consistency or “more of the same” fail. This tendency could be related to the element of surprise — surprises wake up our brain and make it more alert. But even when the tension itself is expected, it draws our attention. And the greater the tension between elements is, the more attentive and focused on it we become.

What is valid for visual design is equally true for rhetorics and textual content. Tension in form or between ideas creates interest. It creates movement — a sense of dynamics. Tension keeps the audience alert and engaged.

Building tension into your text is not always a good design choice. It can backfire when you use tension only to draw attention without any real connection to the ideas you wish to communicate. In such cases, instead of focusing on the ideas you set out to convey, your audience might be drawn to where the artificial tension is. Pointing a spotlight to something has a positive effect only if you point it to the right place at the right time. 

When used correctly, tension harnesses attention and guides the audience to where you want them to be. It serves the flow of your text instead of getting in its way. And when, like in Cameron Russell’s TED talk, the keynote of your text is embodied in the tension itself, it becomes one of your essential design tools. 

Contrast is tension on steroids. 

While tension can be implicit or subtle, contrast is practically always explicit and visible. Tension can be created by posing a question and not answering it. The lack of response creates a gap the audience wishes to fill. But for contrast to work, the two elements must be confronted — they have to be vividly present for the audience to process. Black and white create contrast only if the two of them are explicitly shown. You cannot create visual contrast between a dark area and the abstract concept of white. 

Contrast also relies on proximity that is not required for other forms of tension. For example, you can create tension by describing a dilemma at the beginning of your text and resolving it toward the end. But placing two contrasting concepts far from each other might have little or no impact. The closer the two opposing elements are, the greater the effect on the audience is. 

Throughout her talk, Cameron Russell uses contrast in different ways, and for an excellent reason. Her text is all about contrast — the difference between how we perceive her and what she really is. Using contrast to make this point forces us to acknowledge and confront this gap. And this is far more effective than just telling us her side of the story without contrasting it with her public image. 

The Power of Black and White 

Contrast can be manifested in various ways. The most impactful of them is visual contrast.

We are visual creatures. We process visual information more quickly and effectively than reading a textual description and translating it into a mental image. But more importantly, when using visuals, we can place two contrasting elements side-by-side within the same scene, thus creating the ultimate proximity. The visual contrast becomes more vivid — we literally see it in front of us. When using text or sound, we are forced to process the two elements one after the other. The contrast is still there, but it is likely less powerful and immediate.

In her talk, Cameron Russell wisely uses visual contrast by presenting photos of her modeling and pictures from her real-life side-by-side. Without any explanation needed, we see Cameron as a woman on one side of the frame and as a young (maybe even too young) teenager on the other. We see her as a one-of-a-kind model in one image, and at the same time as this perfectly normal kid, you probably won’t notice on the street. We see fantasy vs. reality in a split second. And it creates an outstanding impact. Any other form of presenting or discussing this gap — the illusion created by the perfectly crafted magazine images — would be far less effective. Presenting these images side-by-side makes all the difference. 

The directness of visual contrast makes it more memorable — it resonates longer. More than remembering the images, we remember the tension created between them. Our mind wants to fill this gap, so we are no longer passive observers — we become active participants, even if unconsciously. Any form of contrast can be thought-provoking, but visual contrast has a presence that cannot be ignored. 

Whenever you can express contrast visually — do it. Use side-by-side photos, drawings, diagrams, or charts, but make sure you can do it in a way that flows naturally with the rest of the text. 

Contrast is not limited to visual elements, though, and Cameron Russell’s talk is weaved with rhetorical contrast that helps emphasize the keynote and make her ideas more potent.

It starts with the statement, “Image is powerful, but image is also superficial.” Literally speaking, this statement is not 100% phrased as a contrast. ‘Superficial’ is not the opposite of ‘powerful,’ but we consider images a powerful medium and attribute this power to depth. We were taught that a picture is worth 1000 words. In that sense, ‘superficial’ is the opposite. The image can barely tell the real story, according to Cameron Russell. Leaving the choice of words aside, the idea conveyed in this sentence is contrasted with our perception of (or expectations from) visual images. 

When Cameron Russell is asked, “Can I be a model when I grow up?” she immediately answers: “Why?!” Once again, she creates a powerful contrast. We expect an answer to the question, but Cameron contrasts the question altogether by posing another simple yet impactful question, suggesting the idea of choosing to model as a career is not wise. Simply stating, “You don’t really want to pick this for a career,” wouldn’t have made much of an impact. But the contrast between the naive question and the harsh answer makes the idea memorable and its effect long-lasting. 

And when asked, “What is it like to be a model?” Cameron replies: “We’re the most insecure women probably on the planet.” It is the perfect contrast between what we expect and think we know and the reality as Cameron knows it. Images are superficial, and there is no good reason to be a model, despite this industry’s glamorous perception. But there is much more to it than that. What you see is a lie. Deep inside, we are the complete opposite of the image we are paid to project. 

Contrast should not be confused with incoherency. When you communicate your ideas, you must be coherent. Zigzagging is never a good approach, and confusing the audience with contradicting statements will not serve your goal. But using contrast wisely is neither of these. 

When you use contrast correctly, all the bits of your text work together and lead your audience in the same direction. The tension between the contrasting elements becomes the point, and you should be sure this point is aligned and coherent with the idea you aim to convey. Cameron Russell’s talk is a perfect example of using these contrasting bits to direct the audience to the main idea: “you’ve got it all wrong!”

Make Contrast Work

Tension and Contrast are tools. Like any rhetorical tool, you should consider where they could come in handy and when they will distract the audience or convey the wrong message. Cameron Russell’s talk is full of contrast, and that is a conscious design choice that works perfectly and helps her create the experience she aimed for. 

When you are confident that contrast can promote your goal, there are still some things to consider if you wish to maximize its impact. 

CREATE STRUCTURAL SYMMETRY 

The simplest way to create an effective contrast is using symmetry. Structural symmetry is powerful both in visual communication and in rhetorics. 

Consider this powerful statement from Cameron Russell’s talk: 

“I got these free things because of how I look, not who I am, and there are people paying a cost for how they look and not who they are.”

This sentence includes two levels of symmetry. The first is between the phrases “how I look” and “who I am.” These two phrases sound similar and look similar. There is an inherent tension (and in this talk, even contrast) between them, amplified by the structural symmetry. The second level of symmetry is between the two parts of the sentence: “I got these free things…” and “there are people paying a cost…” Both these parts are structured the same way and even use the same phrasing “how I/they look, not who I/they am/are.” The same idea could have been conveyed with a shorter sentence simply by choosing a different wording. But the decision to express these ideas using two symmetry levels helps the message penetrate. Nobody can ignore it, and it will likely resonate for a long time. 

Symmetry makes the contrast more apparent. The gap between the contrasting concepts is much more vivid and present when the backdrop is symmetrical. When all else is equal, the gap is emphasized, and that is precisely the point of using contrast in the first place. 

The benefit of structural symmetry explains why proximity is essential when using contrast. To make the symmetry apparent, the two sides must be close to each other. The vaster the area they spread across, the less noticeable the symmetry is. 

USE THE MENTAL MODEL OF THE AUDIENCE 

Often, the most effective contrast is created without even having to present the two contrasting elements. This is possible when one of the concepts is deeply rooted in the collective mental model. 

The statement “We’re the most insecure women probably on the planet” is strong and impactful, even when it stands by itself. But when a famous model says it, it creates a contrast that you cannot stay indifferent to. The reason is that the concept of being insecure clashes with how we thinkabout models. Cameron shutters our perception of what being a model is. And whether you take it as is or set out to fight it, this contrast makes this text memorable. If there is one thing I will remember from this talk, it is this sentence. 

Surprise is one of the most effective tools for creating attention, triggering a reaction, and establishing a memorable experience. The impact is even greater when you manage to surprise your audience by breaking their existing mental model. When you plan to use contrast in your text, aim to create a clash between what people already think and the new story that you tell. The combined power of surprise, contrast, and a sense of discovery and wonder is priceless. 

STRATEGIC CONTRAST VS. TACTICAL CONTRAST

Since contrast is a powerful tool for communicating ideas, it can easily be misused or overused. When you use contrast tactically, just as a tool for capturing the audience’s attention, it shows. It can work, but only so much.

When the contrast is built into the keynote of your text — the key idea you aim to communicate — it works best. Cameron Russell’s talk is an extreme example of that. Her entire talk is about contrast, so it is no surprise that Cameron has decided to weave contrast throughout her text. It is not just an accessory — it is the essence of her idea. 

Can every idea benefit from using contrast? Probably not. Can every idea use contrast naturally? Absolutely not. When designing a text, one of the most difficult tasks is to identify opportunities such as this one and use the right tools to leverage them. No less critical is knowing when using a tool such as contrast is not natural and might create a backlash. As a general rule, if the idea you wish to convey is right there in the middle of the gap between two contrasting elements, using contrast will work great. And if one of these concepts is rooted in a bias or false mental model of the audience, using contrast will work perfectly. 

This is not to say that you should use contrast only in these cases. Eventually, it’s a design choice, and like many other such decisions, trying the text on people you can trust to provide you with honest feedback is your safest bet. 


When used correctly, contrast leaves a strong impression. When it is hooked into the message you wish to convey, it becomes an essential tool. And when you manage to contrast the way your audience experiences the world, it can fill them with wonder. Every time they have related experiences, they will be drawn back to the alternate picture you have sketched, and your ideas will echo longer in their minds.

Reflect

Look around you for visual contrast. Notice how it draws your attention.

Next, look for contrast in a piece of text. Does it contribute to making the point stronger? Does it through you off track?

Play

Consider an idea you wish to communicate and try to use contrast to make it more impactful and memorable.

Not every idea will benefit from adding contrast to the way it is expressed. If it doesn’t feel natural, try again with a different idea.

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