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J.J. Abrams: The mystery box

written by MO.com Subject Matter Resource – Luke Jones

Understanding Great Presentations:  A TED Talk by J.J. Abrams

In order to create great work, one must study great work.

At the heart of every good presentation, there is a methodical approach to its structure and delivery. Every point made, every joke cracked and every pause taken is calculated in advance and practiced with diligence.

The great Steve Jobs was obsessed with his keynotes because he believed they were great for unveiling new products. He would spend hours and hours practicing them, often driving his co-workers mad in the process.

Whether it’s a business report, a local fundraiser or a conference, a presentation done well can strongly alter people’s mindsets and inspire them to learn about, believe in and achieve great things. In order to achieve this, you must practice the way you deliver your message.

An excellent way to practice is to observe and analyze the structure and delivery of a great presentation from a talented presenter. You can learn a considerable amount about presentations by simply watching, but you gain a deeper understanding by breaking down the structure and asking yourself, “Why is this great? What does this guy do in particular to make it so good?”

This is a process that we use at Big Fish to educate our clients on what makes great presentations great. We have broken down a TED Talk by J.J. Abrams called “Mystery Box” in order to give you a concrete example of what I’m talking about.

We know. It’s very, very long. However, we believe this is crucial in understanding presentations and reiterating the concepts to our clients. Check it out!



• :21 – 24

o Loosens up audience with humor

• :40 -1:08

o Addresses theme for presentation: “mystery”

• 1:09

o Introduces personal story

o Tells the presentation like a story, not like a pitch

o How the grandfather impacted Abrams

o Shows how important he sees his grandfather; he characterizes his grandfather throughout so that the audience can relate to the grandfather in later examples and feel the way that Abrams does about the grandfather. Everyone’s on the same page.

o This is a pivotal moment in the presentation where he established an emotional connection.

• From this point on, Abrams will nurture the connection he has forged with the audience by showcasing further character traits and concepts that will reinforce Abrams’ points.

• 2:07

o Paints a picture of himself interacting and being influenced by this character (his grandfather)

• 2:15

o Shows props for visual aid

o Builds up how Abrams loves boxes

• 2:44

o His grandfather inspired him to make stuff

• 2:47

o Lends credibility to his grandfather for planting the idea of film in Abrams’ mind

• 2:55

o Shows the importance of his grandfather’s gift and how important it was for him in the beginning

• 3:37

o Ties the story together

o It helped Abrams’ realize his dream of making things

o Abrams is revealing the theme of this introduction—the point of the story: why he’s so inclined to make things (his grandfather’s influence)

• 3:45

o Beginning of second story

• 3:59

o Set the scene

o Elevators leading to the magic shop

o Magical atmosphere in a magic shop

o Using powerful words and imagery to make the audience feel like they are witnessing the setting

• 4:03

o Demonstrates a magic trick

o Further emphasizes the story (gives credibility to the story)

• 4:13

o Unveils an object, which creates suspense

o Tied this together very well by introducing the magic shop

• 4:37

o Tells the audience his thought process, which induces the audience’s thought process

• 5:01

o Culmination of all the questions

o Leads to a final questions: “why have I not opened it?”

• 5:07

o Answers all the previous questions and reveals the point of this second story: it represents his grandfather

• 5:10

o Pauses for effect

• 5:23

o Reveals a deeper meaning to the box: it represents infinite possibility

o His grandfather helped him to realize what infinite possibility means

• 5:35

o Defines what the box means to him and how it has led him to do what he does

o Sets the stage for the audience to relate as well

o If it makes him feel this way, the audience begins to feel the same way

• 5:42

o “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination”

o This is the theme of the entire presentation

o He has tied together the themes of the last two stories to illustrate a larger point

o This is the “profound statement” that Abrams mentioned earlier (TED told him to be profound)

• 5:46

o Begins telling another story

o “Mystery is more important than knowledge” is the initial statement that sparks this story

• 5:56

o Revisits the mystery box concept, but explores it and how it relates to his own work

• 6:05

o Talks about the process of writing “Lost”

o Relating this process to the theme of the story

o “What could this be?” is a question that invites the audience to think about the mystery that was involved when creating “Lost”

• 6:13

o Addresses the audience by saying “I’m sure you all know people..”

o He highlights that there was no time for these kind of questions, saying that it “is kind of amazing” actually

• 6:32

o Shows a clip from “Lost”

o The audience is now on the same page

• Everyone is now aware of the feel of “Lost”

• 7:33

o Tells a joke

• 8:01

o “That blank page is a magic box”

o Powerful metaphor

o Also relates back to the mystery box concept

• 8:38

o “What are stories but mystery boxes?” is a question that reinforces the metaphor

o The blank page is now filled up with stories, which then turn into more and more mystery boxes

• 8:45

o Lays out the concept of stories

o The first act is the teaser

o Makes the transition from concept of stories being like mystery boxes to the implementation of the concept into storytelling

• 8:48

o Gives examples of implementation of concept with storytelling

o Star Wars

• 9:19

o Shifts into another type of mystery: imagination

• 9:30 +

o Withholding information (a.k.a. mystery boxes) makes stories more compelling and meaningful

• 10:00

o Final thoughts about the mystery box

o Transitions into a new meaning of mystery box concept

• 10:03

o Setting the stage for the next theme of the story: “What you think you’re getting, then what you’re really getting.”

• 10:10

o Using a story (movie) to illustrate the point of mystery boxes as examples of character development

o The mystery box concept applies to these stories (E.T., Die Hard, Jaws) because the underlying meaning is masked by the surface premise of the films (i.e. ET is really about a divorce and a family and a little kid who has lost his way, but on the surface is about an alien and a kid)

• 10:40

o Uses an example (clip from Jaws) to illustrate the previously stated theme and further enhance his point

o It shows the audience (physically shows them) what specifically he is talking about

o Everyone is on the same page and can clearly comprehend the connections being made between concept and example

• 12:28

o Abrams sees that the investment of character is really inside the box

• 12:45

o “Ultimately, you know, the mystery box is all of us.”

• 12:49

o Metaphor

o Movie theater is a big mystery box

• 13:12

o Identifies himself as an apple fanatic, which is why he watches Steve Jobs and how Jobs relates back to the mystery box himself

o Transition into another story that will be used as an example

• 13:35

o The mystery box has come full circle (apple products inspired him to create “Lost”, and in turn “Lost” is used to sell apple products)

• 14:00

o Relates back to the grandfather in his example of the tools that people have now, he only had limited access to when he was a kid

o Technology is more accessible now than it used to be (when he was a kid)

• 14:22

o “The most incredible sort of mystery, I think, is now the question of what comes next.”

• 14:26

o The creation of media is everywhere

• 14:35

o There is much more opportunity out there than what Abrams was exposed to when he was a kid

• 15:12

o “No community is best served when only the elite have control”

o Revealing the theme: anyone can create mystery boxes

• 15:33

o Scene from Mission Impossible 3

• 16:57

o Talks about a scene in MI3

o Incorporates the Super 8 camera from the first story of the presentation

o This brings back his original theme of making things and using the tools and the innovation that he used and learned from as a child

o These lessons and tools are applied to his current work

• 17:51

o “The mystery box, in honor of my grandfather, stays closed.”

o This ties up the entire theme of the presentation: the mystery box, with the examples and explanations of the lessons learned from his grandfather.



Movies can be made and stories can be told by anyone using technology that is accessible to them. This, combined with the compelling “mystery box” factor, allows the creation of quality entertainment to be possible.

All of the elements in this presentation are equally important and play different roles in telling Abrams’ story. The description of his grandfather, the various movie clips and even the slight pauses are all manufactured by Abrams as a way to tell a fantastic, magical story.

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