From the Stage: A Possibility to Live Into

As you’ll know if you’ve read The Science of Speaking, Benjamin Zander’s talk at TED 2008 is probably my favorite talk of all time, for a whole variety of reasons. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do so now, and I’ve embedded it below so you have no excuse not to. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

While there are many lessons for speaking we can take from this talk: his infectious enthusiasm, emotional demo, and the essential concept of “shining eyes,” in this post, I want to highlight his finale, which I’ve reproduced below (though you can—and should!—also watch it above):

So now, I have one last thought, which is that it really makes a difference what we say — the words that come out of our mouth. I learned this from a woman who survived Auschwitz, one of the rare survivors. She went to Auschwitz when she was 15 years old. And her brother was eight, and the parents were lost. And she told me this, she said, “We were in the train going to Auschwitz, and I looked down and saw my brother’s shoes were missing. I said, ‘Why are you so stupid, can’t you keep your things together for goodness’ sake?'” The way an elder sister might speak to a younger brother. Unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to him, because she never saw him again. He did not survive. And so when she came out of Auschwitz, she made a vow. She told me this. She said, “I walked out of Auschwitz into life and I made a vow. And the vow was, “I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.” Now, can we do that? No. And we’ll make ourselves wrong and others wrong. But it is a possibility to live into.

In keeping with the philosophy of yesterday’s post, I have nothing to add, except to say that is something that I think we’d do well to consider anytime we’re giving a speech: is this something that could stand as the last thing I ever say? Of course, as Zander notes, we can’t always do that. “But it is a possibility to live into.”

From the Lab: Curiosity Primed the Memory

In The Science of Speaking, I note that one of the most effective ways of interesting your audience is to find ways to arouse their curiosity. A recent study at UC Davis, reported by Scientific American, expands on this idea even further, finding that not only will curiosity make it more likely for your audience to pay attention to your message: it will also make it more likely they’ll remember it.

In the study, participants were asked to review a variety of trivia questions and rate how curious they were about the answers. Next, they were presented with a subset of these questions—half that they found interesting, and half that they found uninteresting. Shortly after each question was presented, participants viewed the photograph of a face that was unrelated to the question, and then saw the answer. A little while later, participants were tested to see how well they recalled both the answers, and the faces.

Interestingly, greater curiosity about a question led not only to better recall of the answer to that question, but also better recall of the unrelated picture that preceded it. A follow-up test the next day found the same results: a curious brain is better able to recall not only that which it is curious about, but also unrelated information that’s presented in that curious state. It appears that curiosity primes the brain for learning.

As a speaker, you can use this knowledge to good effect. As you’re crafting your presentations, think of ways you can arouse your audience’s curiosity: the easiest way to do this is simply to ask an interesting questions that your audience doesn’t know the answers to (but will want to). Then, while your audience is in this curious state, you can present your key points either as the answers to these questions (this is probably the ideal way to do it), or at the very least, before the answers are revealed. This way, your audience will be primed for learning, and more likely to remember what you want them to.

From the Lab: The Nerve Curve

In The Science of Speaking, I note that everyone gets nervous about speaking in public. But there are several other more subtle considerations that I didn’t quite get around to addressing in the book. For example, how nervous does everyone get, and when?

As it turns out, studies have shown that a speaker’s level of anxiety changes over time, with different levels of nervousness occurring at different stages in the speech-making process. This leads me to wonder what a chart of nervousness vs. time would look like. In other words, can we plot a “nerve curve”?

Thanks to data from Ralph Behnke and his colleagues, we can. In two studies, they measured the anxiety levels at six different stages in the speaking process. Here’s a plot of the data they collected.

Nervousness starts when you find out that you need to give a speech (labeled “Assignment” above). From there, it decreases slightly as you prepare your speech (“Preparation”). But as the speech approaches, nervousness increases again (“Anticipation”), up to the moment when you begin your speech, when nervousness is at an all-time high (“Introduction”).

As you continue speaking, however, nervousness begins to fade, steadily decreasing from the beginning of your speech to the end (“Conclusion”). After your speech is finally over, nervousness falls to an all-time low (“Completion”).

There are several important lessons we can take from this curve.

First, the beginning of your speech is the worst part—once you get past that, it’s all downhill from there. This suggests that one good way of managing nervousness is to really prepare your introduction, totally nailing your hook, thesis, and preview. Once you get through those initial elements, you’ll already be feeling much better.

Second, the closer to the beginning of your speech you get, the more nervous you are going to feel, so the closer to the beginning of your speech you can practice the techniques you learned for managing nervousness in The Science of Speaking, the better.

Third, though it often doesn’t feel this way to the speaker—who often feels like only they suffer from nervousness—it really is a universal phenomenon, well-defined enough that we plot a curve of it. And while this may not make all of your nervousness go away, perhaps it will help a little bit to know we’re all in this together.




From the Lab: More Isn’t Always Better

Previously, I’ve noted that it’s important to “remember the iceberg” and present only the most relevant 10% of what you know about your topic to your audience. As it turns out, this is not only practical (you only have time to present 10%)—it can actually be even better for your audience (and your cause).

In Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention, Benn Parr cites a 2008 study in which “researchers at Yale University and the University of Innsbruck found that stock traders with more financial and market information did not perform better than their counterparts. Instead, the quality of information mattered more. In their research, they learned that well-informed traders—specifically insiders—clearly had the best financial performance, not because they had the most amount of information but because they had the best information.”

While it’s tempting to think that if you give your audience more information, they’ll automatically make better decisions, this isn’t necessarily the case. Not being experts on your topic, the audience needs your help to know what’s important. Seen through this lens, your job as a speaker is not to share everything you’ve learned about your topic, but rather to pre-digest your topic for your audience, sharing only the information that’s really important to them, the information that will help them make better decisions (and in doing so, hopefully support your cause).

From the Lab: The Motivating Power of Identity

In a 2011 study, when prospective voters were asked “How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?” they were significantly more likely to be interested in voting than they were when they were asked ““How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?” (emphasis added) In addition, they were significantly more likely to actually go out and vote (95.5% turnout vs. 81.8% turnout).

Simply by changing the part of speech of a word (from the verb “to vote” to the noun “voter“), researchers tapped into the motivating power of identity: while voting is just something you occasionally do, being a voter is part of who you are. As the researchers note, “although the wording manipulation in these studies was subtle and rigorously controlled, the effects observed in [these experiments] are among the largest experimental effects ever observed on objectively measured voter turnout.”

You too can tap into this powerful motivation by asking your audience to be (or not be) a noun, rather than simply asking them to do (or not do) a verb. As the researchers note, this effect is likely to hold true for other moral identities (being “a healthy eater” is better than “eating healthy”), and the opposite effect is likely to hold true for negative behaviors (i.e., being “a quitter” is worse than “quitting”).

From the Lab: Congruence and Contrast

In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly talk about the importance of making sure all aspects of your speech are congruent: your message vocal tone, facial expressions, and visuals should all support each other, rather than fighting against each other.

While ensuring this kind of congruence is essential, studies have shown that—when used well—contrast can also be effective. For example, in a classic study at Haverford College, congruent or contrasting music was played either before or during a film clip. As expected, when the background music during a clip was congruent, participants remembered the clip better than when it was contrasting. But when the music was played before the clip, contrasting music led to better recall. This is because the contrast between the film and preceding music made the film stand out more.

Therefore, while congruence is essential to consider when trying to make your presentation cohesive, it’s also important to consider how you can use the power of contrast to make your important points stand out in your presentation, and furthermore, how you can make your presentation stand out in people’s minds compared to everything else they’ve seen.

From the Lab: Make It Human

In The Science of Speaking, I cite research showing that human stories are significantly more impactful than statistics. Here’s yet another study that sheds light on this bias, and suggests that it may be hard-wired in us.

In a 2007 study at UCSB, researchers asked participants to detect subtle changes in pictures, like those games in children’s magazines that ask you to spot the differences. When the changes to the pictures involved inanimate objects, 70% of the changes were noticed, in an average of 5 seconds. When the changes involved humans, however, 96% were noticed, and they were noticed even faster, in an average of only 3 seconds. Changes to other animals were in the middle, with a recognition rate of 83%. Interestingly, changes to animals were more recognizable than changes to vehicles, which suggests that these differences are evolutionarily hard-wired: despite that fact that vehicles are much more dangerous to us today, our visual attention is still more attuned to animals, which would’ve been dangerous to our ancestors.

When humans are involved, we pay greater attention. Therefore, the more human you can make your presentation, the better. Rather than simply citing statistics, tell human stories that make them come alive. And instead of simply showing the audience pictures of your product, considering showing them pictures of people using it, as humans will be more likely to draw their attention.


From the Field: The First Thirty Seconds

In a recent analysis by Twitter, they found that “users are most receptive to content as they first start scrolling through their news-feed.” In particular, “memory response is highest in the first 30 seconds of a Twitter session.”

In addition, they found that the first thing that users see, in this case, a video ad called “First View,” is perceived as more relevant (by 14%), more emotional (by 28%), and as a result, more memorable (up to 32%) than the rest of the content seen in a viewing session.

While this data is primarily intended to sell “First View” ads on Twitter, it’s also quite relevant to public speaking, suggesting that the first 30 seconds of your speech are essential. If you don’t hook the audience early, it’s likely that you never will, so it’s important to have both a compelling hook, and to get straight to the point, telling the audience your main point upfront. Then, once they’re hooked, you can get into the details, but only after you’ve ensured that they’ll remember the main takeaway by presenting it in that critical first 30 seconds.


On the Screen: I Am Nervous (Updated)

On the finale of America’s Next Top Model, Cycle 11, Tyra Banks gives a useful piece of advice about nervousness to finalists McKey and Samantha before their runway show:

How are we feeling? A little nervous? It’s okay to say “I am nervous.” Because when you do the “I’m not nervous [freaking out], I’m not nervous [freaking out more]!” When you say “I am nervous,” it just relaxes it, it gets it out.

As the popular saying (attributed to Carl Jung) goes, that which you resist persists. Therefore, by saying you’re not nervous, you’ll only make yourself more nervous. But if you start out by admitting that you are nervous, you can actually make progress toward feeling less nervous by using one of the many techniques that I’ve shared on this blog or in the Nervousness chapter of The Science of Speaking.

Update (6/29/17): Here’s a relevant article on accepting social anxiety, published a few days ago in Psychology Today.