From the Field: The Shoulders of Giants

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Sir Isaac Newton, in a letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1676

This piece of advice comes from a student, Benjamin Gera.

After being rejected for several jobs, Ben received a piece of advice from one of his interviewers. When he applied this advice in his next interview, he was immediately given the job.

What was this powerful piece of advice?

Whenever you’re speaking about your successes, begin by talking about those who helped you achieve them.

As Ben notes, by talking about the giants whose shoulders you stood on, you immediately convey humility and differentiate yourself from everyone else who appears boastful. As long as you first acknowledge those who have helped you, he reports, you can pretty much boast about yourself as much as you want, while still coming across as humble. It’s the perfect solution to the dilemma of expertise that I discuss in The Science of Speaking.

Another benefit of Ben’s technique is that it sets you up to tell human stories, rather than just rattling off a dry list of accomplishments. And as we saw in a previous blog post, this can help the audience feel they know you, which will lead them to see you as even more trustworthy.

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.


From the Field: The Zone of Proximal Development

Several quarters ago, a student of mine gave a great speech about the ZPD, or “zone of proximal development.” As she explained it to us, every learner (in our case, an audience member) comes into the room with an existing set of knowledge and skills. The zone of proximal development contains the set of knowledge and skills that you as the teacher (speaker) can help them develop. Outside the zone of proximal development are the knowledge and skills that are too advanced for them at this point: while you may be able to help them learn these things in the future, they’re out of reach at this particular time.

Therefore, whenever you’re teaching (speaking), your goal should be to spend most of your time in this ZPD as you can—while it may be good to briefly review what your audience already knows, spending too much time on such review is a waste. Likewise, it’s also a waste of time to spend your time outside of this ZPD—no matter how much you try to explain, the audience won’t get it.

In the end, the key takeaway here is that whenever you are designing a speech, it’s important to: 1) understand where your audience is, 2) understand where it’s possible for your audience to get to, and 3) figure out the best way to move them from A to B.

From the Field: The Soul of Wit

Brevity is the soul of wit.


—Polonius, Hamlet II.ii (William Shakespeare)

While brevity may be the soul of wit, sayings about brevity happen to be pretty witty too. Here are a few of my favorite sayings and stories surrounding this important theme.

In a letter published in 1657, Blaise Pascal was the first (of many) to note that he would’ve written a shorter letter, if only he had more time.

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

Similarly, when Woodrow Wilson was asked by a member of the Cabinet about the time it took him to prepare his speeches, he reportedly replied:

It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.

As Quote Investigator notes, this saying predated Wilson, but his version is the most popular.

This one was given to me, quite appropriately, by my father-in-law, Lee:

When asked by his son James for advice on public speaking, Franklin Delano Roosevelt replied:

Be sincere, be brief, be seated.

On November 19, 1863, Edward Everett delivered a two-hour speech at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, followed by a two-minute speech by Abraham Lincoln—the Gettysburg Address.

The next day, Everett wrote Lincoln a letter saying,

I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.

Actress and speech coach Dorothy Sarnoff is reported to have said:

Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening.

And here’s a related saying attributed to Ira Hayes:

No one ever complains about a speech being too short.

As all of the above examples suggest, brevity is not only the soul of wit: it is also an important tool for effective communication. But how can we actually achieve brevity? While there’s no easy formula that will work in all cases, here’s an exercise that can help with thinking about it.

When I was a student at Stanford, I performed with the Stanford Improvisors. One of the games we often played was called Half Life.

First, we’d play a 1 minute scene.

Then we’d replay that scene in 30 seconds.

Then we’d play it again in 15 seconds, 7.5 seconds, and 3.75 seconds, etc.

The idea was to distill the scene down to its essence by progressively making it more concise.

While it may seem a little bit silly, this game can actually be a good exercise for distilling your real world messages too. If you know you have 60 minutes to speak, what you would say if your time was unexpectedly cut down to 30 minutes? What if it was cut down to 15 minutes? To 7.5 minutes? To 3.75 minutes?

By using this exercise, you can begin to distill your message to its core, which can help you with prioritizing your main points and picking the right “tip of the iceberg.”