From the Lab: Direct Their Eyes

In a classic study by Alfred Yarbus, reported in his 1967 book Eye Movements and Vision (originally published in Russian in 1965), the eye movements of an observer were recorded while they viewed an image—Ilya Repin’s Unexpected Visitors (c. 1886)—seven times with different instructions.

Before we see the results of the study, let’s replicate it ourselves here.

As you complete each of the tasks below, pay attention to where you find yourself looking.

First, take a look at the painting below, and examine it however you desire (a).

Next, estimate the wealth of the family in the picture (b).

Then estimate the ages of each person in the room (c).

Now, figure out what the the family was doing before the “unexpected visitor” arrived (d).

Next, remember the clothing worn by each person (e).

Then remember the positions of the people and objects in the room (f).

And finally, estimate how long the “unexpected visitor” has been away from the family (g).

Of course, while you were completing each of these different tasks, your eyes followed different paths around the image. Below, you’ll find the eye tracks recorded by Yarbus of a participant completing each of the seven tasks you just did.


As you can see—and as you probably noticed yourself just a moment ago—depending on what someone is looking for, they’re going to process an image in different ways. Of course, this finding isn’t only true for paintings: it also applies to your visual aids.

So while you can—like most speakers—simply allow your audience’s eyes to wander around your visual aids, as in the free examination task (a) above, you may be able to do even better if you direct your audience’s attention by telling them what to look for. By doing so, you’ll make their job significantly easier, which as we’ve seen before, will lead to greater understanding. Although it sounds obvious, the easier you make it for your audience to understand you message, the better they’re going to understand it. As Yarbus’ experiment demonstrated half a century ago, directing their eyes is one easy way to do that.





From the Lab: Play Games on Your Smartphone

After a disaster, play games on your smartphone.

That’s the takeaway from a recent study as summarized by Art Markman in Psychology Today.

In the study, researchers tracked cell phone use following a major earthquake in China in 2013. What they found was that while everyone felt a similar level of threat shortly after the event, those who spent more time using “hedonic” (i.e., pleasurable) apps on their smartphone—like games and music players—recovered more quickly than those who used them less.

While some may dismiss this strategy as simply “numbing the pain,” sometimes that’s exactly what people in pain need. And while the experience of public speaking is nowhere near that of surviving a natural disaster, it’s likely that the same recovery strategy will work. Therefore, if you find yourself feeling particularly stressed after a communication “disaster,” it may be beneficial to pull out your smartphone and play some games or listen to music until you calm down enough to debrief it more rationally.

From the Lab: Pump Up the Jam

In The Science of Speaking, I cite research showing that listening to relaxing music while preparing your speech can significantly reduce your stress. Yesterday, my wife sent me an article in Fitness magazine citing a 2015 study that demonstrates another good use of music.

According to the study, listening to powerful music—particularly pieces that are heavy in bass, like the classic fight song “We Will Rock You” by Queen—can increase our feelings of power and lead us to act more like powerful people do.

While feeling more powerful is not always the best strategy (see The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner for more on this), if you feel like more power is going to help you, this study provides an easy way to power up: pump up the jam (and while you’re at it, the bass).

From the Lab: Sex (Sometimes) Sells (But Not Really)

In a recent meta-analysis of studies, reported by Psychology Today, researchers investigated whether sex sells. Here are some of the essential findings:

  • In general, sex led to greater recall for ads (d = .38).
  • The effect was greater for congruent products (e.g., using sex to sell lingerie) (d = .45).
  • But it was entirely reversed for incongruent products (e.g., using sex to sell laptops) (d = -.46).
  • However, even in congruent cases, just the ads were remembered. The brands themselves were no more likely to be remembered (d = .09).
  • In general, attitudes towards the sexual ads were mostly neutral (d = -.07).
  • But this was only true when men and women were averaged together. While men had moderately positive views of sexual ads (d =.27), women had stronger negative views of them (d = -.38).
  • In terms of actually selling the product, sexual advertising had no effect (d = .01).
  • But when the sexual appeal and product were incongruent, sex actually led to decreased sales (d = -.24).

While in a formal speaking context, these specific findings are moot—using sex to sell is usually inappropriate in such contexts—there are still several important lessons we can take from this research.

First, it underscores the importance of congruence. In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly note that it’s important to make sure all aspects of your speech go together, whether it’s matching your facial expressions and tone of voice to your content, making sure your visual aids all look cohesive, or making sure your persuasive appeals are all congruent. This research intensifies all of these points by showing that incongruence can not only be ineffective, it can actually have a significant negative effect, in this case leading to lower recall and purchase intentions.

Second, beware “seductive details.” In The Science of Speaking, I review research showing that when interesting but irrelevant details are added in order to spice something up, these details can actually draw attention away from the main message, resulting in the opposite of the intended effect—in that case, learning, and in this case, sales.

Finally, it’s always important to consider your audience. Just as in this case, there were totally different effects for men and women, your appeals may have totally different effects on different audiences, and a strategy that works well for one may totally flop with another. Rather than designing general appeals that you think will work for everyone, you want them to be tailored to your audience as much as possible.

From the Lab: Consider All of Your Options (Together)

In a recent study reported by Harvard Business Review, Shankha Basu and Krishna Savani compared two different ways of making decisions: considering your options in series—examining them one by one—or considering them in parallel—examining them all at one, next to each other.

What they found was that across a variety of different kinds of decisions, “people were, on average, 22% more likely to choose the objectively best option when they viewed options together rather than one at a time.” In one experiment, “those who viewed options individually chose the best option 75% of the time, while those who viewed options together identified the best product 84% of the time.”

Unfortunately, we don’t always do this. In a survey about how people made decisions, the researchers found that despite the fact that parallel comparison is better, people only use this technique for about half of the decisions they make. In addition, when it comes to presenting decisions (on a shopping website, for example), only some presenters give their audience the chance to use it (for example, by allowing customers to compare products side-by-side).

When you’re the one presenting a decision, you can use this information to good effect for the benefit of both you and your audience (assuming that the right decision for the audience is also the right decision for you, which hopefully it is). Whenever possible, present options side-by-side, and your audience will be more likely to choose wisely.

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.