In the News: Trust Your Audience

If you want your audience to trust you, show them that you trust them.

That’s the takeaway from a new article in Harvard Business Review. While the whole article is worth a read, here’s an executive summary of the science behind it:

. . . many employees say they do not feel trusted by their managers. And when employees don’t feel trusted, workplace productivity and engagement often suffer. It’s up to managers to signal trust in their employees in consistent and thoughtful ways. . . .


Employees who are less trusted by their manager exert less effort, are less productive, and are more likely to leave the organization. Employees who do feel trusted are higher performers and exert extra effort, going above and beyond role expectations. Plus, when employees feel their supervisors trust them to get key tasks done, they have greater confidence in the workplace and perform at a higher level.


In short, trust begets trust. When people are trusted, they tend to trust in return. But people must feel trusted to reciprocate trust. Managers have to do more than trust employees; they need to show it.

The rest of the article provides a clear roadmap for how leaders can signal trust and avoid signaling distrust, including sharing information, giving up (some) control, and helping your employees reach their goals. But in the end, it boils down to this one Tweetable insight: showing your audience you trust them and support their goals, they’ll be more likely to trust you and support yours.

In the News: The Benefits (and Costs) of Wearing Many Hats

How do you handle criticism? If you’re like most people, probably not well. Fortunately, in a recent article in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan writes about a psychological trait which can help take away the sting of criticism:

One especially important factor is self-complexity, a psychological measure of the number of different “roles” that make up a person. Are you a spouse, mother, sister, and employee? Or just an employee? People who are lower in self-complexity have have fewer self-perceived roles, and their defining qualities in those roles are pretty similar—they might be a serious wife, for example, and a serious boss. These individuals tend to take criticism more to heart. They see negative feedback in any one sphere as a reflection on their whole self, as opposed to a just a small part of themselves.

Therefore, if you can see yourself as having more roles, you’ll be less sensitive to criticism (and perhaps less nervous about your performance). As lovely as this sounds, however, this approach can also have some drawbacks. As Khazan explains,

In a 2010 study, Allen McConnell, of Miami University, and Christina Brown, of Saint Louis University, asked college students to write about how much they valued study skills, then to describe all the times they slacked off. When the hypocrisy was pointed out, the students who were lower in self-complexity were more likely to change their attitudes to match their behavior: They acknowledged studying was not very important, after all. “Because they view themselves in a more limited way, the sting of hypocrisy is more painful and therefore they’re more motivated to get rid of it by being consistent,” Brown said. Meanwhile, those with a lot of self-complexity doubled down on their attitudes about the importance of studying, even when the evidence of their own studying failures was laid bare.

So what are we to take away from all this? First, if you find yourself overly concerned about criticism, it may behoove you to reconceptualize yourself as having more roles—even if you’re a bad speaker, you’re still a good a writer. But at the same time, you don’t want to let having multiples roles make you totally impervious to criticism: where reasonable, you still want to let it in and act on it. In other words, if you’ve just given a terrible presentation, begin by reminding yourself that you still wrote a wonderful report, but don’t let that stop you from working to give a better presentation the next time.

In the News: Make It Your Own

In researching my previous post on the Feynman Technique, I happened upon another insight uncovered by Shane Parrish. This time, the idea is even older, from Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, published in 1580:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?

There are several insights we can take from this passage, depending on whether the “man” is the speaker or the audience. In my post on the Feynman Technique, I noted that in order to teach better, we need to learn better. Reading Montaigne with this idea in mind, we realize that in order to teach well, it’s important to fully digest your topic and “make [it] your own.” While it’s possible to simply parrot another teacher’s ideas, this approach almost always falls flat. Your teaching becomes more powerful when you put your own spin on it.

The relevance of this passage to your audience is even clearer. In order for your audience to truly understand your topic, they must also find a way make it their own. And of course, as I note in The Science of Speaking, this is actually your responsibility as a speaker, and there are many ways that you can fulfill it, for example, through discussions, role plays, demos, and imagination.

When you as the teacher make knowledge your own, and then use that understanding to help your students make it their own too, that’s when learning truly comes alive.

In the News: The Importance of Data Visualization

While some people believe that data visualization is overrated, and that data can effectively be reduced to statistics, a recent project by Autodesk clearly demonstrated that this belief is misguided.

Building on prior work by Francis Anscombe and Alberto Cairo, Justin Matejka and George Fitzmaurice generated twelve datasets that have the exact same summary statistics, but very different visual qualities—and meanings!

The point is, it’s always important to visualize your data—and to present these visualization to your audience—rather than simply relying on numbers.

In the News: Colors and Culture

In The Science of Speaking, I wrote about both color and cultural differences, but not hadn’t yet found this wonderful graphic about cultural differences in the meaning of colors, produced by David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful.

The letters represent different cultures, while the numbers represent different meanings—the colors represent themselves. By reading around a given ring of the chart, you can see the corresponding culture’s color palette. By reading down the radii, you can see which colors are used around the world for each meaning.

As you design your presentations for different audiences, be sure to keep in mind these differences. While some colors and meanings are universal—for example, heat and passion are always red, others are not: while green represents life and growth in China, it actually represents death in South America.

From the Field: Howdy Partner!

In her new book Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People, Vanessa Van Edwards cites a 2009 study in which dating site OkCupid investigated what works best in your first communication with a match and revealed which words make the best first impression.

What they found is that it pays to use an unusual greeting. While messages that began with “Hi” had an average response rate just under 25%, messages that began with “Howdy” had an average response of almost 45%! This is consistent with my advice in The Science of Speaking to jump straight into an engaging hook that catches the audience’s attention instead of wasting time with clichéd pleasantries.

The other winning strategy that OkCupid identified was make the message about “you” (i.e., the audience), showing interest in the recipient right from the start. For example, messages that included “how’s it going?” near the beginning had a response rate of nearly 55%. This is consistent with my repeated advice that when you’re giving a speech, it should be all about “you.”

While conversations on a dating site are obviously different from a speech, it’s interesting to see that the same basic principles hold true. Catch your audience’s attention with an unusual opener, then keep it by making it all about them, and you’ll be well on your way to speaking (and dating) success.

From the Lab: You’ll Probably Like Speaking

Yesterday, we saw that the name we give to our feelings of stage fright can have a major impact on how much they affects us. Today, I want to explore a related concept: that how we expect to feel can strongly influence how we feel.

In a recent study led by Bethany Kwan, subsequently reported by Christian Jarrett and Drake Baer, participants went for a run on a treadmill. Before the run, some participants were told that “most people exercising at this intensity feel good and energised, and then relaxed afterward” while others were told that “most people find this intensity of exercise negative and unpleasant, and then they feel tired afterward.” Control participants were given no expectations.

As Jarrett explains, “participants manipulated to expect the lab run to be more enjoyable showed greater increases in positive feelings through the run compared to the negatively manipulated participants; moreover, compared with control participants, they remembered the run as less fatiguing.”

Translating this into the realm of public speaking, this suggests that perhaps we (as a society, and in particular, as public speaking coaches) should be a bit more careful about how we present stage fright. If we treat it as gospel that public speaking is a terrifying experience, is it possible that we’re unwittingly creating negative expectations that wouldn’t necessarily be there (or at least wouldn’t necessarily be as bad) otherwise? While it would certainly be disingenuous to say that everyone loves public speaking, is it possible that setting more positive expectations would, as in the running study, result in more positive experiences? What might happen if, instead of telling people that they’ll likely (or certainly) be nervous, we tell them that they’ll probably like speaking? While I don’t have the data to answer that question at the moment, it’s something I’ll be thinking about a lot more in the near future.

In the News: By Any Other Name

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet


—Juliet, Romeo and Juliet II.ii (William Shakespeare)

Or would it? In a recent post on Science of Us, Melissa Dahl wrote about a recent column in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman, who cited comments by Paul Silvia on writer’s block. Complex chain of citation notwithstanding, the idea being discussed is quite interesting. Here it is, in the words of Dahl:

“Naming something gives it object power,” Burkeman quotes Silvia as saying. “People can overthink themselves into deep dark corners, and writer’s block is a good example.” It’s best, then, if you don’t dwell on or “diagnose” yourself with the problem; instead of calling it “writer’s block,” call it what it is, or rather, what it isn’t — “not writing.”

The same thing, I think, can be true of “stage fright,” “speech anxiety,” or “glossophobia.” It’s possible that by giving our (perfectly normal) feelings these scary sounding names, we’re giving them more power over us than they deserve. If we simply describe how we’re feeling, i.e., “a bit jittery before giving my speech,” we may be able to take away some of the power of our fear and more easily find ways to overcome it.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the opposite could be true. Others have suggested that you can actually take away the power of your fears by naming them. In fact, there’s a whole genre of literature based on this concept, that when you know the true name of something, you can take away its power.

In The Science of Speaking, I explore yet another option: that perhaps we should give our feelings a positive name, such as “stage excitement” or “stage enthusiasm,” which explain the symptoms in a more inspiring way.

In the end, it really depends on what works best for you. If naming your fear is making you feel worse, by all means, call it something less serious. But if naming your fear makes you feel better, by all means, go ahead and name it. And if what works best for you is to give it a different name, then that’s the strategy that you should employ.

To bring it back to Juliet’s question, there’s probably something more to a name than she claims—but what really matters in the end is that we should call the rose by the name that makes it smell the sweetest.

In the News: The Power of Self-Doubt

In The Science of Speaking, I present many different tools for feeling more confident about your speaking. But I also note that there can be benefits to feeling nervous: in particular, that it can help you avoid overconfidence. As Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band said, “If I went out there thinkin’, ‘Eh, we’ll go slaughter ’em,’ he says, ‘I’m positive something would go seriously wrong.'”

In a recent post on The Mission, Ravi Raman expanded on this idea, writing about the power of self-doubt. The whole article is worth a read, but here’s a particularly relevant excerpt:

Have you ever noticed that when you doubt yourself, you automatically think of all the little things you need to do to accomplish your goal? You become cautious and careful. Doubt promotes a run-down of your mental checklist to ensure that everything is taken care of. It produces a greater sense of caring about what you are doing and the skills you can apply to get the job done.


Self-doubt is a necessary part of personal growth and achievement. Without it, we would make all sorts of unforced errors in the pursuit of our goals. We would parade around supremely confident, but lacking humility and the personal growth that comes from self-awareness. The choice we have, however, is to approach the barrier of self-doubt as an opportunity for learning, reflection, and improvement; and not as a dream killer.

While it’s important to find ways to overcome paralyzing self-doubt (the kind that causes us to abandon our dreams), I like this idea that a reasonable amount of self-doubt can actually be critical for successfully achieving them.

In the News: Convince Yourself First

Last week, a variety of science media outlets reported on a new study that “shows how lying to yourself makes you more persuasive.” While the study itself is quite interesting—it did indeed show that deceiving yourself helps you deceive others—as I’ve said previously, I’m more interested helping you present the truth. Luckily, we can learn something about that from this study as well.

As study co-author William von Hippel notes, “what’s so interesting is that we seem to intuitively understand that if we can get ourselves to believe something first, we’ll be more effective at getting others to believe it. … If you need to convince somebody of something, if your career or social success depends on persuasion, then the first person who needs to be [convinced] is yourself.”

There are (at least) two interesting things at play here. First, as we saw in another recent blog post, conviction itself can be persuasive. Similar to enthusiasm, where the more enthusiastic you are about your topic, the more interested your audience will be, the more conviction you have about your argument, the more persuasive you will be. Second, as I note in The Science of Speaking, when thinking of ways to persuade your audience, it often helps to think back on the arguments that persuaded you, and repeat (or repurpose) those to persuade your audience too.