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.


In the News: The I-ternet

In a recent article in 1843, Derek Thompson writes about how we behave differently on social media. In particular, studies have shown that while 30 to 40% of everyday speech is about our first person experience (me, myself, and I), this percentage increases to 80% on social media.

Another recent study explains why: narrowcasting (communicating with one person) is quite different from broadcasting (communicating with multiple people). As the researchers note, “people naturally tend to focus on the self, but communicating with just one person heightens other-focus, which leads communicators to share less self-presenting content” and instead “to share content that is useful to the message recipient.”

This is quite relevant to public speaking. As I note in The Science of Speaking, it’s all about “you,” where “you,” of course, refers to your audience. As these studies show, crafting your message to focus on your audience is not something that will just happen naturally—on the contrary, it requires careful thought to get it right. Although public speaking naturally falls in the realm of broadcasting, it will often be more effective if you treat it like narrowcasting, speaking to the audience like you’d speak to a friend, with the corresponding shift in focus—from you as the speaker to “you” as the audience.

In the News: How to Say “No”

In The Science of Speaking, I present many techniques for persuading your audience to accept your asks. But what if you’re on the other side of the request? What if someone is asking you to do something—and what if the response you want to give them is “no”?

According to a 2012 study by Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt, reported by a variety of media outlets, there’s actually a better and a worse way to do this: say that you “don’t” do something instead of that you “can’t.” As Cari Romm explains on The Science of Us:

Saying “I don’t eat X” when tempted by an unhealthy snack, for example, made participants feel more “psychologically empowered” than using “can’t.” The same held true with a scenario about resolving to exercise each day: “I don’t skip my workout” was a more powerful motivator to get to the gym than “I can’t skip my workout.”

As Shaunacy Ferro notes on Mental Floss,

Regardless of whether you’re talking to yourself or another person, “can’t” suggests that you might want to do something, but aren’t able to … The implication is that in another set of circumstances, you could. But when you say “I don’t,” … there’s no room for debate. It’s a hard-and-fast rule that you set for yourself.

In addition to being a more empowering strategy for yourself, a followup study by Patrick and Hagtvegt found that the “don’t” approach is also more effective than the “can’t” approach at convincing the requester that you really mean “no.” Participants who heard refusals using the “don’t” approach rated them as significantly more persuasive and full of conviction than refusals using the “can’t” approach.

In the News: (Don’t) Drop It Like It’s Hot (Updated)

In The Science of Speaking, I present many different techniques you can use to bolster your expertise and increase your credibility in the eyes of your audience.

While there are many effective methods for doing this, it turns out that there’s another popular method that almost always backfires: name-dropping.

Of course, as Leah Fessler recently reported on Quartz, there are logical reasons that we resort to this tactic. Citing experts bolsters our credibility, so why shouldn’t associating ourselves with them? Unfortunately, a recent study found that it doesn’t actually work this way. Instead of improving the audience’s perception of a name-dropper, using this tactic actually resulted in the audience viewing the name-dropper as less likable, less competent, and more manipulative. Another study found that indirect self-promotion (such as name-dropping) has none of the benefits of direct self-promotion (i.e., boasting), but all of the detriments thereof.

Interestingly, while this traditional kind of name-dropping doesn’t work, another recent study found that a different kind might. Instead of focusing on the people you know, it suggests, you should focus on the people your audience knows. In particular, by associating the audience with someone successful, or praising the success of someone the audience is associated with, you can actually succeed in getting them to like you, in a way that traditional name-dropping can’t!

Update (4/6/17): In her article, Fessler notes that another danger of name-dropping is that you don’t always know what your audience thinks of the person whose name you’re dropping—maybe they think that person is a total scoundrel! In fact, this danger applies to all of the possible name-dropping techniques. Just as you don’t want to associate yourself with someone the audience doesn’t like, you also don’t want to mistakenly associate your audience with someone they don’t like, or praise someone they don’t like. Similarly, you don’t want to insult someone they do like.

In the News: The Power of Trust

In a recent article on Select/All, Jesse Singal reported on a recent study by the American Press Institute about how people decide what to trust on social media.

What they found was that for the most part, people “ignore the source of a given claim, focusing way more on the trustworthiness of the person sharing it.” Specifically, “people who see an article from a trusted sharer, but one written by an unknown media source, have much more trust in the information than people who see the same article from a reputable media source shared by a person they do not trust.” (For example, how much you trust what I’m saying right now depends more on how much you trust me, Nick Enge, than it does on how much you trust Jesse Singal or the API.)

Although this research was conducted in the context of social media, it has important implications for speaking as well. First, in case it wasn’t already obvious, getting your audience to trust you matters—a lot. In the study, when the sharer was someone the viewer trusted, the viewer not only perceived the shared article to be more accurate and well-reported, but also less biased, more entertaining, better organized, and more “share-worthy.” Furthermore, how much the audience trusts you is more important than how much they trust your sources. This means that although you can bolster your expertise by citing trustworthy experts, you can’t rely entirely on this technique—the audience needs to trust you as well. Of course, the best thing you can do is make sure that your audience trusts everything along the chain of evidence—from you, to your sources, to your sources’ sources. But as this study shows, while all of the these things matter, what matters most is that the audience trusts you.

In the News: Much Ado About Filler Words (Updated)

In the past few weeks, a (polite) battle has been raging in the media about the use of filler words—“umm,” “uh,” “so,” “like,” “I mean,” “you know.”

In The New York Times, Christopher Mele argued that we should stop using them.

In Quartz, Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein replied that we should stop demonizing them.

On Twitter, Wharton professor Adam Grant took Barchas-Lichtenstein’s side:

Stanford professor Tina Seelig disagreed, replying:

Where does The Science of Speaking stand?

As I note in the book, there are two different contexts here, which everyone seems to be conflating. One is that of formal presentation (standing and delivering in front of an audience), the other, that of informal conversation (personal communication, one-on-one).

I discovered this distinction several years ago while teaching public speaking at Stanford. While I have succeeded in almost completely eliminating filler words from my formal speech over the years (to good effect), I noticed that I still used them extensively when giving my students feedback in one-on-one speaking tutorials, in the way that Barchas-Lichtenstein and Grant note—to introduce delicate topics. I also noticed that as an introvert, I often use filler words in conversation as a way to indicate that I’m thinking and not quite ready to cede the floor.

So, umm, what’s the, you know, bottom line: are filler words good or bad?

As someone who has seen thousands of speeches over the years, I completely agree with Mele and Seelig in the formal context: when you’re standing and delivering, filler words should generally be eliminated. This is because research (and common sense) has shown that they make you sound less knowledgable. In one study, for example, researchers found that even when a speaker paused silently for a full five seconds, they were rated as more knowledgable than when they said “um” or “uh.” (Of course, a shorter silent pause was even better.)

In Your Perfect Presentation, public speaking coach Bill Hoogterp presents a great analogy for what filler words can do to your message:

Let’s try a little experiment. Fill a glass or cup one-fourth full with a beverage you like—coffee, soda, something flavorful. Now add plain water to the same glass until it is three-fourths full. How appetizing does it look now?


In theory, it shouldn’t be a problem. Water has no taste, so it should have no effect. The same should be true for all the ums, basicallys, and other weak language. They don’t mean anything, so what’s the harm.


Take a sip of the watered-down drink. How did it taste?


That is what it tastes like to other people’s brains when we use weak language. It dilutes and weakens the power of your message.

In an informal context, however, I will grant it to Grant and Barchas-Lichtenstein. In Give and Take, Grant cites research showing that “powerless language” can actually have benefits in one-on-one settings. For example, when telling a partner which items you think are most important in a survival situation, adding weak language like questions and hedges can actually increase your status and influence. Specifically, saying “Do you think the flashlight should maybe be rated higher? It may be a pretty reliable night signaling device” leads to higher status and increased expectations of success in a future cooperative task than saying “The flashlight needs to be rated higher. It is the only reliable night signaling device.” To adapt Hoogterp’s analogy, sometimes black coffee needs cream and sugar to be palatable.

In the end, it seems, this disagreement is really much ado about nothing. As always, the best speaking strategy depends on your audience and what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re trying to confidently deliver your message, and filler words keep creeping in uninvited, by all means, stomp them out. But if your goal is actually to soften your message, by all means, use the power of powerless language. Both strategies can be effective at different times—you don’t have to pick just one.

Update (3/28/17): I tweeted at everyone involved:

Adam Grant and Tina Seelig liked the tweet, and Barchas-Lichtenstein replied:


To which I replied:


Update (3/28/17): A few weeks later, Lindsay Dodgson wrote in Business Insider about some of the other reasons we use filler words.

In the News: The Power of Linguistic Diversity

In The Science of Speaking, I talk about some of the benefits of teamwork, but here’s another great one.

A few days ago in Quartz, Gabrielle Hogan-Brun, author of Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism? wrote about the power of having diversity in teams, in particular, diversity of languages.

The whole article is worth a read, but, quoting Hogan-Brun, here’s a tl;dr version:

Observations of multi-language work teams show that mixed-language groups have a propensity to find innovative solutions for practical problems. This is because they use a range of communication strategies in flexible and dynamic ways. When speakers from different language backgrounds work together using a common language, they draw on subconscious concepts that lie below the surface of the language they happen to be conversing in.


Forming a multilingual team is like having different cognitive tools in your tool kit: The greater the diversity in your set, the more you can accomplish. … Not only do a range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds help improve company culture, but the more languages a team speaks, the greater their potential propensity to think up original solutions that draw from all of their backgrounds.

In the News: Soldier or Scout?

Yesterday on TED Ideas, Julia Galef wrote about two different mindsets we can take: the soldier mindset and the scout mindset, asking: “What do you most yearn for? Do you yearn to defend your own beliefs or do you yearn to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?” The former is the mindset of the soldier, the latter, the mindset of the scout. (If you prefer to listen, she also spoke about this last year at TEDxPSU. The content of the talk and article are nearly identical.)

As always, the question here is: how might we apply this insight to speaking?

As a speaker, you want your audience to be scouts, open to exploring your ideas. But how can you encourage this mindset in your audience?* The answer, I believe, is to be a scout yourself.

Many speakers approach persuasive speaking from a soldier mindset: “if I defend my beliefs, the audience will see that I’m right, and they’ll come over to my side.” But as I note in The Science of Speaking, this approach often backfires because it turns the audience into soldiers too and causes them to reflexively defend their existing beliefs. At the risk of overextending Galef’s lovely metaphor, if a scout meets an enemy soldier on the battlefield, they’re not going to continue being a scout. They’ll either turn into a soldier themselves, or simply retreat to behind their own lines. Neither of these options helps you persuade them.

So how can you present yourself as a scout, extending an olive branch to your audience, and increasing your persuasive abilities? As I mention at several different points in the book, it’s a good idea to meet the audience where they are, and find common ground, rather than just attacking from afar. Another good strategy is to admit uncertainty, or even to admit a weakness in your argument, because this will make you seem more credible. Alternatively, you could engage in an open-ended discussion about their concerns, rather than giving a one-sided presentation. Or, if you struggled to get to where you are—if you once believed as the audience believes—you could tell them a story about that struggle, which will make them much more likely to trust you.

* If you want an answer to the related question of how you can cultivate a scout mindset in yourself, Galef has a great video about this.

In the News: The Mind Palace

Today in Tech Times, Katrina Pascual reports on a new study about memory, published just yesterday in Neuron. In the study, researchers used fMRI to assess the brains of 23 of the world’s most successful memory athletes and matched controls. What they found was that the memory athletes had increased connectivity in their brain compared to the control participants, which is an interesting finding in itself.

The coolest part of the study, however, was that they then gave the control participants 6 weeks of memory training, teaching them to use mnemonic techniques like the Mind Palace, in which you remember something spatial (like a palace) and associate the things you need to remember with locations in the palace. After training, the control participants brains showed increased connectivity in the same areas as the memory athletes, demonstrating that memory is an ability that can be learned.

All of this is awesome, but how does it relate to The Science of Speaking? In the context of speaking, memory is key, for both the speaker and the audience. When you give a speech, you want your audience to remember as much of your speech as they can so that they can effectively apply it—but even before that, you want to remember as much of your speech as you can so that you can effectively present it!

The Mind Palace technique can help with both of these goals. In The Science of Speaking, I present a variety of strategies for making your points stick, one of which is extended metaphor. This is very similar to the Mind Palace technique: when you use extended metaphor to package your points, you’re attaching each point to a different part of the metaphor, just as you attach points to locations in the palace. The audience is more likely to remember the metaphor, which then makes them more likely to remember each of your points as they remember each part of the metaphor. Of course, as I note in the book, this benefit isn’t only for the audience: when you make your points easier for the audience to remember, they’ll also be easier for you as the speaker to remember, making your job much less stressful!

In the News: Leading with Emotion and Expertise

In a recent study, Quantified Communications analyzed speech samples from Fortune’s 50 greatest leaders of 2016, focusing on the type of appeals they used. What they found was that these top leaders used three times as many appeals to emotion and intuition as they did appeals to logic.

For the purpose of the analysis, appeals to logic include “studies, statistics, data, and proof.” Appeals to emotion include “stories, imagery, metaphors, and visual aids.” Appeals to intuition include “achievements, testimonials, citing sources, and case studies.” In the language of The Science of Speaking, these are essentially equivalent to head, heart, and expertise.

While the analysis doesn’t explicitly examine the effects that this trend toward emotion and expertise has on the audience (though other research suggests it will be positive), if you want to speak like the greatest leaders of today, it clearly tells you what you need to do.