Off the Shelf: Stories > Statistics

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of an experiment that Chip runs in his classes at Stanford. Students are asked to give a one-minute persuasive speech, after which their classmates rate the speaker’s delivery. Then Chip distracts them with a short video clip.

When the clip is over, Chip asks the students to write down, for each speaker, everything they remember about the speech. Here are the results, according to Chip:

The students are flabbergasted at how little they remember. Keep in mind that only ten minutes have elapsed since the speeches were given. Nor was there a huge volume of information to begin with—at most, they’ve heard eight one-minute speeches. And yet the students are lucky to recall one or two ideas from each speaker’s presentation. Many draw a complete blank on some speeches—unable to remember a single concept.


In the average one-minute speech, the typical student uses 2.5 statistics. Only one student in ten tells a story. Those are the speaking statistics. The “remembering” statistics, on the other hand, are almost a mirror image: when students are asked to recall the speeches, 63 percent remember the stories. Only 5 percent remember any individual statistic.


Furthermore, almost no correlation emerges between “speaking talent” and the ability to make ideas stick. The people who were captivating speakers typically do no better than others in making their ideas stick.

There are several important things we can take away from this.

First, it’s essential to remember the iceberg. While the advice to think about what you want the audience to remember in terms of a tweet of 140 characters or less may seem extreme, this exercise shows that this is simply the way things are: your audience will remember at most one or two ideas from your presentation—if you’re lucky.

Fortunately, there are ways you can make your own luck by specifically designing your ideas to be sticky, in this case by presenting them using stories, not statistics. Rather than leaving it to chance what your audience remembers, you can (and should) consciously choose what you want them to take away, then design your presentation specifically to make that happen.

Finally, although good delivery can certainly help you, it’s not the only way to success, and it’s not enough by itself—memorable content is also essential.

Off the Shelf: Keep It Current

In their classic book News That Matters: Television and American Opinion, Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder document “a series of sophisticated and innovative experiments that unobtrusively altered the order and emphasis of news stories in selected television broadcasts” and showed that “issues that receive extended coverage in the national news become more important to viewers, while those that are ignored lose credibility. Moreover, those issues that are prominent in the news stream continue to loom more heavily as criteria for evaluating the president and for choosing between political candidates.”

The ultimate takeaway of the book is that current events act as a powerful form of priming, meaning that what we see in the news unconsciously influences our decision-making criteria. If talk of the economy looms large, for example, people will be primed to think more economically. Similarly, if social justice is the talk of the day, people will be more likely to consider this when making decisions.

It’s important for speakers to understand these effects because if they do, they can use them to good effect. By considering how your audience has recently been primed by recent events in the world (as well as events in their more immediate environment), you can more effectively craft your message to appeal to their specific decision-making criteria, increasing your chances of speaking success.

Off the Shelf: A Speech Barometer

I recently finished reading James Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. As always, I was hoping to find some easy strategies for improving your speaking: change a few words here and there, and you will be perceived as more competent, more confident, more credible, etc.

Instead, what I found was something quite different. In the book, Pennebaker writes:

Can leaders become more effective by changing their language? Yes, I think so. But not for the reasons most people think. Simply using words differently won’t automatically change speakers’ psychological states. As noted throughout the book, words reflect our personality and social situations but rarely directly affect them.


In speeches, commercials, and brief interactions, it is possible that the words individuals use can influence how their audience perceives them. Our brains do, in fact, register if a speaker is using I or we and react accordingly. And in fact, if the goal is merely to make a person sound leader-like, then the careful crafting of their words can be effective in the short run.

For Pennebaker, however, this approach is secondary. Instead, he recommends the following approach:

People can become better leaders by using their words as markers of how they are relating to others. Words are like a speedometer in a car that reflects how fast the car is going. You can’t slow the car by directly affecting the speedometer. Rather, you use the speedometer to gauge your driving. Train a person to become a better driver and their speedometer will follow.

Although not quite as easy to apply as a simple change in language that will improve the audience’s perception of you, this insight is quite a valuable one, relevant to many different aspects of speaking.

For example, as presentation coaches, our first response to hearing someone using filler words is often to give them advice on how to change the behavior itself (e.g., the clicking pen exercise from The Science of Speaking). While this is not a bad approach, Pennebaker’s analysis suggests another one: rather than trying to change the behavior directly, use it as a barometer for underlying causes. Then, when you address the underlying causes, the behavior will naturally change as well. For example, perhaps the filler words are indicative that the speaker is nervous, or lacking preparation. While the pen clicking exercise will certainly help reduce filler words, giving the speaker techniques for managing their nervousness and preparing their speech will help as well—in addition to improving other aspects of their speaking.

As another example, when someone speaks with a monotone voice, our first response is often to give them exercises that widen their range of vocal variation—which, again, certainly won’t hurt. But we can also use their monotone voice as a barometer for underlying causes: perhaps it is indicative of a lack of enthusiasm. If we can help the speaker feel more enthusiastic about their topic (or to pick another topic that they’re more enthusiastic about), their voice will naturally become more dynamic, along with other aspects of their speaking.

Therefore, whether you’re a speech coach, or simply a speaker trying to improve their speaking, it will pay not only to look at the speech behaviors themselves, but also search for underlying causes, and try to address those as well. In many cases, when the underlying causes are addressed, the symptoms will naturally resolve themselves.

Off the Shelf: Information Is Not Enough

In The Science of Speaking, I note that it’s not enough to simply give your audience the right information and hope that this will be enough to change their behavior.

In Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith cite some pretty sobering data that backs up this claim.

For example, in a classic study in which participants were exposed to a three-hour energy conservation workshop that showed them it was easy to conserve energy at home, while participants “indicated greater awareness of energy issues, more appreciation for what could be done in their homes to reduce energy use, and a willingness to implement the changes that were advocated,” when researchers visited the participants’ homes to follow up, they found that in all but a few cases, the participants’ “behavior did not change.” Other studies have found similar results.

“But,” you might say, “these people didn’t hear my pitch! I can make them a true believer!” Maybe you can, but unfortunately, even this is unlikely to help. For example, when 500 people were interviewed about their personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% said they felt they had one. But when this sense of responsibility was actually put to the test with a piece of litter planted by a researcher outside the interview location, only 2% actually stopped to pick it up.* Many other studies have confirmed that environmental actions are only loosely correlated with environmental beliefs, where they are at all.

If information alone doesn’t lead to action, what are we to do? This research suggests that it’s important to go beyond simply informing your audience to applying the persuasive techniques described in The Science of Speaking and Fostering Sustainable Behavior. It is only by consciously crafting persuasion that you will have a good chance of succeeding in it.

* This is quite reminiscent of the famous “good samaritan study,” which was recently described by Glenn Geher at Psychology Today.

Off the Shelf: Vuja De

Reading Adam Grant’s Originals yesterday, I came across the phrase “vuja de.” As Grant writes, “Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse—we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.”

In the endnotes, Grant cites Bob Sutton’s Weird Ideas That Work, in which Sutton defines “the vuja de mentality” as “the ability to keep shifting opinion and perception. It means shifting our focus from objects or patterns in the foreground to those in the background. … It means thinking of things that are usually assumed to be negative as positive, and vice versa. It can means reversing assumptions about cause and effect, or what matters most versus least. It means not traveling through life on automatic pilot.”

This is all quite relevant to speaking. As I note several times in The Science of Speaking, it’s often the case that your audience has never considered your topic before. In this case, it’s your job to both interest and inform them. But it’s also true that the reverse is often the case—that your audience has considered your topic many times before. In this case, it’s still your job to interest and inform them. And you can do so by creating a sense of vuja de.

Rather than approaching the same old topic in the same old way, see how you can approach it in a new and innovative way. When you find a new angle from which to present an old topic, your audience will be much more likely to be interested (and informed).

But how can you find a new way to present it? For a comprehensive list of suggestions, I recommend that you read Originals, which presents many great ways for seeing things creatively. But for one easy way, try using an analogy. By mashing up an old topic and a new context, you can often unlock innovative insights and unleash the power of vuja de.

Note: Over the years, many other definitions have been proposed for this phrase. For example, comedian George Carlin defined vuja de as “the distinct sense that, somehow, something that just happened has never happened before.” And in The Vujà Dè Moment, Simon T. Bailey defines it by saying “you’ve never seen it, but you intend to flip the status quo and create it.”

Off the Shelf: Plugging the Holes

In The Science of Speaking, I cite David Rose’s advice to avoid saying anything your audience know isn’t true. In Steal the Show: How to Guarantee a Standing Ovation for All the Performances in Your Life, Michael Port elaborates on this idea, advising speakers to “give a presentation that doesn’t have any holes to poke.” In particular, he writes,

I always leave room for [the audience’s] perspective. For example, if I use absolutes in my language, if I say marketing “never” gets you clients, then I’ve created holes that are easy to poke. Of, if I use other absolutes like everybody, everything, always, or no one, it’s pretty easy for someone to poke a hole in my position. For example, if I say “No one likes earwax-flavored ice cream,” you could refute my theory because it’s possible that someone does, as crazy as it sounds, like earwax-flavored ice cream. … It’s unlikely you can close every hole, but do everything within your power to make your arguments solid. If you do, it’s less likely you or your work will be criticized. Plus, all generalities are false. Including that one.

While this adds on to my advice to avoid saying things that aren’t true, it appears to contradict my advice about not hedging, based on data from Quantified Communications.

As always, it’s all about finding balance, in this case, between hedging and generalizing. The ultimate takeaway, as Port puts it, is to make sure your arguments are solid—you don’t want the audience to question you because you’re hedging, but you also don’t want to question you because you’re overgeneralizing.

Off the Shelf: A Blizzard of Ideas

In The Science of Speaking, I talk about Mimi Goss‘s iceberg model for thinking about what to include in a speech, noting that you’ll probably only have time to say about 10% of what you want to say (if that). Therefore, you must sort your ideas into those above the waterline (important enough to present to this particular audience in this particular speech), and those below it. By prioritizing your ideas based on which of them are most important for your audience to take away from your speech, you can cut them down to a manageable 10%.

While cutting your ideas down by 90% may seem daunting, know that this process is almost certainly benefiting you, and not just because presenting a smaller number of ideas will make your speech significantly more understandable and memorable (which it will). It’s also benefiting you because by having far more ideas than you need, you’ll be able to use only the best ones, rather than having to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant writes about how creative geniuses become creative geniuses. “How do they maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece?” he asks.

They come up with a large number of ideas. [Psychologist Dean] Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their field than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. “The odds of producing an influential or successful idea,” Simonton notes, are “a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.” …


In every field, even the most eminent creators typically produce a large quantity of work that’s technically sound but considered unremarkable by experts and audiences. When the London Philharmonic Orchestra chose the 50 greatest pieces of classical music, the list included six piece by Mozart, five by Beethoven, and three by Bach. To generate a handful of masterworks, Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before his death at thirty-five, Beethoven produced 650 in his lifetime, and Bach wrote over a thousand. In a study of over 15,000 classical music compositions, the more pieces a composer produced in a five-year window, the greater the spike in the odds of a hit.

Therefore, having too many ideas is a blessing. Being constrained by a time limit and having to cut out 90% of what you want to say can actually greatly improve the quality of your ideas, allowing you to present only the best among them and making your presentations much more successful.

In terms of initial idea generation, it certainly pays to embrace the blizzard, letting all of the possibilities fly and building the biggest possible iceberg, before you cut it down to what’s above the waterline, allowing the best ideas to rise to the top.

Off the Shelf: What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM)

In The Science of Speaking, I talk about Jerry Weissman‘s idea of WIIFY, which stands for “What’s In It For You?” When making a pitch, you always want to make it clear what’s in it for the audience.

In Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons presents a subtle counterpoint to WIIFY. While it’s important to present what’s in it for the audience, she says, it can also be beneficial to reveal what’s in it for you, or rather, “What’s In It For Me?”—WIIFM.

Of course, Simmons is not suggesting that you focus on WIIFM while ignoring WIIFY—that’s exactly what Weissman is warning against, and if you do that, your pitch won’t be nearly as effective. So what is Simmons actually suggesting?

She’s suggesting, as I have in the book, that it’s good to be transparent. In this case, she cites research that shows that when we perceive a deal to be unfair, we’ll refuse to take it, even if it’s to our own detriment.

For example, in the experimental setup known as the Ultimatum Game, one participant is offered a reward and asked to split it between themselves and another participant—however they want. This means they could propose a 50/50 split, an 80/20 split, or even a 100/0 split. The catch is that the other participant gets to decide whether to accept the deal, in which case the reward is split along those lines, or to reject the deal, in which case no one gets anything.

If humans were economically rational beings, we would expect people to accept anything other than 100/0—even 1% of a reward is better than nothing, after all. But in practice, this isn’t what people do. In general, people tend to reject offers below 30%. Even though it means they lose guaranteed money, they do it anyway to punish their partner for making an unfair proposal. People don’t like to be used.

Back to Simmons’ WIIFM. If you don’t reveal this yourself, she says, the audience may wonder what’s in it for you, and reject your proposal if they suspect you may be using them. By explicitly laying out your own motivations, you assuage any doubts that your audience may have about you.

In addition to assuaging any doubts, revealing your own motivations can sometimes help motivate your audience as well. As I note in the book, one good way to find ways to motivate the audience is to think about what caused you to care about your cause in the first place. For example, if you’re motivated by the possibility of saving lives, there’s a good chance that your audience will be as well. By revealing that that’s WIIFY and M, you can make that motivation even more powerful.

Off the Shelf: The Benefit of the Benefit

In a yesterday’s post, I cited research that experiences give us more satisfaction than things, so it’s more effective as a communicator to sell experiences than products.

But what if what you’re trying to sell is a product? Is your pitch simply doomed to be less effective?

Fortunately, no. In fact, in the example I cited, Sam Mendes’ FaceTime commercial, the thing being sold actually was a product, the iPhone 4. The ad simply focused on the experiences that this product enabled.

You can (and should) use the same approach for every product you sell. As Chip and Dan Heath note in Made to Stick, you should focus on “the benefit of the benefit.” The first benefit in that phrase is an experience, while the second is the product that enables it. For example, the Heaths write, “people don’t buy quarter inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures.” (This example is a concrete, emotional adaptation of classic piece of marketing advice from Theodore Levitt.)

As the Heaths note, citing copywriter John Caples, “companies often emphasize features when they should be emphasizing benefits.” In the words of Caples, “The most frequent reason for unsuccessful advertising is advertisers who are so full of their own accomplishments (the world’s best seed!) that they forget to tell us why we should buy (the world’s best lawn!).”

This focus on your own product is understandable—you’ve spent a lot of time perfecting “the world’s best seed.” But as we’ve seen many times before, effective communication involves shifting the spotlight off of yourself and onto your audience, crafting your pitch to appeal to their interests, even if those interests happen to be different from yours.