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.

Between the Lines: I’m Not a Good Speaker … Yet

In yesterday’s blog post, we saw that public speaking doesn’t require genius—instead, it’s a skill that anyone can develop. This is an idea that deserves further explanation.

To elaborate on this idea, here is an excerpt on the power of mindsets from my first book (with Richard Powers), Waltzing: A Manual for Dancing and Living. Although it was written in the context of social dancing, it is equally applicable to public speaking.

In sharing the lessons of this book with the world, there is one particular obstacle that we often run into. We’ll be talking with someone about the benefits of dancing, when they’ll stop us and say, “I admire what you’re doing. But I’m sorry to tell you, I can’t dance!

Ironically, this statement is a perfect illustration of one of the potentially life-changing ideas we want to share with you: the power of holding different mindsets.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

The person who says to us, “I can’t dance,” is revealing that they hold what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset.

People with fixed mindsets believe that certain kinds of abilities—whether the logical and linguistic abilities required to pass exams, or the physical, musical, and interpersonal abilities required for social dancing—are fixed from birth.

“You’re either smart or you’re dumb, and you either can dance or you can’t.”

Not everyone believes this, however. Those who hold a growth mindset believe that these abilities are not entirely fixed, but rather that they can change and grow. According to those who hold a growth mindset, these abilities can, and must, be developed.

Performance vs. Mastery Goals

As a result of these differing beliefs about ability, people with different mindsets tend to adopt different goals.

People who believe their abilities are fixed tend to adopt a goal of performance, focusing on demonstrating their fixed abilities by showing off and outperforming others.

Those who believe their abilities can grow, on the other hand, tend to adopt a goal of mastery, focusing on developing their growing abilities by taking on new challenges and learning.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

As explained in Mindset, Dweck’s book summarizing her decades of research on the subject, a fixed mindset leads to a desire to look smart. Therefore, someone with a fixed mindset has the tendency to avoid challenges, to give up easily, to see effort as fruitless, to ignore useful negative feedback, and to feel threatened by the success of others. As a result, those with a fixed mindset often plateau early and achieve less than their full potential.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, leads to a desire to learn. Therefore, someone with a growth mindset has the tendency to embrace challenges, to persist in the face of setbacks, to see effort as the path to mastery, to learn from criticism, and to find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. As a result, those with a growth mindset tend to reach ever-higher levels of achievement.

In this way, the mindsets become self-fulling prophecies: those with fixed mindsets see their abilities plateau, and those with growth mindsets see their abilities grow.

There are two kinds of people. One kind you can tell just by looking at them as what point they congealed into their final selves. It might be a very nice self, but you know you can expect no more surprises from it. Whereas the other kind keeps moving, changing. … They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion of it keeps them young. In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive. You must be constantly on your guard against congealing.
—Ursula Devane, The Finishing School

Developing a Growth Mindset

Fortunately, as Dweck and her colleagues have demonstrated in studies of a wide range of abilities—in school, business, sports, and art—a growth mindset can be learned and taught.

People who are introduced to the growth mindset idea tend to shift from fixed to growth mindsets, and as a result, dramatically improve their abilities.

Likewise, people who are introduced to environments that reinforce mastery are more likely to adopt a growth mindset with mastery goals, and challenge themselves to greater heights. Environments that reinforce mastery encourage self-direction and intellectual risk-taking and discourage evaluation and competition. The social dance hall is a great example.

Importantly, these shifts in mindset tend to persist, even when people leave these mastery environments and return to their regular working environments. This shows once again that what we learn on the dance floor can sneak home with us to improve the rest of our lives.

I Can’t Dance … Yet

When potential social dancers tell us they can’t dance, what they really mean to say is that they can’t dance yet. The only problem is that they forget the yet.

And while you, reader of Waltzing, may not have this particular problem, we hope that this greater understanding of mindsets will help convince your friends who “can’t dance” to join you. We also hope that this will help you apply your growth mindset universally, pursuing all of the challenges that interest you, whether in painting, science, or public speaking.

In the News: Science for Everyone

In a recent edition of The Los Angeles Times, Eric Scerri writes about the ordinariness of science, saying:

science isn’t unusual. Like life itself, it progresses by trial and error. It depends on humans simply trying things out, even if its practitioners don’t always want to admit it. Science is what we know to the best of our human abilities. … Even the rarefied field of atomic theory is built on human error and serendipity, on non-geniuses randomly groping around.

This is relevant to The Science of Speaking in several ways.

First, as I note in the book, the ability to speak well doesn’t require genius. Just as practicing science simply requires a working knowledge of the scientific method, speaking well simply requires a working knowledge of the fundamental tools of the trade. It’s hard to make fire if you’re rubbing two sticks—not so hard if you have a box of matches. Learning the skills of effective speaking is like filling up your box with matches. While it’s true that some people start with their box mostly filled, and others start with their boxes mostly empty, it’s also true that everyone can work to fill theirs.

Second, the science of speaking is not some perfect, unchanging body of knowledge that has been passed down from on high. It’s simply the result of human research, collated by human teachers (i.e., me). Anyone—yes, that means you—can contribute to it, by practicing the scientific method, or in other words, “simply trying things out” and seeing what patterns you can find. As you give presentations, try different things, and see what works best for you and your audiences.

If you find anything interesting that you’d like to share, don’t hesitate to let me know. Your insights may even be featured in the blog, or in future editions of the book!