From the Field: The Shoulders of Giants

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Sir Isaac Newton, in a letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1676

This piece of advice comes from a student, Benjamin Gera.

After being rejected for several jobs, Ben received a piece of advice from one of his interviewers. When he applied this advice in his next interview, he was immediately given the job.

What was this powerful piece of advice?

Whenever you’re speaking about your successes, begin by talking about those who helped you achieve them.

As Ben notes, by talking about the giants whose shoulders you stood on, you immediately convey humility and differentiate yourself from everyone else who appears boastful. As long as you first acknowledge those who have helped you, he reports, you can pretty much boast about yourself as much as you want, while still coming across as humble. It’s the perfect solution to the dilemma of expertise that I discuss in The Science of Speaking.

Another benefit of Ben’s technique is that it sets you up to tell human stories, rather than just rattling off a dry list of accomplishments. And as we saw in a previous blog post, this can help the audience feel they know you, which will lead them to see you as even more trustworthy.

From the Lab: Make It Human

In The Science of Speaking, I cite research showing that human stories are significantly more impactful than statistics. Here’s yet another study that sheds light on this bias, and suggests that it may be hard-wired in us.

In a 2007 study at UCSB, researchers asked participants to detect subtle changes in pictures, like those games in children’s magazines that ask you to spot the differences. When the changes to the pictures involved inanimate objects, 70% of the changes were noticed, in an average of 5 seconds. When the changes involved humans, however, 96% were noticed, and they were noticed even faster, in an average of only 3 seconds. Changes to other animals were in the middle, with a recognition rate of 83%. Interestingly, changes to animals were more recognizable than changes to vehicles, which suggests that these differences are evolutionarily hard-wired: despite that fact that vehicles are much more dangerous to us today, our visual attention is still more attuned to animals, which would’ve been dangerous to our ancestors.

When humans are involved, we pay greater attention. Therefore, the more human you can make your presentation, the better. Rather than simply citing statistics, tell human stories that make them come alive. And instead of simply showing the audience pictures of your product, considering showing them pictures of people using it, as humans will be more likely to draw their attention.


From the Lab: What Story Will You Tell?

In a previous blog post, we saw that the inclusion of a descriptive title can greatly improve your audience’s ability to understand and remember what you’re trying to say. Despite the fact that the description clearly described “the procedure” in question, it wasn’t until the actual title of the procedure was known that everything actually came together and made sense. (I won’t spoil the surprise here—you should be able to experience it yourself.)

Today, we’ll see that organization—in particular, stream of thought—functions in a similar way. In a classic study at Stanford University, Perry Thorndyke found that the order in which information is presented can have a major impact on how it is understood and remembered.

In the study, participants were presented with a variety of passages to read, each with a different stream of thought. In the first condition, the information was presented in story form, with the theme of the story clearly defined at the beginning. In the second condition, the theme of the story was presented at the end. In the third condition, the theme of the story was absent. And in the fourth condition, the information was simply described without setting it in a narrative context. In one final twist, each condition was presented either in order or with the sentences mixed up at random.

The two graphs below reveal the results:

In terms of both comprehension and recall, a story with its theme presented up front was best, followed by a story with its theme presented at the end, followed by a story with no theme, followed by a description, followed by randomized sentences.

There are several things we can take away from this as presenters.

First, stream of thought is important. When the information was presented chronologically, it was significantly more understandable and memorable than when it was presented as a description—or in a random order. And while this study looked at the chronological stream of thought in particular, I suspect that these findings will generalize, at least somewhat, to other logical streams of thought. After all, every logical stream of thought will tell a compelling story, even if it’s not a chronological one. As I note in The Science of Speaking, “it’s not so important which logical progression you use, so much as that you have some form of logical progression that moves us from one point to the next.”

Second, it’s important to have a main theme—and to present that main theme up front. As we saw above, a story with its theme presented up front was better than a story with its theme presented at the end, which was better than a story with no theme. In the context of speaking, this theme is your thesis—the one thing that’s most important for your audience to remember. And while some people think that presenting their thesis up front will “spoil the surprise,” and opt to reveal their main point only at the end of their speech, this study suggests that your audience will be significantly more likely to understand and remember what you have to say if you let your audience in on your main point right from the beginning.

There’s one final piece of advice that we can draw from this study. In addition to testing participants’ comprehension and recall of the story as a whole, Thorndyke also tested their recall of particular aspects of the story, depending on how central they were to the story—was it an essential part of the big picture, or was it simply a nitty-gritty detail? The results are presented in the graph below.

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

First, it reconfirms that for all levels of the organizational hierarchy, from the big picture down to the nitty-gritty details, a logical stream of thought makes everything more memorable.

Furthermore, it goes on to show exactly the pattern of remembering we want to see: when the information is presented with a logical stream of thought, participants remembered 90% of the big picture elements, around 70% of the of the second-order points, about 60% of the third-order points, and about 45% of the nitty-gritty details. (While it would be nice to have 90% recall of everything, that’s simply not going to happen, so the best case scenario is greater recall for the points that are most important—exactly the pattern we see here.) When the information lacks a logical stream of thought, however, this desirable pattern completely disappears. Instead, we see around 40 to 50% recall of all points, regardless of their importance. Say your ultimate goal is to get your audience to remember your thesis and three main points. Unless you have a logical stream of thought, this means that your audience will be just as likely to remember four totally random points as they will be to remember the four points you want them to.

In conclusion, a logical stream of thought is essential. Not only does it improve comprehension and recall of all your points, it especially increases recall of your main points without reducing recall of the nitty-gritty details. Regardless of what kind of stream of thought you choose, always make sure that you have one, and design it so that it leads the audience to remember what you want them too. Otherwise, you’ll simply be leaving it to chance—and not just any chance, but chance that’s lower across the board.

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: I Know, Therefore I Trust

In Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons cites a New York Times/CBS survey about trust. When people were asked “Of people in general, how many do you think are trustworthy?” the average reply was 30%. When they were asked “Of people you know, how many do you think are trustworthy?” the average reply was 70%.

As Simmons points out, this means that “If I feel I know you personally I will attribute twice as much trustworthiness to you.” Turning this into practical advice, she writes, “When you reveal something personal about yourself people feel they know you.” And this can make you seem twice as trustworthy.

As you might guess by the title of her book, Simmons’ preferred way of doing this is by telling a story about who you are, and this is certainly one good way to do it. But there are also many other ways you can do this, which extend my advice in The Science of Speaking. In addition to reducing your nervousness, showing up early and meeting some of the audience members can help them get to know you personally. As can having a conversation with the audience in the form of Q & A. Yet another way of getting your audience to know you is to have someone they already know introduce you, thus bringing you into their circle of trust. You can also give the audience a sense that they know you by revealing similarities between you and them, which could come in the form of your interests or attire.

Regardless of exactly how you choose to do it, it’s clear that getting your audience to know you is a powerful tool in your speaking toolbox.