From the Lab: Easy to Read, Easy to Do

In a 2008 study, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz found that when instructions for a task are presented in a font that is difficult to read, readers believe that the task will take significantly more time to complete and are significantly less motivated to attempt it.

This underscores the importance of making your presentations easy to understand, particularly when you are asking your audience to do something. (This principle applies to both your words and your visual aids—all parts of your presentation, really.) When the audience finds it difficult to understand your presentation, this will cause them to view what you’re asking them to do as more difficult, and they will be significantly less likely do it. On the other hand, if you make everything easy to understand, your audience will think what you’re asking them to do is easier, and they will be significantly more likely to do it.

Note: In a followup study in 2009, Song and Schwarz found that when the names of food additives or amusement park rides were hard to pronounce, they were perceived as riskier than those with names that were easy to pronounce.

On the Stage: How Many Brains?

In his talk at TEDxBerkeley, John Koenig talks about the new words he’s creating to describe emotions that are obscure (but at the same time, universal). For example, the word “sonder” means:

the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

It’s a very cool talk and an even cooler project, but what I want to touch on here is actually a tangent. About halfway through the talk, Koenig says that people often ask him whether these words are real.* He reports that he tried out many different answers to this question, but ultimately decided:

what people are really asking when they’re asking if a word is real, they’re really asking, “Well, how many brains will this give me access to?” Because I think that’s a lot of how we look at language. A word is essentially a key that gets us into certain people’s heads. And if it gets us into one brain, it’s not really worth it, not really worth knowing. Two brains, eh, it depends on who it is. A million brains, OK, now we’re talking. And so a real word is one that gets you access to as many brains as you can. That’s what makes it worth knowing.

As Koenig notes, pretty much everyone around the world knows the word “okay.” And most people who speak English will know the thousand most common words in English. But few people know the meaning of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis—except perhaps the trivia buffs who know that this is the longest word in a major dictionary, which refers to a specific kind of lung disease caused by the inhalation of ultra-microscopic particles of volcanic dust.

When communicating a technical topic (or really any topic, for that matter) it’s important to make sure that you’re using words that your audience knows—that you’re speaking to them in a common language. By combining words that your audience already knows in novel ways, you can help them unlock new connections in their brains, giving them new insights and knowledge.

Of course, as I note in The Science of Speaking, it can also be beneficial to give your audience some new vocabulary as well, as long as you define it clearly. This is because by doing so, you are giving them additional keys that can unlock even more new insights in the future.

As always, it’s important to find balance—in this case, a balance between using the tools that are available (i.e., words that your audience already knows), and creating new tools that can be used in the future (i.e., new words that will help them learn even more in the future).

* If you want to go further down this rabbit hole of how words get to be words, see the TED talks by Anne Curzan and Erin McKean.

Off the Shelf: No School on Thursday

Nora Ephron, the writer of When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle tells a great story from her days in school that illustrates one of the most essential principles of communication.

The teacher who changed my life was my journalism teacher, whose name was Charles Simms. … I had already decided that I was going to be a journalist. … But Mr. Simms really inspired my passion for journalism. He got up on the first day of class, went to the blackboard, and wrote “Who, what, where, why, when, and how,” which are the six things that have to be in the lead of any newspaper story. Then he did what most journalism teachers do—he dictated a set of facts to us, and then we were all meant to write the lead that was supposed to have “who, what, where, why, when, and how” in it.


The facts he dictated went something like this: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago.” We all sat at our typewriters and wrote a lead, most of us inverting the set of facts so that they read something like this, “Anthropologist Margaret Mead and University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal of the high school, Kenneth L. Peters, announced today.”


We were very proud of ourselves, and we gave the leads to Mr. Simms. He looked at what we had written and tore them into tiny bits and tossed them into the wastebasket. And he said, “The lead to this story is: ‘There will be no school on Thursday.'” It was this great epiphany moment for me about the essence of journalism. I thought, “Oh my God, it is about the point! It is about figuring out what the point is.” And I just fell in love with journalism at that moment. I fell in love with the idea that underneath, if you sifted through enough facts, you could get to the point, and you had to get to the point.

Although this lesson was initially learned in the context of journalism, it also applies to other forms of communication. Too often, a communicators’ main point (what in The Science of Speaking I call the “thesis”) ends up being like Ephron’s classmates’ original leads. While they generally succeed in communicating something, far too often, they miss the point and fail to make a greater impact.

Therefore, whenever you are preparing a speech, make sure that you don’t just present the facts, but that you sift through the facts to get to the point, presenting a clear, concise, relevant thesis.

From the Lab: Scientific Advocacy

In The Science of Speaking, I wrote, “Whereas our scientists and engineers often protest the pitch …” There’s an important, unanswered question here: why do our scientists and engineers protest?

There are several possible reasons for this.

First, many scientists and engineers believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t need to do—it’s their job to generate ideas, and someone else’s job (sales and marketing) to sell them. This belief is understandable, but ultimately wrong: as I note in the book, everyone engages in persuasive speaking, even if they don’t think about it in those terms.

Second, there is a significant subset of scientists who believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t do (note the deletion of the phrase “need to” here). They believe that scientists should stick to science and not get involved in advocacy. This is because they think that getting involved in advocacy will harm their credibility as scientists and perhaps even the credibility of the scientific community as a whole. Based on these assumptions, some have even gone so far as to say that science and advocacy are fundamentally incompatible.

Thankfully, a recent scientific study (published just this past weekend) thoroughly debunks this myth.

In a randomized controlled experiment, John Kotcher and his colleagues tested public reactions to six different advocacy statements made by a scientist—ranging from a purely informational statement to an endorsement of specific policies. Here’s what they found:

We found that perceived credibility of the communicating scientist was uniformly high in five of the six message conditions, suffering only when he advocated for a specific policy—building more nuclear power plants (although credibility did not suffer when advocating for a different specific policy—carbon dioxide limits at power plants). We also found no significant differences in trust in the broader climate science community between the six message conditions.

As the researchers conclude, “Our results suggest that climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community.”

Hopefully, this research will encourage more scientists to speak up and share not only their brilliant findings, but also their recommendations for how we can apply them!

In the News: The Feynman Technique

In a recent Medium post republished on Quartz, Shane Parrish writes about the Feynman Technique for mastering a subject, inspired by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman’s way of thinking. According to Parrish, the Feynman Technique has three steps:

Step 1: Teach It to a Child — Think about how you would teach your subject to “an eight-year-old who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships.” In doing so, Parrish notes, “you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. If you struggle, you have a clear understanding of where you have some gaps. That tension is good—it heralds an opportunity to learn.”

Step 2: Review — “Now you know where you got stuck, go back to the source material and re-learn it until you can explain it in basic terms,” advises Parrish.

Step 3: Organize and Simplify — Once you’ve gained a deeper—and simpler—understanding of your topic, “organize them into a simple story that flows.”

As an optional Step 4, you can Transmit what you’ve learned, actually explaining your subject to an eight-year old (or someone else who doesn’t know anything about your subject). As Parrish notes, “the ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.”

If you’ve read The Science of Speaking, you’ll immediately recognize these ideas from the chapters on technical communication (and organization). I’m including them again here because: a) they’re worth repeating, b) I like how the Feynman Technique organizes them into an elegant framework, a three-step method that’s easy to remember.

I also like the explicit addition of Step 2, which is something I only imply in The Science of Speaking: to teach better, you need to learn better. Which leads us to another important insight: just as I’ve said that it’s not your audience’s responsibility to be interested in your topic, it’s your responsibility to interest them, the same thing holds true for informing them. It’s not the audience’s responsibility to understand your explanation, it’s your responsibility to explain it so they can.

In the News: Understand to Remember (Updated)

In a recent post on Quora, republished by Inc., Denis Matei explains Elon Musk’s strategy for remembering things. In simple terms:

Don’t try to remember, but try to understand; when you understand, you will remember automatically.

This is an important insight for speakers, relevant to both the speaker’s memory and the audience’s.

In our classes at Stanford, we require our students to speak without notes. At the beginning of the quarter, our students often wonder how this is even possible: how can you speak eloquently without a script? Musk and Matei’s insight sheds some light on this. When you truly understand what you want to say, you can easily speak without a script because your brain naturally creates the words on the fly. On the other hand, if you don’t understand exactly what you want to say, it will be extremely difficult to come up with the words.

This insight is also relevant to the other side of speaking, i.e., the audience’s. If you can get the audience to truly understand what you’re trying to say, they’ll have no problem remembering the key points. But if they don’t understand what you’re trying to say, there’s no chance they’ll take away anything of value.

While it’s important to think about how you’re going to remember what to say, and how you’re going to get the audience to remember what you said, it’s even more important to make sure you understand what you’re trying to say, and that you get the audience to understand it as well. Where there is understanding, memory will follow.

In addition to this major insight, there are a few other tie-ins to The Science of Speaking in Matei’s post.

First, the importance of first principles. In the context of speaking, this means giving your audience enough background information to understand what you’re talking about. In Musk’s words:

Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Second, the effectiveness of analogies. To further improve your understanding, Musk suggests asking “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it?” The answers to these questions will generate potential analogies that can help you and your audience understand your topic.

Update (2/12/17): Tech in Asia has turned these ideas into a video, which highlights another connection to The Science of Speaking.

One useful technique for deconstructing these big ideas is to look at contrasting cases. Suppose we want to deconstruct the letter “J.” What makes a “J” a J? We could approach this in two ways. One, look at contrasting cases—a combination of different J fonts. Or two, look at the same cases. That is, study the same “J” over and over again. The first approach is better. Because once we identify the common characteristics of all “J”s, we can create our own versions of the letter. Understanding concepts thoroughly then helps us apply our knowledge.

This sounds a lot like the overarching philosophy of The Science of Speaking, which is to help you understand the fundamentals of effective speaking in order to help you create your own unique style of effective speaking.