On the Screen: The Show Order Effect

Recently, while watching Sing It On, the show which follows groups competing in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, I was exposed to the idea that show order matters. According to the seasoned performers on the show, in a competition where the judges deliberate at the end, it’s best for you to perform at the end, in the 8th, 9th, or 10th slot, because the judges will be more likely to remember you. Getting an early slot, on the other hand, is the kiss of death—you have absolutely no chance of winning.

Seeing this made me wonder if there’s any empirical evidence to back up this theory. In fact (and quite unfortunately), there is. In a recent article in Slate, Karla Starr reviews the research, finding that

The “last is best” effect occurs regardless of the scoring process: whether scores are given at the end of the competition (end-of-sequence judging) or after each performance (step-by-step judging). The power of “serial position effects” to influence a competition’s outcome has been observed in natural settings including Olympic figure skating, Olympic gymnastics, the Queen Elisabeth Music Contest, the World Synchronized Swimming Meet, and a Nebraska state high school gymnastic meet.

For example, in a study of figure-skating results from 1994 to 2004, the last to perform had a 14 percent chance of winning, compared to a 3 percent chance of winning for the first performers. This suggests that simply going last can increase your chance of winning by almost a factor of five!

As Starr notes,

Unfortunately, competitions routinely reinforce the serial-position-effect bias. In figure skating, the order of the second-round performances is decided by score, with those in the lead going last. A more reasonable alternative would be to randomize the order in the first round of performances, and then reverse that order in the second round.

In any case, there are several different things we can take from this. First, if you’re sharing the stage with other people (particularly if you’re competing with them), it will obviously benefit you to go last, because the audience will be more likely to remember what you said.

Beyond that, however, the show order effect has implications for organizing all of your presentations, regardless of when they’re going to be presented. While it’s certainly important to nail your introduction and get your audience hooked before you lose their attention, it’s also important to nail your conclusion, because that’s what you audience will remember most in the end.

From the Lab: Tell People How to Feel

In a recent study, researchers found that the more moral/emotional words (like “fight,” “hate,” “love,” and “peace”) there were in a tweet, the more likely it would be to be retweeted. In fact, with each additional moral/emotional word, the spread of the tweet increased by 20%! As summarized Katie Heaney of the Science of Us, “People Like Tweets That Tell Them How to Feel.”

Of course, this effect was most pronounced within political groups: liberals were more likely to share liberals’ moral/emotional tweets, and conservatives were more likely to share conservatives’. But in general, the more a tweet appealed to Heart and Halo, the greater impact it was likely to have.

This only further underscores the importance of including these kinds of appeals in your speaking: appealing to the Head alone won’t cut it. Wherever possible (within reason), include language that appeals to your audience’s values and emotions, and they’ll be significantly more likely to spread your message.

In the News: The Benefits (and Costs) of Wearing Many Hats

How do you handle criticism? If you’re like most people, probably not well. Fortunately, in a recent article in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan writes about a psychological trait which can help take away the sting of criticism:

One especially important factor is self-complexity, a psychological measure of the number of different “roles” that make up a person. Are you a spouse, mother, sister, and employee? Or just an employee? People who are lower in self-complexity have have fewer self-perceived roles, and their defining qualities in those roles are pretty similar—they might be a serious wife, for example, and a serious boss. These individuals tend to take criticism more to heart. They see negative feedback in any one sphere as a reflection on their whole self, as opposed to a just a small part of themselves.

Therefore, if you can see yourself as having more roles, you’ll be less sensitive to criticism (and perhaps less nervous about your performance). As lovely as this sounds, however, this approach can also have some drawbacks. As Khazan explains,

In a 2010 study, Allen McConnell, of Miami University, and Christina Brown, of Saint Louis University, asked college students to write about how much they valued study skills, then to describe all the times they slacked off. When the hypocrisy was pointed out, the students who were lower in self-complexity were more likely to change their attitudes to match their behavior: They acknowledged studying was not very important, after all. “Because they view themselves in a more limited way, the sting of hypocrisy is more painful and therefore they’re more motivated to get rid of it by being consistent,” Brown said. Meanwhile, those with a lot of self-complexity doubled down on their attitudes about the importance of studying, even when the evidence of their own studying failures was laid bare.

So what are we to take away from all this? First, if you find yourself overly concerned about criticism, it may behoove you to reconceptualize yourself as having more roles—even if you’re a bad speaker, you’re still a good a writer. But at the same time, you don’t want to let having multiples roles make you totally impervious to criticism: where reasonable, you still want to let it in and act on it. In other words, if you’ve just given a terrible presentation, begin by reminding yourself that you still wrote a wonderful report, but don’t let that stop you from working to give a better presentation the next time.

App for That: The Data Visualization Catalogue

Looking for new ways to visually present your ideas?

The Data Visualization Catalogue, developed by graphic designer Severino Ribecca, is a great resource for expanding your design language. It includes 60 different kinds of charts, complete with examples, explanations of what each chart is good for, and perhaps most useful of all, a list of applications that can be used to generate each kind of chart, even the most obscure.

From the Lab: Put Away Your Phone (Redux)

Previously, I’ve written about the negative effects of cell phones on interpersonal communication, and advised that while speaking, you should put your phone away.

According to a new study at UT Austin, there are even more reasons to do this: in addition to harming relationship quality, trust, and empathy, having your cell phone nearby can reduce working memory and intelligence.

The following graphs illustrate the effect. Compared to having your cell phone in the other room, simply having it on the desk in front of you can reduce your working memory capacity by an astounding 10%, and your fluid intelligence by 5%. In the case of working memory, just having your phone in your pocket or bag can have a significant negative effect as well (though in the case of intelligence, the effect is no longer significant). So whenever you’re presenting (or doing anything important), be sure to put that phone away!

From the Field: The Zone of Proximal Development

Several quarters ago, a student of mine gave a great speech about the ZPD, or “zone of proximal development.” As she explained it to us, every learner (in our case, an audience member) comes into the room with an existing set of knowledge and skills. The zone of proximal development contains the set of knowledge and skills that you as the teacher (speaker) can help them develop. Outside the zone of proximal development are the knowledge and skills that are too advanced for them at this point: while you may be able to help them learn these things in the future, they’re out of reach at this particular time.

Therefore, whenever you’re teaching (speaking), your goal should be to spend most of your time in this ZPD as you can—while it may be good to briefly review what your audience already knows, spending too much time on such review is a waste. Likewise, it’s also a waste of time to spend your time outside of this ZPD—no matter how much you try to explain, the audience won’t get it.

In the end, the key takeaway here is that whenever you are designing a speech, it’s important to: 1) understand where your audience is, 2) understand where it’s possible for your audience to get to, and 3) figure out the best way to move them from A to B.

In the News: Make It Your Own

In researching my previous post on the Feynman Technique, I happened upon another insight uncovered by Shane Parrish. This time, the idea is even older, from Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, published in 1580:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?

There are several insights we can take from this passage, depending on whether the “man” is the speaker or the audience. In my post on the Feynman Technique, I noted that in order to teach better, we need to learn better. Reading Montaigne with this idea in mind, we realize that in order to teach well, it’s important to fully digest your topic and “make [it] your own.” While it’s possible to simply parrot another teacher’s ideas, this approach almost always falls flat. Your teaching becomes more powerful when you put your own spin on it.

The relevance of this passage to your audience is even clearer. In order for your audience to truly understand your topic, they must also find a way make it their own. And of course, as I note in The Science of Speaking, this is actually your responsibility as a speaker, and there are many ways that you can fulfill it, for example, through discussions, role plays, demos, and imagination.

When you as the teacher make knowledge your own, and then use that understanding to help your students make it their own too, that’s when learning truly comes alive.

From the Lab: It’s All in the Details

In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly note that it’s better to use specific examples—particularly human, emotional examples—because specifics are more convincing than generalities. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath cite a particularly good example of this: a classic experiment in which Jonathan Shedler and Melvin McManus simulated a trial for custody of a child.

In terms of relevant factors, the case was designed to be closely balanced, with 8 arguments for the mother and 8 against her. The only difference between the two conditions of the experiment was that in one case, the arguments for the mother included more vivid details, and in the other case, the arguments against her did.

For example, one of the basic arguments for the mother read: “Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime.” In the vivid condition, this detail was added: “He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.”

While the fact that the son’s toothbrush resembles Darth Vader has absolutely no bearing on her fitness as a mother, in the condition in which this detail was added, jurors were significantly more likely to side with her. As the Heaths note, this is because the details “boosted the credibility of the argument. If I can mentally see the Darth Vader toothbrush, it’s easier for me to picture the boy diligently brushing his teeth in the bathroom, which in turn reinforces the notion that Mrs. Johnson is a good mother.”


Therefore, whenever you have the opportunity, cite specific examples using vivid details. Although it may seem like a minor thing to you, the effect on your audience may be actually be major: a few details may mean the difference between success and failure.

From the Lab: The Power of Gum

In a 2016 article at the Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards reviews the benefits of chewing gum. As she reports, chewing gum can make you more alert, resulting in improved reaction times, improved productivity, and better cognitive performance on a test (but only when gum is chewed before—not during—the test). (Other studies have also shown negative effects on memory while chewing.) Chewing gum can also improve mood and reduce stress.

While it’s certainly not a good idea to chew gum while you speak, this research suggests that if it’s something you like to do, it may be good to do it before you speak (ideally in the 15-20 minutes before your speech, as that’s how long the cognitive benefits last), simultaneously making you more alert and ready to perform, while improving your mood and reducing stress.

From the Lab: You Can Do It!

In a 2014 study by Sandra Dolcos and Dolores Albarracin, reported by BPS Research Digest’s Christian Jarrett, they found that when it comes to motivating yourself, saying “you can do it” is better than “I can do it.” Participants who were instructed to tell themselves “you can do it” reported greater motivation to solve a set of puzzles and actually succeeded in solving more puzzles than participants who told themselves “I can do it.” This effect also held true for exercising: participants who told themselves “you can do it” reported more positive attitudes toward exercising and expressed greater intentions to exercise in the coming week than those who told themselves “I can do it.”

As for why this might be, the researchers “speculate that second-person self-talk may have this beneficial effect because it cues memories of receiving support and encouragement from others,” which, as we’ve seen before, can be an effective method for calming your nerves. This study goes one step further to suggest that we might be able to provide this for ourselves, simply by speaking to ourselves in the second person.