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How to Communicate Like a Negotiator in 3 Steps

Although this blog has focused exclusively thus far on how to communicate in a presentation setting, there are times when having the skills to communicate in a back and forth discussion are extremely helpful. Being competent in skills such as negotiation, debate, and communication, is helpful when working large groups that have varied interests. Negotiation, however, usually gets a bad rap in most people’s view. The common sentiment is that people who negotiate are usually rude and confrontational. Imagine talking with some pushy salesperson trying to trick a customer into a purchase that they do not want, or some a rude business executive giving ultimatums if they do not get their way. The reality of negotiation as a communication tool could be nothing further from the truth. Negotiating is an important skill that the majority of people are not very good, due to fear of confrontation and conflict. 3 In this post we will explore how using negotiation tactics not only will help create a positive atmosphere for discussion, but also allow trust and goodwill to be fostered between opposing groups.

BP Oil Flood Protest in New Orleans 30

Step 1: Decide upon a goal or outcome before you begin to negotiate.

A self assessment is one of the most important things you can do as a communicator, asking “what do I want from this?” will go a long way to being clear and concise when it comes to negotiating. 3 Decide what the outcome should be before you begin communicating or writing down what you will say. For example, do you want a cooperative agreement or are you trying to convince the audience that your way of thinking is best. Considering the possible mutual gains for both you and the audience will make sure you are not perceived as an adversary whom needs to be opposed. 1 Evaluate who you are speaking to and take into consideration what they are wanting to accomplish and compare this with what your personal goals are for the discussion. Developing empathy for your audience can be one of the most powerful tools that you can use to improve communication. Keep in mind while you think of the goals, that you are trying to create a positive relationship with others and find common ground.

As with any communication you must know the topic and become well versed in both sides of the argument. Good negotiators strive to understand where the opposing views, thoughts and feelings are coming from. Knowing your audience as thoroughly as possible is key to your success, since you will need to tailor your information to meet their needs. You do not want to end up in a situation where you are using negotiation tactics with an audience that will not benefit from it. 1

Step 2: Stage presence, keep your composure while communicating.

Consider the relationship you already have with the audience; are you an unknown? an adversary? or a trusted source of information? Whatever category you fall into will impact how you communicate with your audience. 1 Take into account (but do not obsess over) the fact that you will be judged on your presentation and make sure that you are well rehearsed and relaxed. Focus the tone of the presentation on completing objectives and solving problems rather than trying to change opinions or beliefs. 1 Work slowly so you are coherent and fluid you do not want to concede anything you have not had time to think about. 1 Remember you are the communicator and therefore set the pace for discussion, make sure to use this ability to your advantage. A general rule of thumb is to stay focused on the positive when possible and maintain a relaxed composure. Do not take anything personally and try to take a break or recess if you lose your cool. If you have done your homework beforehand you will likely already be composed and things will go smoothly.

Step 3: There are no losers, everyone walks away with something.

Negotiating can be a difficult task, since often you will be working with an audience that is passionate and has many different opposing views. Keep in mind that negotiating is a two way transfer of knowledge with the ultimate goal of solving a problem. 2 This means that no one need feel as though they are conceding something in a sort of compromise, but rather that everyone is working in a positive manner to come to an agreeable resolution.  The overall success when negotiating your desired outcome, often is heavily based on the relationship and trust between the parties involved. 1 Separate the personalities from the problem so that no one takes something personally but instead is focused on working together to solve the problem. 1  Negotiate on the audience’s ultimate desires and goals and not their personal opinions. 1 For example, think about how most people support renewable energy whether they believe in climate change or not. Try to avoid using ultimatums when communicating since they can make people feel like they are cornered or trapped. 1

You will want to take into account how passionate the audience is about something and stay aware of conflict that might arise. If you think that conflict is likely, then prepare beforehand ways to calm down the audience so that you will be able to diffuse the situation before it gets to intense. 5 One way to avoid potential conflict is to keep people busy by task sharing. Breaking the problem up into smaller parts and then distributing them out to all interested parties is an effective way to come to an agreement. 2 Stay positive and remember that often when negotiating one side will make measurable gains while the other will simply strengthen their relationship and feelings towards the whole community. At the end of the day if every feels good about the agreement or resolution then the negotiation was successful.

TAA–University bargaining, 1970

A final note.

Using negotiation in a presentation does not mean you need to be “tough” by playing hardball or being confrontational. Nor does it mean you should be “soft” letting others manipulate or walk all over you. Using negotiation while communicating means that you will need to; evaluate each situation differently, make sure that you are working towards a goal, address the needs of everyone involved, and finally create a positive  agreeable outcome. 3 Focusing on the needs of the audience and solving their problems is more effective than trying to convince the audience to think the way you do. Remember the audience will respond to problem solving and constructive conversation, but they will quickly shut down if they feel that they are being manipulated or pressured. 4 Use the right tools for the topic, but be aware that there are some issues that cannot be negotiated on, and as a communicator it is important to recognize and steer away from these. 5


1. Anderson, T. (1992). Step into my parlor: A survey of strategies and techniques for effective negotiation. Business Horizons, 35(3), 71-76.

2. Davis, R., & Smith, R. G. (1983). Negotiation as a metaphor for distributed problem solving. Artificial intelligence, 20(1), 63-109.

3. Leigh, T. (2012). Mind and heart of the negotiator. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

4. Rackham, N., Kalomeer, R., & Rapkin, D. (1988). SPIN selling. New York: McGraw-Hill.j

5. Rubin, J. Z. (1983). Negotiation An Introduction to Some Issues and Themes. American Behavioral Scientist, 27(2), 135-147.

8 Tips to Help Communicate a Controversial Topic

Many people tend to shy away from speaking about controversial topics, fearing that the audience will not receive the message well, or that conflict and confrontation will arise.  Although sometimes communicating a controversial topic can cause the audience to respond in a negative way, it doesn’t mean that the only outcome is conflict. When you find yourself needing to communicate a controversial topic, using methods that promote open minded, positive discussion will go a long way to diffuse any conflicts. In this post I have compiled a list of tips that can help communicate the facts and create a positive environment for your next presentation.

Jeff Isom arguing with an umpire

1. Be prepared and make sure that you are well versed in the subject matter.

Speaking about any subject requires that you do your homework beforehand. This is even more important when you are speaking about a topic that the audience finds controversial. Before you reach the stage or podium you need to do your homework so that you understand what are the facts are and what is propaganda. Consider what information might be difficult for the audience understand and prepare yourself to be able to explain those parts. Think of analogies or anecdotes to help explain the topic while avoiding unnecessary jargon or technical terminology. Furthermore make sure that you are well versed and prepared with the subject manner not only in a rhetorical way. Chances are that the audience will want to discuss the topic afterwards, and research has shown well prepared discussions by those participating usually turn out successful. 2

2. Think about the overall outcome or desired result for your presentation.

Before you start speaking you will need to think about what the goals for your talk are. Do you want to change people’s mind about a topic? Are you just simply informing them of the other side? Are you trying to promote a willingness to work together despite differences? Taking time before you speak to the audience to think about outcomes will help you craft a logical and coherent story. Write down your specific goals or results and brainstorm how you can achieve those. For example you can present supporting facts, information, and visuals to help get factual information across. Or you can take time to debunk common myths held by the public. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure that you are always working towards a logical outcome.

3. Know your audience.

In order to have a successful delivery, it is important to take into account the constraints of the presentation (e. g. timing, subject matter, etc). 3 Knowing the knowledge level and experience of the audience, and whether or not you will have a discussion will go a long ways to help the audience understand the subject matter. 3 Since you already know that your topic is controversial, think of how the audience will react to the content of the presentation. Consider how people will disagree with you. What sort of counter arguments might they bring up? How will you deal with a vocal minority? How will you resolve and diffuse conflict? When you think about the audience, the key is to anticipate what problems might arise for them and already have plan to put into action. Think about what points someone might make who disagrees with you, and work your answers to them into the presentation. Plan ahead on how the audience will perceive the content and what might lead to internal or external conflict. Taking time before the presentation will make it easier on you, so you don’t have to scramble for a solution on the spot.

 4. Establish Credibility.

One of the more important tasks as a speaker is to establish credibility with the audience. By establishing credibility you build trust and trustworthiness in your message. In order for the audience to respect what facts and information you are bringing to the talk you need to establish yourself as a credible source. Becoming a credible source will also help reduce the chances of conflict in the audience since they can trust what you say as factual. Make sure to establish your experience and skills early on in the presentation by sharing stories or facts about yourself as a topical expert. Think elevator pitch, you need to become a credible source quickly in a concise fashion so you can build trust early on.

5. Acknowledge that a topic is controversial.

The more direct and honest with the audience you can be, the more likely they will trust you and your sources of information. Acknowledging the “elephant in the room” will allow the audience to relax a bit by knowing that you are taking the issue seriously. This works similarly to the acknowledgment of an awkward situation and will help relieve tension. Saying literally that you know this material is controversial and that you respect people’s opinion will go a long way to building trust.

6. Ask what the audience already knows about the topic.

Take time either in a rhetorical sense or a discussion setting to ask what preconceived ideas and information the audience already has. This allows the audience to feel as if they have a voice in the conversation about the topic. It is important to remember that each person in the audience will likely hold a slightly different point of view, and that being respectful of each other’s viewpoint will go a long way to fostering positive discussion. This doesn’t mean that you need to give people the opportunity to voice incorrect or biased points of views, but rather that you are acknowledging in a respectful environment that everyone has a voice. Make sure that people are heard and addressed respectfully but make sure to keep things reasonable and on topic. For example, you can voice your opinion about the government because freedom of speech protects you, but you cannot yell fire in a crowded theater because in endangers others. Use common sense here to allow the audience to feel heard but not to derail the talk into a shouting match.

7. Present both sides of the argument.

It is important to take both sides of the argument into account even if one is blatantly wrong. The reason is that some of the audience may hold the wrong point of view, and by acknowledging it you are able to logically debunk it with factual data. Avoid saying things like “you are wrong” or “the wrong way to think is”. Use language that will be more persuasive to the other side like, “some may hold X opinion, but we are going to explore why the evidence is pointing to a different take”. It is important to remain as neutral as possible about a topic, not letting your own bias enter into the facts of the topic. 1 There is a tendency for people to unknowingly assert their own beliefs into a topic and this bias can influence the audience. If you want to encourage discussion and open minded knowledge transfer, then it is best to allow the audience to review the information and make their own decisions. Remember, you may not convince everyone in the audience, but even if a few people change their minds it is a positive outcome.


8. Encourage open minded discussion.

Depending on the kind of presentation you are giving, encourage thoughtful discussion at the end of your presentation. In some cases it may be appropriate to say “since this topic is controversial, I want to remind everyone to be respectful of others” making sure to lay the ground rules for the discussion and diffuse conflicts before they arise. Remember in most of these cases you are going to be the moderator and need to be able to cut people off if they begin to ramble. Often this can be done politely by mentioning time constraints. Finally if the end goal is to come to some common agreement or negotiation then remind everyone that there needs to be a resolution at the end of the day. Keeping your audience on task by commenting that they are working together to improve the situation through respectful discussion can also help in these situations.


1. Cotton, D. R. (2006). Teaching controversial environmental issues: Neutrality and balance in the reality of the classroom. Educational Research, 48(2), 223-241.

2. Hess, D. E. (2002). Discussing controversial public issues in secondary social studies classrooms: Learning from skilled teachers. Theory & Research in Social Education, 30(1), 10-41.

3. Stradling, R. (1984). The Teaching of Controversial Issues: an evaluation [1].Educational Review, 36(2), 121-129.

Building Trust, Collaboration, and Understanding, Through Communication

Getting your message across is important, but what happens when you want the audience to do something with that message? If you are presenting in a workshop or special session you may want the audience to interact with you, join a community, retain and use the new information, or be inspired to contribute to the overall subject matter. When your goal is to have greater interaction with the audience, you will need to consider questions such as; what is the take home message? How might they use this new new knowledge? And what information will they actually retain? In this post we will go over three important concepts to keep in mind if you want to increase audience interaction and participation.

Handshake (Workshop Cologne '06)

1. Building Trust in Your Audience

As discussed in previous posts, building trust and trustworthiness can help the audience retain information and pay attention. If the audience has a lack of trust or respect for the presenter, it can become a large barrier for communication and knowledge transfer. Fostering a sense of trust is not only important during the presentation but also for afterwards. If they audience has a lack of trust in the information or the presenter then they are unlikely to do anything with the new information. If your presentation is focused on trying to get people to commit to a call to action, then you will need to build trust with the audience.  As a presenter you are depending on the audience to trust you enough that they willing to stand behind the message. Building trust with your audience is the basis for thoughtful discussion, interaction and knowledge transfer. 4

Trust can be defined as a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of a person or idea. Trust in new ideas is built when the perceived risk and uncertainty is low enough that people are willing to put themselves in a vulnerable position. Remember that an idea only has as much value as people are willing to put in it, by listening and trust. However, trust and trustworthiness are different traits when it comes to communication. 3 It is better to build credibility and trustworthiness through being consistent with your information. Additionally, be willing to share information and ideas that are not complete or “perfect”. Allowing yourself to be judged and see what people think can build trustworthiness in the audience. The perfect work never gets shared because it is “never finished”, and this can be interpreted as a lack of confidence or secrecy. To build trustworthiness you will need to put your ideas on the line.

The key to building trust is that you need to convince your audience (often in a short amount of time) that not only is believing in your message worth the risk but also that believing in you is worth the risk. Some of the ways that trust can be achieved is by; having a clear purpose or objective, presenting a thorough understanding of the topic, accepting that trust evolves over time, and remembering that some may need to hear the message more than once to be “on-board”. When you want to build trust strive to present a balanced viewpoint and avoid being biased. Obviously you want to be as honest as possible in your presentations, and make sure you are not omitting facts to make your point more appealing. Additionally focus on your message and do not over use technology. Technology is an assistant but not the point of the communication. Often audiences may be “wowed” by technology but it can distract from the actual subject matter. Use discretion when putting together your presentation and be careful not to drive attention away from building trust. Following these basic tips will go a long way to building trust with your audience.

2. Building Collaboration in Your Audience

Collaboration can be defined as working together with someone or a group of people to produce or create something new. When you want to build a collaboration you need to consider what are the best ways to transfer knowledge and making sharing ideas more effective. As a communicator it is your job to get people involved and excited about contributing something new to the project or idea. By actively involving your audience you will get them interested and engaged. Keep in mind that people are highly motivated by the guiding belief, principle, and expected outcome of the project or idea. That is, there needs to be a higher purpose than just making a profit or publishing a paper. Having a clear goal or objective that is beyond short term gains will motivate others to share and work together. The best motivation for a collaboration is often the job itself.

When you are building a collaboration it is a very different than giving a presentation and saying “I am here to tell you about…”. Building collaboration requires different approaches to communication. Someone needs to take on the role as a central coordinator so that people  have a moderated way to communicate. When communicating in a collaborative setting the coordinator needs to be well versed in methods of communication such as; being nondominant in conversation, being noncontentious to the audience, and being attentive to others. 1 It is very important to avoid communicating in a way that causes people to shutdown and disengage. A contentious argumentative style (often over trivial issues) or being overly precise causes the conversation to hang up on unimportant details so that the bigger picture is missed. 1 Additionally monopolizing the conversation by speaking forcefully, causes others to feel pushed back and unwilling to respond. 1 Instead the coordinator needs to remain focused on being attentive and emphasize back and forth communication. 1  Building a collaboration requires a lot effort, but the rewards of  the exchange of new ideas is well worth the time it takes to communicate effectively. Keep these communication styles in mind as you present your ideas for collaboration, and you are bound to see a positive outcome with the introduction of new energy and ideas from your new collaborators.

Wikipedia presentation MU Brno 2009-03-09

3. Building Understanding in Your Audience

Understanding can be defined as the action or capability of comprehending an idea or concept. When communicating with the public or in a workshop setting, being able to predict the level of understanding can be an important tool to addressing confusion and doubt. You can’t expect an audience to tell you what they already know and what new information is confusing to them. Making sure that your presentation or information is not too complex requires that you consider the audience beforehand. Take into account the culture, the technology, and lives of the people you are working with. Additionally thoughtful practice in front of test groups that are not familiar with your information may help tailor your presentation. By taking into account the audience and making sure the content is at the appropriate level you will increase audience understanding. However be sure to keep balance in the content so that you are not just “dumbing it down” to a very basic level. A coherent story leading from point A to B to C is far more effective at getting your information across than just removing information to simplify the message. Challenging material with clear background is much more likely to promote understanding of a topic. 2

It is important to engage the users of your material so they can take it to the next level on their own. When people become motivated about a subject they will often do the hard work to figure out what they do not understand for themselves. When you reach points in presentation that are difficult it may be best to allow the audience time to think about the information. Add break points and silence so the material can sink in, and be sure to allow time for discussion and questions afterwards. Think about what problems might arise for audience, and try to include information throughout the presentation so they can figure it out for themselves.  Encourage the use of additional resources to learn more such as; books and articles, online resources, videos, mentoring, guided learning, and shadowing others to gain the essential knowledge. Knowledge and information are different things, having facts (information) is not the same as letting people develop the skills or experience (knowledge) to become more informed.

In your next presentation think about what you want for the overall goal or outcome. Consider what is the aim of your information is, want you want the call to action to be, what kind of community you want to create, and how you want to inform people? Taking time before your presentation to answer some of these questions will help to create a seamless transition to the desired audience interaction.


1. Coeling, H. V. E., & Cukr, P. L. (2000). Communication styles that promote perceptions of collaboration, quality, and nurse satisfaction. Journal of nursing care quality, 14(2), 63-74.

2. McNamara, D. S., Kintsch, E., Songer, N. B., & Kintsch, W. (1996). Are good texts always better? Interactions of text coherence, background knowledge, and levels of understanding in learning from text. Cognition and instruction, 14(1), 1-43.

3. Rotter, J. (1967). A new scale for the measurement of interpersonal trust. Journal of personality.

4. Vangen, S., & Huxham, C. (2003). Nurturing collaborative relations Building trust in interorganizational collaboration. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 39(1), 5-31.

Focusing on the Audience’s Needs, 4 Common Problems in Public Speaking

Determining the needs of your audience can feel like a daunting task. There are many things to take into consideration, such as; are you presenting to like-minded professionals? Is this a public outreach event? Does the audience know any of the subject matter?  What age group is the audience? Is the audience full of native speakers of your language, or not? Is jargon going to confuse most of the audience?  And the list goes on and on. However, just because audience consideration is complicated, it doesn’t mean it can be overlooked. Imagine if a college professor taught a class but treated the students like they were colleagues at a national meeting. Most of the students in the room would be lost and confused, causing them to disengage from what is being taught. Likewise if someone was presenting at a national meeting, but used the format of a Biology 101 class, the audience would become quickly bored due to the level of information. Taking into account who you are speaking to is an important task that cannot be overlooked by any speaker.3 Considering your audience when preparing your presentation will make positive and significant impacts on what you are communicating.1

When we converse with our friends, colleagues, and family we almost always tailor our conversations and stories to meet their needs. Often we do this without thinking too much about it. If you desire to create a greater impact, increase retention of information, or want people to take action, then you need to carefully consider the audience in the same way. As an aside, teaching in the classroom is a form of public speaking as well, but is a significantly different experience. The classroom can have very different levels of audience participation and [therefore teaching deserves it own separate post].  Here I am going to focus on the traditional rhetorical presentation and consider the audience to improve the the impact of the message. In a rhetorical presentation generally you are not going to get any verbal feedback from your audience (except maybe during the end Q and A session). Despite the lack of feedback there are many things you can do to avoid problems and help connect to your audience.

2014-14 wikimania day three (14)

Problem 1; Turning your most recent paper or report into a presentation.

“Scientific reports belong to the genre of forensic arguments, affirming the validity of past facts, the experimental data”2

The above statement says it all, not only is it a wordy and complicated sentence that is somewhat confusing, but it also states that papers are designed to store our facts and experimental data. Papers and reports are great materials for reference and learning. However, they are meant to be read and not used as a substitute for good public speaking. The advantage of a paper and the written word is that the reader can stop at any moment, and look up a definition or reread a confusing sentence. In the medium of spoken presentations the audience does not have that opportunity. In a presentation the audience is locked in to whatever you say or do. And if something isn’t clear then there is now way an audience member can fix the problem in the moment. Using a paper or report as basis of the presentation will hurt your chances at connecting with the audience. An occasional fact or figure from a recent paper is fine but don’t overdo it. I have too often heard people say “Oh I just took my paper and turned it into some slides”, this approach will seriously hinder your ability to communicate and ultimately make the audience disconnect. If you are making a presentation about your recent findings in a paper, then try writing (without looking at your paper) a quick summary of the paper in your own conversational tone. This can be done in a formal written page or in a brainstorming session, just make sure to focus on the overall outcome, story, or take home message. Then, go back to your scientific paper and fill in any details that need some strengthening. This way you are not going from a technical paper direct to a presentation, but rather you are forced to translate the story for the audience before you are on stage.

Problem 2; Not enough context to your story.

The audience needs context in addition to the facts of the story. Just giving the basic “who what where why when” is not enough, there must be a clear and formulated story that is the backbone of the presentation Audience members shut down if there is a lack of information and context; specifically in structure and visuals.In a way, you must assume that the audience knows nothing about the topic, that does not mean assume the audience is stupid. 4 As the audience takes in new information they generally cannot retain and process more than 5 to 7 new things at a time. Be considerate of the amount of new ideas you are throwing out there and make sure that the background to each part is explained. For example, this can be done by showing a picture of hospital beds or saying the of number of deaths from malaria each year. In this case a concise picture or numerical fact will help the audience understand why you are doing your work. Additionally people respond very well when you convey what you believe in as well as why you do things you do.

Furthermore make sure to be honest about any uncertainties in your work or results. As a communicator you must present a balanced point of view, but also be honest about the certainties and present the correct point of view. The audience needs to know if something is controversial, or has some parts of the argument that are not yet fully resolved. By doing this you will help add context to your story, showing that it (the science) if often a work in progress, but still tremendous gains have been made on the topic.

Problem 3; Customize your message? Or a one size fits all approach?

Deciding whether to make a single presentation for everyone or create an customized message depends very much on the audience.1 Having a single presentation and message can help maintain a consistent image when dealing with different groups. By maintaining a similar message across your presentations, you will begin to project a single specific identity that the general public can connect with.1 This might help in the case of a controversial topic, where there are many doubters or disbelievers in your field. Using the same approach across different audiences will prevent any accusations of hypocrisy by having different variations of the same message. On the other hand, making a custom presentation for your audience, is beneficial when dealing with small or special interest groups. Giving the audience the information they want and need may increase retention and project trustworthiness in you.1 Additionally by customizing your message you are allowing the audience to feel more included in the project or research. Ultimately you will need to use your best judgement as to which method to use.

Problem 4; Lack of use of technology and up to date materials.

Smart phone

All too often presentations will use out of date materials, old visual aids and ignore current technologies. Audience members are very savvy and will especially notice out of date information. Almost everyone carries around a fully functional computer in their pocket these days. Since everyone is always connected to the internet (aka all of human knowledge) the audience is aware how old information is. Even if you reuse a slide from a few years ago a tremendous amount has happened in the world since then, and in a globally connected world information is moving faster than ever. It is in your best interest to make sure all information is up to date and accurate since and no one wants to see old stuff recycled in a presentation. Additionally don’t stray away from new technologies. The internet has revolutionized the world, and using old outdated tech to tell a story will generally bore your audience. That is not to say you need to get overwhelmed learning newest social app out there, but make sure to take note of new technologies in your field and integrate them as best you can. Think of it this way, PowerPoint was released 25 years ago, YouTube and streaming video is over 10 years old now, Facebook is 11 years old, Twitter is 9 years old, and Snapchat is turning 4. If you are not even aware of the new things happening you are already behind, so do your homework and read tech news once to stay up to date. Simply being ready to learn new things and integrate them into your presentation is already half the battle.

Fotothek df roe-neg 0006206 036 Blick auf die Zuschauer des Theaterstücks "Spiel

When presenting we need to consider to the audience and work with them while giving a presentation. The audience is already interested otherwise they would not have come to hear you talk, so don’t waste that opportunity by not taking them into consideration. If the concerns, interest, and intelligence, of the audience is taken superficially, then the likely outcome is mistrust and cynicism.1 Careful consideration to the audience is needed to avoid undesirable outcomes in communicating your message.So do your homework before your next presentation and you will connect with the audience in a much better way.


1. Crane, A., & Livesey, S. M. (2003). Are you talking to me? Stakeholder communication and the risks and rewards of dialogue. Stakeholder Communication and the Risks and Rewards of Dialogue.

2. Fahnestock, J. (1986). Accommodating Science The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts. Written communication, 3(3), 275-296.

3. Friedman, S. M., Dunwoody, S., & Rogers, C. L. (1999). Communicating uncertainty: Media coverage of new and controversial science. Routledge.

4. Rogers, C. L. (2000). Making the audience a key participant in the science communication process. Science and engineering ethics, 6(4), 553-557.

The Increasing Need for Science Communication

When I was freshman attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, it was required of me to take a communication class. At the time I was an engineering student and a  communication class was a general education requirement for almost all majors and incoming students. I remember thinking, “why do I have to take that dumb communication class.” I had never taken a communication class in high school, and I understand why I had to learn it now when I wanted to learn engineering. Also, I didn’t like speaking in public in the first place, so shouldn’t I be focusing on the important stuff like math, science, and engineering?

At the time I didn’t understand the importance of communicating with others through public speaking. The importance of communication had, up until this point in my life, never been conveyed to me. Sure I had to do an occasional presentation here and there in high school, but somehow I never got the message. Communication is that one skill that every person and every career will need. Besides the implications for being successful in work, communicating with other humans is immensely important for social interactions, relationships, and communities.1 In fact, the entire notion of social media (an industry with companies worth billions) is built on the idea that we humans; like to share information, tell stories, and captivate audiences. So why is communication class often considered a waste of time in most education systems, and thought of as a major for the football team so they can get good grades in SOMETHING…

It would be outrageous if young people went to school and didn’t learn to read or write. There is no doubt that we value those skills as a society, however, communication between each other, and in a public realm is something that is neglected in education By the time anyone begins to learn the value of public speaking he or she is often already dealing with deep-rooted social fears, anxiety and embarrassment surrounding speaking. In general these problems are related to a lack of skill and experience with communication.

Anna Chao Pai (b. 1935) (6891504099)

Communication in the Scientific World

A problem that occurs and is reinforced in the scientific community is that science communication is considered to be a waste of time. Indeed there is a systematic problem with the higher levels of academia, where new young graduate students are indoctrinated with this line of thinking. The structure for advancement in the scientific and academic world usually follows a linear path from undergrad to professor-hood. For example if a person works their way through a PhD program, they will likely have a mix of scientific skills, including research, subject expertise and writing skills. As they move on in their career, and begin a post doc position they enhance their research skills and gain independence as a scientist. The problem comes when someone begins their career beyond graduate school or post doc. Once a person moves into the academic world as a professor, they need to be a teacher, a mentor, and a community member. Often these requirements are not only in the department  but also in the greater community in the form of outreach. The problem lies not in the requirements of the job as a scientist, but rather in the lack of training and emphasis on these necessary communication skills.

“With some exceptions, most working scientists have little responsibility for dealing directly with the public. An elite group of scientists, however, especially those who publish in journals monitored by the press, are often sought for interviews by media reporters.” 2

The dichotomy between the lack of communication training with the practical need for communication skills, creates a systematic problem within the scientific community. Additionally, it is becoming more and more of an issue as the world continues the march towards a socially connected global community. Unfortunately, the lack of skills in communication is deeply rooted in every department I have been a part of (4 at the time of this writing). There are always a few scientists who do a mediocre job teaching, presenting, and mentoring. Furthermore there is a lack of opportunities for these scientist to improve their skills, and fix their mistakes in a constructive manner. The reality is, not only is communication neglected within the scientific community, but the problem is made much worse by the lack of training.

“Scientists are often reluctant to engage in public dialogue. Fellow scientists may look down on colleagues who go public, believing that science is best shared through peer-reviewed publications. Scientists may also believe that broad-cast media are trivial, that scientists should be humble and dedicated to their work, that scientists should have neither the time nor the inclination to blow their own trumpets, that the rewards of a media career can compromise a scientist’s integrity, that the public may commandeer a story and distort it, and finally that the public may get excited about the wrong side of the story.3

Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson


The above statement clearly outlines the current way of thinking within scientific communities. However, scientists can no longer stay hide in their own sphere of influence within the laboratory. The global community is in need of scientific expertise now more than ever before. With the ongoing climatic changes the Earth is experiencing, the public will increasingly turn to the scientific community for clarity, explanations, and understanding of the problem at hand. Hopefully that will spur the scientific community to respond by enhancing communication skills and improving opportunities for scientists to learn how to speak to the public.


1. Golder, S. A., Wilkinson, D. M., & Huberman, B. A. (2007). Rhythms of social interaction: Messaging within a massive online network. In Communities and technologies 2007 (pp. 41-66). Springer London.

2. Weigold, M. F. (2001). Communicating science A review of the literature. Science communication, 23(2), 164-193.

3. Shortland, M., & Gregory, J. (1991). Communicating science: A handbook. Longman Scientific.

Three Tips to Improve Your Public Speaking

Being good at a task is often attributed to talent, genetics, or plain luck. Although this is the common way of thinking, it ignores some fundamental facts about how our brains work, and the way we learn. Humans learn through trial and error combined with repetition. Take a young child for example, if you watch them while they learn to walk, you already have seen how many attempts (probably in the thousands) it takes for them to complete their first few wobbly steps. However, once they have figured out how to walk, they are making laps around the house non stop, refining their newly learned skill. I remember being over at a friend’s house and seeing their son finally walking (he had learned days before) all he wanted to do was walk around the house again and again and again. To the child this must feel like a magical moment, previously he had seen all the other humans in his life gliding around bipedally, while he himself was confined to the ground crawling. Then one day it just happened, the neurons in the brain finally fired in the right pattern and those important first few steps were taken. With time, these new brain connections are strengthened as the action of walking is repeated over and over again. The point is, that what may have seemed previously impossible (due to the enormous number of failed attempts) was really just the brain needing time to rewire itself for the new task of balancing while on two feet.

Baby walking

We would never say that one is “gifted” or “talented” just because they learned to walk, rather it is expected since most all humans are capable of it. If we compare this to the way adults tend to approach learning new tasks, the difference is that adults will often throw up their hands in frustration and give up after only a few hundred failed repetitions. So what does learning to walk have to do with public speaking? When it comes to public speaking, most people will admit they are afraid of in the first place, and just not very good at it in the second. Although few people will attempt to improve themselves and get experience to fix their mistakes. When you are not very good at a task, it is very frustrating to improve because it takes so many failed repetitions to learn something new. However, if you are able to stick with it, slow and steady improvements are possible until the task at hand becomes second nature. Now there will be differences on how quickly some can learn and improve in a task over others, but in the case of public speaking we should avoid comparisons to others. Every professional sportsman and sportswoman had to learn to walk and coordination their body just like you did when you were a toddler. The difference is that they were persistent and kept working on their coordination for many, many years.

Holding on to the idea that we are static and cannot improve our skills is the incorrect way to think. For example “I am bad at public speaking because I get nervous”, It is a common problem people have but whether you realize it or not being nervous is something that you can overcome if you use the right technique and practice. Think about this, are you nervous when you tell a story to 3 people over dinner? what about 5 people at a party? 10 people in the office? 20? where is the threshold that makes you get nervous? is it the topic you are talking about? being on stage? using a microphone? etc… Could you get to a point (through practice) where you are less and less nervous until you are not really nervous at all anymore and it all becomes second nature? The answer is yes!

1. Identify Specific Problems and Focus Your Practice

After studying experts in fields from sports to science to music to writing, scientists have determined that 10000 hours is the amount of practice needed to take anyone to the top of his or her field. 1

So you have come to accept that you need practice at public speaking, but you may be wondering, what should I do first to improve? The real key here is to identify the problems as specific as possible. Vague statements like “I’m really just not very confident, I need to act more confident when I speak” do not help here. When do you feel a lack of confidence? Under what circumstances? Is it a particular subject matter? A time of day? A certain group you are speaking to? etc. You need to be as specific as possible so you can address the problem with focused practice to will get to the root of what is causing you trouble. Consider this, musicians will often repeat a section of difficult music again and again at a very slow tempo until it is flawless. Only then do they actually play it at the normal speed. This is the approach we need to take when improving at speaking in public. If you are bad at visuals, get specific, what aspect exactly. Then it is time to make a lot of simple visual aids to practice your skills. You need to be able to make and explain a simple visual aid until it is flawlessly. Ask a friend to listen to you explain what you have made and see if it makes sense. You need to be ruthless in your pursuit to find errors and faults in your technique and continually practice. Only then can you fix the problems and take your skill set to the next level.

2. Emulate Others

Individual differences in talent and intelligence are not predetermined by genes; they develop over time. Genetic differences do play an important role, but genes do not determine complex traits on their own. … Speaking broadly, limitations in achievement are not due to inadequate genetic assets, but to our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have. 2

When it comes to actualizing our potential as someone who is speaking and communicating in public, emulation of a style you like is a good place to start. Look at the people who have the skills you desire, who have the confidence you want, who seem to be so smooth when they present, and emulate them. Watching and learning from others is an innately human quality, and using it to improve your skills is a great way to springboard yourself to the next level. The thing you must watch out for however is that you are not outright copying someone else. There is a fine line between emulation and copying. Your content and voice should be your own, but the tone of voice, mannerisms, and techniques can all be borrowed from someone you admire. Emulation is a great way to get yourself over the first few hurtles when it comes to finding your own style. However, be sure to move away from emulating others once you have the experience and confidence to develop your own style. When you are unsure about overstepping the bounds of emulation, use citations and make it clear of who you are emulating.

3. Fake it until you make it

Amy Cuddy gave an excellent TED talk about how we can use body language to help improve our own confidence. In this talk she also describes the method of faking it, until you become the person who you are aspiring to be. No one starts off speaking in public sounding like they are giving the best TED talk ever. However we can try to act like we are giving the best TED talk ever. Research shows that when you keep those goals in mind and try your best to portray yourself as such eventually you will actualize your goals. The key is to not get discouraged when you fail, failure is a normal part of learning and should be treated as such.  Keep on working at your goals and they will come true as long as you don’t give up.

These are just a few ideas to help improve your speaking skills and reach your goals as a communicator. Naturally everyone will have a different experience of what works for them, however, remember that if you want to be great at something then you will need to put in a lot of practice and be very persistent in reaching those goals.


1. Maats, H. &  O’Brien, K. (2013) The Straight-A Conspiracy: Your Secret Guide to Ending the Stress of School and Totally Ruling the World, 368 press LLC

2. Shenk, D. (2010) The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ, Anchor Books a division of random house inc.

Using the Potential of Anecdotes to Communicate Science

Cicero denouncing Catiline

Story telling by way of anecdotes is a powerful tool that has been used throughout human history. Anecdotes are short, amusing or interesting stories about a real incidents or persons. However, often times scientists are reluctant to use them for fear of losing the audience or sounding unintelligent, particularly when speaking to colleagues. There is a tendency in science communication to revert to the format of the written word, most commonly the format of the generic scientific paper (i.e. Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion). The problem is, that when using a written document as an outline for spoken communication it does not tell an effective story. Scientific papers are designed to convey information in a manner so the reader can scrutinize the experiment and reproduce the results if needed. Scientific papers do not lead from one succinct thought to the next, pausing now and again to reflect and summarize the story. Papers are a compilation of facts, results and conclusions strewn together to summarize experiments. This is part of the reason they are difficult to read and understand, particularly if you are not familiar with the writing style.

Now some of you reading this may stop and think “why would you want to tell a story when speaking about science? the results and data speak for themselves!” But that line of reasoning is ignoring why people get interested in science in the first place. Scientists, science writers, and educators of science care about the world around them due in large part to CURIOSITY. Curiosity is the reason why anyone would put up with the long hours, low wages, and years of education to pursue a career in science. The fact is, people become involved in science because  they have motivation to ask questions, they want to learn about the world, and they enjoy the understanding of something new. The joy of learning new things and understanding how the universe works around us is the true reward of science. This shouldn’t come a shocking revelation to anyone, throughout history humans have been driven to learn about the environment they exist in to survive. We as humans are inherently driven by a strong sense of curiosity. As a communicator and public speaker not taking advantage of curiosity is a major fault.

But how does story telling play into science communication and public speaking?Communicating your work and getting an audience to retain information, is literally the most important thing you can do as a scientist. It doesn’t matter if you unlocked the key to the question of the universe (42) if no one knows about it or no one can understand it, you really haven’t accomplished anything. Science is a knowledge base built on the work of all the people who came before us, and can only continue if our new scientific contributions are able to be understood and shared. Communicating science is therefore all about getting others curious about your work. Curious people will put in all sorts of effort to try understand and learn about a topic.  Once you have sparked the curiosity of your audience then it is your job to get out-of-the-way of the awesomeness of your work and let the story tell itself!

Following the format of a scientific paper on the other hand, (i.e. Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) is utter death to the awesomeness of your scientific story. The main reason why it does not work, is that the article is designed to be read not spoken. Journal articles are a manifesto of why you did the work, how you did it, and by what it means. If you try to recite that paper in a talk you are essentially (whether you realize it or not) reading out loud to your audience.  Scientific papers give the reader the ability to stop and ponder your words, study your figures, reread difficult parts, and absorb the material. In the spoken world you have none of these luxuries. Timing and meter is very important  in spoken communication and this is why the anecdote is so good at conveying information. The story of the journey to discover something new in science is what the audience will find interesting, and if done right will get them curious about your research. When you are preparing for your next talk try to remember what got you excited and curious when you first heard the idea, and how excited when you saw the results. These feelings and thoughts need to be intertwined with your presentation so that the audience can follow along and get the same sense of enjoyment.

Let’s Examine an Example of Changing Text into a Anecdote From a Recent Publication in Nature

“The question of whether the AMOC has always controlled or at times only responded to climatic oscillations during the last glacial period still awaits full clarification despite its fundamental role in climatology. During the Holocene epoch deep-water formation has been active in the North Atlantic and North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) has occupied a large fraction of the deep Atlantic basin down to ~5,000 m depth (a circulation mode often referred to as the ‘warm’, or ‘interglacial’, circulation mode). However, the existence of different AMOC modes in the past has been proposed, mostly on the basis of nutrient tracers such as stable carbon isotopes. … Here we reconstruct changes in the AMOC based on combined extraction of seawater radiogenic neodymium (Nd) isotopes and particulate Protactinium (Pa)/Thorium (Th) … from sediments recovered in the deep subtropical northwest Atlantic “

Exracted from: Böhm, E., Lippold, J., Gutjahr, M., Frank, M., Blaser, P., Antz, B., Fohlmeister, J., Frank, N., Andersen, M. B., & Deininger, M. (2015). Strong and deep Atlantic meridional overturning circulation during the last glacial cycle. Nature, 517(7532), 73-76.

There is nothing wrong with the writing of the above paragraph since the reader can spend as much time as they want to reread and understand it. But as spoken word it doesn’t flow or begin a story very well. One way to rephrase this passage as an anecdote could be like this;

It is obvious to even the newest graduate student that  ocean currents like the Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation (AMOC) are important in the Earth’s climate system. But our research team and even many other climate scientists have been struggling to understand how AMOC plays a role in climate through the last glacial cycles. We began to formulate questions about what AMOC was actually doing in the past. For example in the Holocene research has shown that North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) has occupied the basin down to at least 5000 meters. This is considered by some to represent “warm or interglacial” modes of circulation. We wondered how reliable the history of these circulation modes were, since they were based on data from nutrient tracers and stable carbon isotopes. We got together and wondered, what if there was another way to get at the history of AMOC. Given our group’s expertise with radiogenic isotopes we hatched a plan to test neodymium and particulate Protactinium (Pa)/Thorium (Th) of sediments to reconstruct AMOC history. So we mobilized quickly and were soon heading out to the best field site to suit our experiment, in the subtropical northwest Atlantic.

Both passages relate essentially the same thing, but the above paragraph is acceptable for a paper but not a talk. Meanwhile, the below paragraph is good for a presentation but certainly not a paper.

Another Example From a Famous Modern Storyteller, Ira Glass

Finally we can turn to an expert storyteller, Ira Glass. As the host of This American Life (TAL), he gathers an estimated 2.1 million listeners each week. Although not everyone has to love the show to get the point, there is no denying that Ira is good at telling an anecdote. So check out the video below to get some more ideas on how to use anecdotes in your next presentation.

Charisma to Get Your Point Across

Some time ago I heard a story on one of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money (Episode 508: A Bet On The Future Of Humanity) about a bet that was made, between an Economist and a Biologist, based on the fate of humanity. The story goes that Dr. Paul Ehrlich believed that humans were careening towards disaster due to the rapid use of natural resources and population strain put on the environment. Meanwhile, Dr. Julian Simon believed that due to the adaptive nature of humans, we would be able to face any problem in the future without much worry. I won’t go into much more detail on the bet, because it isn’t the focus of this post, but you can listen to the episode in its entirety below.


The story is an interesting one, and in this post I want to explore why of the two highly educated people who have opposing views, one is still to this day relatively unknown outside his field. While the other person has had near celebrity status during the height of the debate. Naturally we can assume it had something to do with the methods that each professor used to communicate their message. So lets see what one did right and wrong to make the case for the future of the human race.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich appeared on the tonight show over many times, when his book The Population Bomb was published. You can hear from the Planet Money episode that on the audio clips from the tonight show, he is a witty guy with a pointed story. He uses anecdotes to get his point across, and can add a dose of humor to lighten the mood. These are all sound techniques that can be used in public speaking, and in general create a charisma that is hard to deny, whether you agree with him or not.

cha·ris·ma – /kəˈrizmə/ – noun 1. compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.

Charisma helped him tremendously with his message, because people simply liked him regardless of whether they understood his message in it’s entirety. The other thing that worked towards the advantage of Dr. Ehrlich, was that his story at first glance appeared correct. Meaning that if you were only to consider what his side about for a few moments you would intuitively come to the same conclusion about the fate of humanity.

Dr. Ehrlich’s thesis is that, animals, like humans (if we can even distinguish ourselves as separate) can suffer total population collapses due to resource strain. The problem is that idea can easily lead to a case of confirmation bias. Since our only example of resource strain (given to us by Dr. Ehrlich) leads to collapse of butterflies in the animal kingdom, for example. To get the full picture you need to also consider cases where resource strain and stress does not lead to population collapse and see what is driving the system. If we do not take into consideration all outcomes when resource strain occurs, we may miss the controls on what triggers collapse. Additionally, one would need to evaluate if this can be even applied to humans in the same way and will it occur in the near future. The average person isn’t going to work through all this trouble to understand the biology and will most likely end up agreeing the expert. In fact most people do not even read for pleasure let alone to understand the scientific ideas written by a biologist. Therefore the general audience will likely put even more weight on his spoken word without knowing the complete story. Although we can think of confirmation bias as something scientists should try to avoid, it really didn’t harm his message in this case. I think that confirmation bias did however, cause his predictions about the future to be off.

Economist Dr. Julian Simon on the other hand believed that there was no problem with resource strain since humans are able to adapt. Dr. Simon is an educated speaker and in general he is able to articulate his story well to a highly educated (in economics) audience. The problem is that despite being an educated person, he has very little charisma, and basically bores everyone to sleep. This because he does not adapt his method of communicating, to the audience he is trying to reach (e.g. the general public). This is a virtual death sentence in the public realm and the reason why no one really remembers him. Watch the below video for the style of Dr. Simon to see for yourself. Despite trying to add some flare by wearing a pair of devil horns when speaking about the population collapse hypothesis, he quickly falls into a habit of using jargon such as “economic social systems”, “long-term trends in material human wealth”, and “unsound social economic regulation”. When an audience does not understand the jargon used they will often stop listening and confused and are trying to figure out what the speaker meant. Meanwhile the speaker has already moved on the next topic, leaving the confused audience behind.


Now compare the above video with Dr. Ehrlich, who is still around speaking about his over population idea. Despite the depressing undertones of his message, he is able to grab the attention of people due to his skill in speaking, how he projects his personality, and his charisma. These qualities continue to get him on air to this day. The below interview was just from this year, and at 82 years old and has still got it.


Maybe the most interesting thing about the whole debate is that Dr. Ehrlich was off on his predictions, yet despite this, he was and still is able to get his message out to the public. I should put a disclaimer here that I actually agree with Dr. Ehrlich on most of his points, the planet will get to a tipping point where we could see collapse of societal infrastructure if we continue to stress the planet and our resources. The timing, severity and affects of said resource strain, however, I think are debatable. The take home message from this debate is that communication is so very important to get your message across. Not only must communication skills be considered as part of a scientific career, but you also have to practice often and develop your own charisma!

Striking a Balance Between the Delivery and Your Message When Speaking in Public

Sometimes you may experience great presentation that does everything right; a good story, interesting data, good visuals and has the wow factor that keeps the audience attentive. I can remember having attended many different seminars based solely on the topic. In those cases I was always hoping the speaker would interesting as well. I am a science nerd so it is easy for me to be excited about someone who had done (geological) research in some far off land. I remember attending special sessions at national meeting so I could see on the new data coming from the Mars rover. In those cases, I wasn’t particularly concerned with the speaker (whether they were actually good or not) but rather I wanted to see the latest cool data that was from another planet! More often than not the speaker would do all the wrong things, and lose the attention of the audience boring people to tears. Thinking back to those talks, it is difficult to remember the content, even though I was already self motivated to learn!

Conversely there have been other times when I went to a seminar based only on the name of the person presenting. I had heard that Professor so and so is a great orator and I wanted to experience their presentation. The most memorable example, was a talk given by the blind paleontologist Dr. Geerat Vermeij. It was incredible to hear a presentation from someone who did not rely on the visual aids, but rather use the power of the spoken word to paint a vivid picture. The point is that a good delivery can only add to the message you are trying to convey. I believe that the most often overlooked fact is that everyone has something interesting say, and it only becomes boring if the delivery is done wrong.

Simon Sinek is a great orator. Despite his TEDx talk being business oriented (and using phrases such as “differentiated value proposition” and “proprietary process”) I was enthralled the first time I saw it. His talk is a shining example of how one can use a good delivery to communicate a story. Whether your next talk is on the latest discovery in the lab or another lecture given to your class, there is a lot we all can learn from Simon’s example.

So what makes this a great talk? We can break it down to two main parts, the message that Simon Sinek delivers, and the mechanics of how he actually delivers the content. As we look deeper into this TEDx talk you will see how Simon has constructed a well thought out and pointed speech. He uses many specific techniques to make the material stick, and the message is also inspiring.

The Message

Probably the most interesting thing to me when analyzing this talk is the fact that Simon has really no fancy visuals at all. In fact he is using maybe the worst visual aid you can possibly try to use for a presentation. A large writing pad is hard to even see from the middle row of the audience let alone the back. Luckily, however, there are not many visuals needed for this talk. Additionally for the first five minutes he is using a microphone that is hissing and doesn’t even project his voice very well. (Talk about distractions!) Despite these shortcomings his TEDx talk has become the third most popular of all time with 22 million views at the time of this writing. I believe this is in large part due to the message of the message of the talk. His modus operandi is to inspire the audience. He does this with anecdotes of amazing accomplishments in American history, such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech, and the Wright brothers first flight. These stories are almost larger than life, and in a way Simon is telling us that if follow his “Why, How, and What” method rather than the “What, How, and Why” method then we too can achieve greatness. Whether it be in business or social change it is just a matter of changing the way we think about what we do. This is pretty deep stuff and it can make the audience dream and wonder on what their potential could be. The point is that he has crafted an inspiring talk by talking about other inspiring people.

The Mechanics

In a sense when analyzing this TEDx talk we can see the careful crafting of a thesis, while using proven techniques to improve audience retention. The mechanics and timing of his material is superb and you can bet a lot of careful planning and practice went into such a presentation. Simon begins his TEDx talk with an interesting question which has the hopes of grabbing the audience’s attention right away.

“How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions?”.

Posing a question at the start of your presentation can work as a lead in to the rest of the talk. It can intrigue the audience so that they pay closer attention and begin thinking in line with what you plan to tell them next. Simon does this perfectly not only setting up the tone for the rest of the talk but also to begin to establish himself as an authority figure of why some people and companies succeed and while others do not. The authority figure aspect of his talk is strengthened by his next statement

“About three and a half years ago, I made a discovery. And this discovery profoundly changed my view on how I thought the world worked, and it even profoundly changed the way in which I operate in it. … None of what I’m telling you is my opinion. It’s all grounded in the tenets of biology. Not psychology, biology. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle.”

The above statement allows Simon to reinforce the idea that he is an authority figure on the idea of success, and that he knows the real reason why some succeed and others. In addition, he also has information that he has discovered three years ago and which implies that he has been studying this phenomena since that time. Think about how much weaker of an authority figure he would be, if said something like “I came up with an answer for why apple is a successful company the other day, let me tell you all about it.”. Adding a reference to the anatomy of the brain also serves to give him more support as an authority figure.

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

Repetition plays an important role in Simon’s TEDx talk. He repeats the above phrase several times over the course of it. More importantly he does so in a strategic manner throughout. The first time he actually mentions this phrase is about 5 minutes into the talk. By this point he has tactfully posed an interesting introduction question, established himself as an authority, presented his formula for success, rooted his idea in science, and given a short example of his idea. Think about your last presentation, and ask yourself, by five minutes how many of these points had you hit? What would the impact be on audience retention if you had used this kind of format? He goes on to repeat the above phrase in the middle and the end of the talk so that the audience will walk away remembering the main point.

There is no set of laws when it comes to communication through the spoken word. Each presentation and talk will necessarily be different based on the audience and the content. However, a well constructed and practiced talk can go much farther to get your message out in the world than just showing new and exciting data alone. Consider using some of the above methods to improve your next talk and you may be surprised by the response of your audience.

Simon gave second TED talk in May of 2014, building on some of the same ideas as the above TEDx talk and yes, it is also just as amazing (see below).

To learn more about Simon Sinek and the books he has written visit his website

The Science of Public Speaking

Have you ever been told when preparing for a presentation that you shouldn’t have an outline slide or always have an introduction that is one third the length of total talk?  Perhaps a friend said to you “based on he audience you are speaking to you should …”. Or maybe even your boss said “last time I spoke at that meeting I did this … and it went really well”. Often times we are bombarded with these bits of speaking advice which might be the combination of anecdotal ideas passed from one adviser to the student, or one colleague to the next. Through a hodgepodge of trial and error combined with random bits of advice, we tend to develop a speaking style and stick with it. However, developing a voice in this way can lead a speaker into habits that do not actually help us while on stage.

Think about it, would you ever try to learn a potentially dangerous sport such as rock climbing or scuba diving by only using anecdotal advice with trial and error? So why should we be content to do the same thing in a presentation that can potentially harm our career? Why would we intentionally do something that would effect the impact of our presentation without checking what has actually been researched and confirmed to work? One of the main problems with public speaking is that we fall into a trap of confirmation bias. We try something at a our next presentation and if it goes relatively well then we think “oh that went well” and it becomes part of our repertoire. All the while it is unclear if what we did was the most effective way of communicating to our audience or was did it simply work for only part of the audience. If you are not familiar with confirmation bias watch the video below and see if you can guess the number rule, you may be surprised.

In this post we will look at some examples from research and experiments that demonstrate what works and doesn’t when giving a public talk. This is by no means a comprehensive review of all research done on speaking in public, however it may give you some ideas for your next talk or presentation.

The Introduction

The techniques used in public speaking are often a combination of trial and error, anecdotal advice and methods dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks 1. Unfortunately these techniques are unlikely to be the most efficient way of finding out what works for your audience. The problem is that when speaking in public if the audience misses important parts then the presentation becomes difficult to comprehend.  When scientists try to take a written paper and turn it into a talk, they often forget that a reader can re-read a difficult passage, but an audience member can’t stop you mid sentence and ask you to repeat the material (unless you are teaching a class). Therefore, getting the audience’s attention in the beginning of the talk is crucial 1.

There are many ways to begin a talk, but in general research shows that a clear easy to understand introduction will increase audience retention by peaking interest 1. There are several options to use here, but some of the more common ways are; telling an anecdote, posing a question, or simply a calling attention to an important idea (e.g. Forest fires effect not only wild lands but also threaten homes and citizens, our home town is prone to forest fires). If you are starting with an outline slide and using the words “today I will talk about Forest Fires, show our experiment, discuss results, etc” you are damaging the ability of the audience to retain information about your work. Introductions make audiences more willing to listen, think more highly of the speaker, and understand the material better 1. In general if you peak the interest of the audience, they will pay more attention to you and it will increase the retention of the material 2. Your audience will respond differently to different opening techniques but this can be predicted if you plan ahead. Speaking to a crowd of scientist may require one type of introduction while speaking to the general public requires something different. Plan ahead and tailor your talk around not only your material but also your audience. 

Speaking Rhythm, Repetition,  and Body Language

Adding the dramatic pause to your presentations can help the audience retain more information, however it needs to be used in conjunction with other methods 2. For example using the correct body language has been shown to be about as effective as dramatic pauses when speaking 2. Additionally Repeating yourself in a presentation will increase retention among your audience, however don’t overdo it. Research has shown that if you repeat to many times your audience may actually retain information less well over time. The most effective method has been shown to be repetition in the logical places that the audience might expect, like the beginning, middle and end of your talk 2. In general your presentation will benefit from the correct amount of pauses, repetition and gestures.

"Police Line" Tape

Becoming an Authority Figure

There is a distinct advantage when someone is perceived as an authority figure. If you are not already one in your own field, then adding a part where you establish authority over the subject matter will help the audience stay interested. In an experiment setup by 4, an audience that heard a “professor” speak, and showed a significantly greater percentage of change in their opinion toward the “professor’s” thesis than those who heard a “student” speak. When speaking as an authority figure you should try to avoid being biased and only presenting one side of the argument or research question. Acknowledging “both sides” produces significantly higher retention than does only presenting “one side” of the story 4. From the beginning it is in your best interest to try to establish yourself as an authority on the subject and enhance your credibility. This won’t necessarily make people more willing to listen alone but when combined with other techniques such as a solid introduction it is conducive to an audience that comprehends more of your material 1.

Effective Use of Humor

Some people are naturally funny and will likely draw large crowds when they speak. Humor can be used to add to an already fun or interesting topic, or it can take something dull and boring, making it more enjoyable for the audience. Research has shown that if your material is very dry that adding humor to your next presentation may make the audience find the talk more interesting, but may not dramatically increase the audience retention 3. It is probably best to use your own judgement and common sense as to when to inject a joke to lighten the mood during the dry and boring parts. Just remember that humor alone cannot be relied upon to keep the audience completely attentive and retain all the important information from your work.

A Final Consideration

When speaking in public the audience can be brutal in judging the speaker even in the first few minutes. It only takes a short while for the audience to judge if the subject is boring or the speaker is unprofessional, and become less receptive to the overall message 1. Many contemporary scholars believe that science is not communicated effectively to the general public 5. The problem is that understanding who you are speaking to is tricky, and requires that the speaker have take time to also consider the audience composition. When conveying complicated material (in science communication for example) the speaker must be comfortable understanding scientific findings, must be sophisticated in the translation of these findings into simple language, and make it all accessible to the entire audience 5. Communicating science does not necessarily mean transmission of the scientific findings themselves directly, since research has shown that an audience will often fell the need to voluntarily research further into the material presented 6. It is important not to forget that when speaking on stage we become storytellers to the audience. Storytelling plays as significant a role in the future of science communication just as it has done in the past transmitting vast amounts of human knowledge 6.


  1. Andeweg, B. A., de Jong, J. C., & Hoeken, H. (1998). “May I have your attention?”;: Exordial techniques in informative oral presentations. Technical Communication Quarterly, 7(3), 271-284.
  2. Ehrensberger, R. (1945). An experimental study of the relative effectiveness of certain forms of emphasis in public speaking. Communications Monographs, 12(1), 94-111.
  3. Gruner, C. R. (1970). The effect of humor in dull and interesting informative speeches.
  4. Paulson, S. F. (1954). The effects of the prestige of the speaker and acknowledgment of opposing arguments on audience retention and shift of opinion∗. Communications Monographs, 21(4), 267-271.
  5. Treise, D., & Weigold, M. F. (2002). Advancing Science Communication A Survey of Science Communicators. Science Communication, 23(3), 310-322.
  6. Veríssimo, D., & Pais, M. P. (2014). Conservation beyond science: scientists as storytellers. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 6(12), 6529-6533.