Category Archives: speaking

The Wadsworth Constant: Ignore 30% of Everything

I’ll start with a story.

Last year my girlfriend and I watched the pilot episode of a new TV show and were immediately hooked. The pilot episode was refreshingly complex and forced us to guess missing plot details continuously: it’s adventurous to make your audience work so hard during a pilot, we surmised.

We later discovered that, due to a technical glitch, we actually missed the first fifteen minutes of the show (about 30%). The ‘complete’ version of the episode was less satisfying.


Last year Steve Yegge wrote about life at Amazon.com and what it’s like working under Jeff Bezos. On the topic of presenting to Bezos, Yegge gave this tip: delete every third paragraph.  Why?

Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first realization about him. […]

So you have to start tearing out whole paragraphs, or even pages, to make it interesting for him. He will fill in the gaps himself without missing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.


Around the same time as Yegge’s posting, a Reddit user known as Wadsworth pointed out that the first 30% of “nearly every video in the universe” can safely be skipped. As such things go, this soon became a YouTube URL parameter: just add &wadsworth=1 to skip the first third of the video.

This ‘law’ soon became known as the Wadsworth Constant. It works.

Personal Pronouns as Relationship and Company Indicators

The personal pronouns used by couples during “conflictive marital interactions” are reliable indicators of relationship quality and marital satisfaction, according to a study tracking 154 couples over 23 years. The study showed that We-words‘ (our, we, etc.) were indicative of a more positive relationship than ‘Me- and You-words‘ (I, you, etc.) (doi).

Using We-ness language implies a shared identification between spouses, even when the conversation is focused on an area of conflict. Consistent with this, We-ness was associated with more positive and less negative emotion behaviors and with lower cardiovascular arousal. In contrast, Separateness language implies a greater sense of independence and distance in the relationship. Compared with We-ness, Separateness was associated with a very different set of marital qualities including more negative emotional behavior and greater marital dissatisfaction.

Similarly, the personal pronouns used by CEOs in their annual shareholder letters provide a useful way of predicting future company performance. No doubt gleaned from the Rittenhouse Rankings Candor Survey, this is from Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated:

Laura Rittenhouse, an unusual type of financial analyst, counts the number of times the word “I” occurs in annual letters to shareholders from corporate CEOs, contending that this and other evidence in the letters helps predict company performance (basic finding: Egomaniacs are bad news).

via Barking Up the Wrong Tree (1 2)

Words to Be Aware Of

Wish. Try. Should. Deserve. These are four words that “lend themselves to a certain self-deception”, says David Cain of Raptitude, and when you catch yourself using them you should take note, figure out how the word is being used, and maybe try to change your perspective.

Why? Because, Cain says, these are ‘red flag’ words that often indicate that we’re being “presumptuous, simple-minded, or sneaky”. On using wish:

Not only is it useless for changing the circumstances, but it reinforces the myth to which I’ve momentarily fallen prey: that my happiness is dependent on my circumstances only and has nothing to do with my attitude. It’s a bitter little plea that life isn’t what I want it to be in this particular moment, and a dead giveaway that I’m not prepared to do anything about it right now.

Wishing is a desperate, self-defensive behavior. It gives you a little hit of relief from a reality you don’t want to deal with, but it sure doesn’t move things along.

Of course, in those moments, I’m too consumed by my fantasies to see that my attitude is usually the biggest and most damning feature of the present circumstances. If my attitude sucks, the circumstances suck. But acknowledging that would mean I have to be responsible for it, and it’s easier to instead wish for the cavalry to appear on the horizon and save me.

There are obviously problems with this line of reasoning (and Cain discusses some of these in the post comments), but I like this general idea and feel that we could all add a word or two to this list.

via The Browser

Rhetorical Devices to Incite Timely Applause

Any delay between the end of a speech and the audience’s applause can send strong negative signals to those watching and listening. In order to prevent this awkwardness, there are rhetorical tricks we can implement that trigger applause or laughter at appropriate moments.

Speechwriter and political speech advisor Max Atkinson, in a critique of UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s speaking style, offers some rhetorical devices for preventing delayed applause.

The point about delayed applause is that, when the script and delivery are working well together, it should happen within a split second of the speaker finishing a sentence.

That’s why contrasts and three-part lists are so effective, because they project a clear completion point where everyone knows in advance where the finish line is and that it’s now their turn to respond […]

Better still is to get the audience to start applauding early, because it gives the impression that they’re so enthusiastic and eager to show their agreement that they can’t wait – and the speaker ends up having to compete to make himself heard above the rising tide of popular acclaim.

One way to do that is to use a three part list, in which the third item is longer than the first two.

via @TimHarford

Back in 2004, a Max Atkinson-inspired BBC article offers some more persuasive devices.

Psychic Numbing and Communicating on Risk and Tragedies

I’ve been preoccupied lately with the developing aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake. Unlike other disasters on a similar or greater scale, I’m finding it easier to grasp the real human cost of the disaster in Japan as my brother lives in Kanagawa Prefecture and therefore there are less levels of abstraction between me and those directly affected. You could say that this feeling is related to what Mother Teresa was referring to when she she said “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will“.

If I had no direct connection with Japan I assume the dry statistics of the sizeable tragedy would leave me mostly unaffected — this is what Robert Jay Lifton termed “psychic numbing”. As Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a risk communication expert at the University of Michigan, introduces the topic:

People are remarkably insensitive [to] variations in statistical magnitude. Single victims or small groups who are unique and identifiable evoke strong reactions. (Think, for example, the Chilean miners or “baby Jessica” who was trapped in the well in Texas in 1987.) Statistical victims, even if much more numerous, do not evoke proportionately greater concern. In fact, under some circumstances, they may evoke less concern than a single victim does. […]

To overcome psychic numbing and really attach meaning to the statistics we are hearing […] we have to be able to frame the situation in human terms.

Zikmund-Fisher links heavily to Paul Slovic‘s essay on psychic numbing in terms of genocide and mass murder (pdf): an essential read for those interested in risk communication that looks at the psychology behind why we are so often inactive in the face of mass deaths (part of the answer: our capacity to experience affect and experiential thinking over analytical thinking).