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).