Tag 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.

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.

The Science Behind Good Presentations

We know that cluttered presentations and those with paragraphs of text per slide aren’t good and that the 10/20/30 rule is a guideline generally worth adhering to, but why? Could there be a scientific basis for why some presentations are better than others?

Chris Atherton, an applied cognitive psychologist at the UK’s University of Central Lancashire, studied the influence of different presentation styles on learning and retention by conducting the following experiment:

Students were randomly assigned to two groups. One group attended a presentation with traditional bullet-point slides (with the occasional diagram) and the second group attended a presentation with what Chris calls “sparse slides”, which contained the same diagrams, but minimized the amount of text, and broke up the information over several different slides. Both presentations were accompanied by the same spoken narrative.

When both groups were later tested on the presentation’s themes, it was the group shown the sparse slides that performed “much better”. Atherton suggests that well-designed presentations are superior teaching tools and improve recall and learning for a number of reasons:

  • The limitations of working memory: even the students who did well in recalling themes, remembered only 6-7 themes out of a possible 30.
  • The visual and auditory cortexes are not being used as effectively as they could: the cluttered slides overload the auditory cortex as it is used for written and spoken language processing.
  • Extraneous cognitive load is minimised: the sparse slides may minimise extraneous cognitive load by creating fewer competing demands on attention
  • Better encoding of information (into memory): having to work a little bit harder to integrate the speaker’s narrative with the pictures might actually improve our storage of the information (up to a point).

via @finiteattention

The Basic Plots of All Stories

That there are a finite number of basic plots from which all other stories are formed is accepted as fact by many literary theorists: Georges Polti, for instance, believes that there are thirty-six dramatic situations, while Ronald Tobias believes there to be only twenty.

The Internet Public Library has compiled together the most commonly accepted lists of “basic” plots: one, three, seven, twenty or thirty-seven different plots, depending on which definition you subscribe to.

In contrast to the seven selected by the IPL, there are also these additional seven “basic” plots, as described by Christopher Booker in his appropriately titled book, The Seven Basic Plots:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth