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