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The Einstein Theory of Public Speaking


If you’ve ever spoken to a large audience, you know the challenge: how to calibrate the message and delivery so that your talk hits the sweet spot of being simple but not too simple.

Marcus Ryu, the CEO of Guidewire, put his finger on an idea that I’ve come to think of as the “Einstein Theory of Public Speaking.” Here’s the key passage from my Corner Office interview with Ryu:

“I’ve come to realize that no matter how smart the people are you’re communicating to, the more of them there are, the dumber the collective gets. And so you could have a room full of Einsteins, but if there are 200 or 300 of them, then you still have to talk to them like they’re just average people. As the audience gets bigger and bigger, your message has to get simpler and simpler, and the bullet-point list has to be shorter and shorter.”

Like all compelling leadership insights, there’s a vivid image to help this one stick. Just imagine a room full of Einsteins, and as their numbers grow, the collective IQ drops. That realization can help you decide how simple to make your message, and it will ease any worry you might have about oversimplifying your talk for a room full of smart people.

I followed up with Ryu this week and asked him to elaborate on his idea. Here’s what he said:

In normal conversational settings, you get all kinds of feedback about the state of mind and interest level of the person you’re speaking with. In large group settings, you get much less or none at all. This really heightens all kinds of risks — of being pedantic, confusing, patronizing, or boring — that you can easily avoid in normal conversation. Also, it helps to remember that when people sit attentively without speaking, they are usually watching some sort of screen optimized to entertain them, and if they’re bored they can just turn it off or leave! So to ask a large, captive group to sit and listen to a speech is to make a very significant demand, and you must use it sparingly and wisely. It’s generally not the time for subtlety and multi-part argumentation. It is the time to provide clarity, emphasis — and yes, entertainment.”

So the next time you have to speak to a large group, be sure to nail the basics (because not everyone does): read the room, master your material, and speak with passion. And remember to keep it simple, because the super-smart people you’re speaking to somehow become less smart as the room fills up. All those Einsteins in the audience will appreciate it.

What about you? Have you heard memorable expressions or insights that have helped make you a better speaker? Please share them below.

And as I’ll be writing frequently on LinkedIn, please hit my FOLLOW button at the top right of the page to see future posts.

Adam Bryant has interviewed more than 200 leaders for his “Corner Office” feature that runs every Friday and Sunday in The New York Times. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed.” His second book,“Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation,” will be published in January.

(Photo credit: hxdbzxy / Shutterstock.com)


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