Cognitive Ease And Why Nobody Listens To Your Speeches

Note: This is a sneak peek at an upcoming article that will appear in the Toastmaster’s magazine Voices! If you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments.

Two presenters give a competition speech. One waxes poetically about personal values, discovery, awareness, self-actualization, and the winding, often dangerous path that brought them to this very time and place—all things that should interest us. The other speaker talks about their quirky family. Who wins?

During this fall competition cycle—Table Topics and Humorous Speech—I attended over a dozen competitions at various levels. Midway through my tour I began noticing a trend. The 1st place table topics speakers had, without exception, used humor, simple language, clear metaphor, and great physical gestures. These are all characteristics we’ve come to expect from exceptional Toastmasters.

Good presentation habits aside, I started noticing something else, too. Something perhaps more sinister. I noticed that when I tried to write down the message or moral the winning speaker was imparting on me, I couldn’t squeeze more than a few words onto the page. From four different winning speakers, here are four separate messages I came away with;

Family is important. Be kind to strangers. Speak your message. Don’t procrastinate.

Nothing new here. I know these lessons already. I mean, I really know them, down to my toes. So why do I enjoy an anecdote about a lovably dysfunctional family, more than a speech from the fourth-place runner-up who espoused living “in the moment?” Why, at another competition, did I vote for a simple yet humorous message, while barely deigning to acknowledge a presentation about “owning one’s authentic personality?” Am I shallow? Simple-minded? Do I latch onto flashy presentations while ignoring substantial messages?

If so, the competition judges seem to be in my camp. But what I’m theorizing today is that we’re not just an audience of clapping seals, waiting to get our mental treat of intellectual anchovies. I suggest that cognitive ease may play a much larger role in how receptive we are of another speaker’s message. First, however, let’s have quick look into the study of cognitive ease;

In 1969 Nobel-winner Daniel Kahneman began taking out ads in the newspapers of Michigan colleges. These ads consisted of single, nonsense, made-up words, splashed across the ad panels. Words like Kardirga, Saricik, Biwonjni, Nansoma, and Iktitaf.

Some words would be given the star treatment at one college, showing up on dozens of pages, while the same word might appear once or twice in a rival publication. After several weeks of publishing this word-salad, Kahneman distributed a questionnaire asking the readers to rate his made-up words. He wanted them to rate which words felt most “positive” and which felt “negative.”

Can you guess which words had the most positive ratings?

Take your time. We'll wait.

Take your time. We’ll wait.

If you guessed that the words most frequently printed were also the most positively rated, then give yourself a cookie. Frequency, or familiarity, breeds trust and positivity in our mind. This has become known as the Exposure Effect. Frequently seen words feel good to us. Frequently heard phrases, metaphors, and stories feel good to us. This also applies to familiar shapes, songs, names, and even faces.

When you see a co-worker at the grocery store, do you get giddy like me? Our brains have evolved to give us a double-scoop of dopamine whenever we encounter something familiar and non-threatening. Advertisers who focus on brand recognition know this better than anyone. As humans, encountering something new means dealing with a potential danger. On the other hand seeing or hearing something familiar feels easier, cognitively, than something novel.

So how can you use cognitive ease to improve your speaking skills?

Go back and listen to your favorite speakers. Listen to table topics winners, great extemporaneous storytellers, and famous orators. I bet they have one thing in common (aside from their Herculean Toastmaster abilities.) Great speakers use cognitive ease to win audiences to their side. They deliver short, familiar messages. They give us easy metaphors and jokes to follow along with. They sooth us and delight us with relatable situations. And, if they’re very good, they give us a powerful message to take home with us. Heck, if you look at the speech structure of winning politicians, they seem to adhere to this pattern quite closely.

Google Images / Daily Mail

Google Images / Daily Mail

I recently gave a presentation at our Storymasters club in Portland, where I pitched the notion that more speech contestants win by abusing this mechanism of cognitive ease, than those who win with creativity or sincerity…fool that I am. My fellow club members were merciful on me and quickly pointed out two glaring flaws in my initial, more cynical theory. Here is the sage feedback I was given;

1)      Be creative. Be clever. Be sincere. But the audience won’t hear you unless you put them at ease first.

2)      Simple anecdotes and stories aren’t about tricking people. They are building blocks. Hopefully the speaker will use these blocks to reach something higher than the superficial—a message worth sharing.

For this correction I am extremely grateful.

I present to you, dear reader, the same thought experiment as before. Two presenters give a competition speech. One waxes poetically about awareness and self-actualization, and the path that brought them here. The other puts us at ease with familiar ideas and relatable stories, and they go on to expand on the simple lessons their spouse and children have, by some quirk or heartfelt exchange, imparted on them. The speaker then leaves us with a lasting message—simple in its structure, but truthful at its core.

Who wins?


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