Episode 2 – Ian Condry On Keeping Your Audience Engaged

Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at MIT, Ian Condry, gives us some very practical tips & tricks to help when communicating with any audience.


Guest Starring Ian Condry, Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies – MIT Anthropology

Produced & Hosted by Adam Greenfield

Executive Produced by Patrick Yurick, Instructional Designer – MIT OGE

Executive Produced by Heather Konar, Communication Director – MIT OGE

Special thanks to the following editors who provided us invaluable feedback that aided in the development of this show:

Christopher O’Keeffe, Co-Founder of Podcation

Kristy Bennet, Manager – MIT Women’s League

Jennifer Cherone, Phd Candidate – MIT Burge Laboratory

Erik Tillman, Phd, Formerly of the Kim Lab & Currently A Fellow at Vida Ventures, LLC

The Great Communicators Podcast is a part of Gradcommx. Gradcommx, targeted at enhancing research communication, is the first offering of Gradx – a professional development project created for the graduate student population at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Office For Graduate Education.


“All The Best Fakers” by Nick Jaina is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Insatiable Toad” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Pavement Hack” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License. (http://freemusicarchive.org)

“Deliberate Thought” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) is Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/



Welcome to The Great Communicators Podcast presented by The MIT Office of Graduate Education, a professional development podcast expressly designed to bring lessons from the field to our graduate student researchers.

My name is Adam Greenfield.

Imagine you’re on stage in front of an audience giving a talk but it’s dark so you can only see maybe the first few rows. Then, maybe 10 minutes in, off in the dark, the blue light of a phone pops up and the audience member’s face becomes visible. They’re looking down at their phone, not at you.

Then, a cough. And a few more. Maybe a yawn. The next thing you know, you can hear people shifting around in their seats.

You’re losing the audience. Even if people are just trying to get comfortable or didn’t get a good night’s sleep the night before, you can feel them fading away.

In this episode, we’re going to talk about things you can do to reclaim the audience’s attention; things that, if implemented well, could have a pretty hefty impact with your audience.

To help us out with this….


I am Ian Condry. I am a cultural anthropologist in the Department of Global Studies and Languages, and I study Japanese popular culture, things like hip-hop and anime.


When I was on the MIT campus, I really enjoyed talking with all the professors who were able to make time for us. I have to admit, though, I do have some favorites. And Professor Condry is one of them.

Along with being a cultural anthropologist, Professor Condry has a piece of background that needs to be recognized because of its direct role in communicating frequently with audiences. He spent a lot of time in journalism prior to his cultural anthropologist position at MIT and really, when it comes down to it, journalism can sometimes be a way of understanding people and society. So we asked Professor Condry how the two connect for him.


Well, I do ethnography, which is telling the story of people’s perspective as a way of understanding the world. And, so, in many ways, ethnography and journalism overlap a lot. We go out, we talk to people, we try to spend time in their worlds and give their perspective a fair airing. So, I think there is a lot of overlap between what anthropologists do, what documentary filmmakers do, what journalists do. I think what makes anthropology a little special is a commitment to jumping across cultures, making sure you get into a space you really don’t know, learning the language, being among the people for a longer period of time before you make judgements. It is, I think it is long-form journalism and it’s a different range of theory that we are responding to as well. I think there is a lot of overlap between all kinds of nonfiction writing.


In recent years, it only takes a quick glance at the news headlines to see a pretty hefty amount of sensationalism, as if that’s the only way to get the reading audience to pay attention anymore. So it seemed only logical to ask Professor Condry, someone who has both a background in journalism and a current teaching career in academia, if shock value would be a useful tool or if there’s even really a need to do that with the type of audience most scientists are talking to.


I think when you’re trying to present your academic work, you should always think about the audience and how to engage them, how to surprise them, how to draw them in. It’s absolutely essential no matter what kind of academic or scholarly work you’re into. I think the beauty of giving talks and why people should give a lot of talks is that you can see very quickly when it is not working. You have a very palpable sense of when you are losing the audience, when they are drifting off, and when they are not paying attention. It is hugely humiliating, and that is a great motivator.  


Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask Professor Condry if he had any tricks he’s used over the years that had some success.


I would again encourage my junior colleagues to try this when they need to. The talk is flagging, people are not listening very well, and you are losing them. Take a second and go, “You know what is really interesting?” Then, you get about five to thirty seconds just out of saying that. You will draw them in.  It is a totally cheap trick. Even if you don’t know what you are going to say next, I will throw that in there every once in awhile. I’ll be like, “You know what is really interesting?” Then, they all pop up, and you get about thirty seconds in there to try to drag them in and try to hit them with something that will surprise them and blow their minds.


Hearing this, it got me thinking about how these mechanisms work with international audiences. Even listening back to the interview, my interests are piqued.

So just for fun, I went to the MIT website and looked up what the cultural mix was like and it’s pretty impressive.

According to the site, MIT students are from all 50 states and 120 different countries. There are 72 ethnic and cultural associations, as well as 23 different religious organizations. That’s a pretty big tree of cultures and people.

Ok, so why do I bring this up? I bring this up because those tricks we were talking about earlier, the ones used to grab the attention of the audience, I wondered if by using them with an international audience, you hit a cultural barrier and risk losing them and not communicating all that well. Professor Condry had some experience with this.


It is interesting when I give talks internationally, though, that is what is hard. I have to cut the jokes, and I have to cut the word play because it just is too cute and people do not get it.  I am not good enough to joke very well in Japanese. I can do a couple of them. The ones I can do in English, do not work as well in Japanese. So, yeah there is a risk. But, like I said, my thing is the greater risk is not pulling them in at all. So yeah, you use that when you need to, but it is a trick.


Alright, so you’re giving a talk and just completely bombing. People are just not paying attention. Do you adjust there on the spot or keep going and push through for the few that are paying attention?

There may not be an answer for this, or at least not a one-size-fits-all answer, but Professor Condry uses the memory of a concert of two folk singers whose careers spanned the 1960’s to the present as his approach to this topic.


You know, Pete Seeger was one of the guys who could do that. I have never seen anybody get an audience singing like Pete Seeger can. It was him and Arlo Guthrie at a concert, and Arlo comes out there and he is like, “God dammit, how does he do that? I get half of you singing for my songs, but he gets all of you singing for his songs.” Part of it is, maybe humility is a good word for it, but it is taking your audience seriously. It is a tough one because you cannot let that person doing Facebook and the person sleeping in the class bother you too much. If you got two or three people listening you should be working towards those two to three people and then hope to get the rest of them in there. There are just some simple tricks that people should know better.  I mean, don’t read your PowerPoint slide. Enough with the bullet points. Use images, but be very careful with the words you use. Do not ever read off a slide. Even I do not live by this very well, but I try to get better. I think being more creative about how you present something is very important, and unfortunately there are so many bad examples in academia of very successful people giving terrible talks. People imbibe that, and it looks important. Or, it makes you feel important if you are giving kind of a boring talk, which I disagree with that approach.


Look, I don’t want to worry or upset you but there will be times when you’re giving a talk and you’ll realize the audience just isn’t with you. It happens to the best of us.

Fortunately, though, if you’ve been listening along, you now have tactics you can use to get the audience back in your corner. Everything from quick attention grabbers like-


You know what’s really interesting?


-to humor and images.

However, there are caveats. First, you only have short amount of time to reel the audience back in before you could lose them again so get them while you can because that trick will lose its impact if used a lot.

Also, be careful where, when, and how you’re using humor. It’s fine to be creative but some audiences, depending on the background, may not get certain nuances. What you think is funny could fly right over your audience’s heads.

Thanks for listening to The Great Communicators Podcast brought to you by The MIT Office of Graduate Education. My name is Adam Greenfield, and feel free to talk amongst yourselves.