Episode 3 – Yang Shao-Horn On Knowing Your Audience

What happens when we forget to bridge our work to the interests of our audience? MIT’s W.M. Keck Professor of Energy, Yang Shao-Horn, tells us a cautionary tale about just that.


Guest Starring Yang Shao-Horn, W.M. Keck Professor of Energy

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.


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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 and if you’re like me, getting up to speak in front of an audience can be a little nerve wracking. There’s the fear of saying the wrong things, stumbling through words, and even the fear of physically stumbling while getting up in front of everybody.

Then there’s the fear of your audience getting up and walking out during the talk. I’ve actually had a nightmare or two about that. I have to admit, just mentioning all this, I can feel my anxiety levels rising some.

For our speaker in this episode, that fear became a reality. And instead of that incident crippling her, she learned a valuable lesson: when you approach an audience, it’s all about having passion for the subject and having a clear idea of just who you’re talking to.


So, my name is Yang Shao-Horn. I am a WM Keck professor of energy at MIT. I am also a professor of material science engineering and professor of mechanical engineering, and my area of expertise is in developing energy storage technologies.


Professor Shao-Horn’s method of dealing with an audience is a bit of a hands on way of going about things, that knowing who your audience is is pretty important. Otherwise, in a field that can be as highly specific as science, you run the risk of losing your audience.


Of course, this lesson is sometimes learned from some very harrowing situations and sometimes, all it takes is just one bad talk, like the one Professor Horn relayed to us when we sat down with her, to make the lesson very obvious.


One that is burned into my mind very deeply is the one time I was invited by the APS, American Physical Society. For some of you know that American Physical Society meetings are one of the largest meetings. So typically the attendees are over ten thousand, and so I was given a slot to talk about energy storage technologies. That was a few years ago, really at the onset of this energy and clean energy storage. It has really become part of how we think about sort of sustainable energy in the environment. So, there was a lot of interest.

[crowd sound effect]

So, I was invited to give this very prestigious, plenary lectures. I walk into the lecture hall.  

[heels on a floor sound effect]

There is probably five-thousand physicists there. And I give a talk that is focused on kinetics of reactions that is going to revolutionize how we store energy. And so there was quite a bit of chemistry involved. The national meeting for this American Physical Society, most of the physicists care about space. They are discovering stars and they find these sort of activities extremely fascinating. They are not physicists that are in sort of the solid-state physicists, kinetic matter physicists. So, during my talk, which is one hour, there is a massive exodus of physicists from this room by the time I finish, maybe there is only three-thousand physicists left. So, two-thousand departed.

To add to this embarrassment is that I talked about only kinetics, meaning how fast a reaction occurs. But physicists, I should have known better, care more about thermal dynamics. So, we need to connect to the audience but also we have be intrinsically very excited about that topic. So, it is really a combination of knowing the audience plus our own interests.


Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to have moderated a handful of panels at conventions. And there have been times during those panels where some people have left right in the middle of it. However, I was not speaking in front of 5000 people and 2000 people didn’t get up and walk out.

But Professor Horn, even though she may have been stung a little, she discovered new knowledge through that experience.


Well, I think it is largely learning by mistakes. So, through our experiences, typically, if we want to communicate effectively, we want people to be on board with what we actually are discussing and very importantly to relate our materials to something that people actually in the audience, they have some experience with. So, there are certain points where people can connect and follow. I think also it depends on whether you are talking about, for example, engineers or scientists. There are also different ways to tailor that. Where scientists are very passionate about discovery of the unknown or discovering some fundamental processes that have not been discovered or understood by scientists or by humans. Where, if you talk about engineers who are developing of technology practitioners and they are more fascinated about solving a problem, changing the world, I think it is very important that we connect with the passion of the audience, whatever they really care about.


To add to that, getting the audience invested should happen sooner rather than later. To Professor Horn, this seems like it may even be where to start.


That would be sort of the first step, how do you motivate work that makes people really excited about hearing what you have to say. So, this is the beginning piece, how do you have an opening that can motivate people and people care? Then, the second is how do you tailor the materials? Are you talking with chemists? Are you talking with physicists or mechanical engineers? Relate what we are going to say to something that they are familiar with. And I think most importantly is tell a good story.


So while it’s clear that an audience is very important to any kind of communication, it turns out the speaker is equally important to the audience.

The speaker’s knowledge of who the audience is and what their general background is will, and should, have a significant role in how the speaker puts their talk or other type of communication together. If the speaker goes into it assuming the audience has the same knowledge or expertise on a subject, the risk of losing the audience early on is pretty high.

And surely there will be varying degrees of knowledge among the audience members but as Professor Shao-Horn emphasized, get your audience invested early on in the talk, perhaps with a story they all will probably relate to, and they’ll be more inclined to stick around.

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.