Episode 6 – Ted Gibson On What Your Communication Says About You

MIT’s Professor of Cognitive Science, Ted Gibson, sits down with us to shine light on how the words we choose, and don’t choose, when constructing communication has definitive effects on our communication abilities.


Guest Starring Ted Gibson, Professor of Cognitive Science at MIT’s TedLab

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)

“The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License.

“The Face of the Thrush” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License.

“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 and in this episode, what a speaker can do when it comes to determining the right kind of language to use when communicating with an audience. Also, we’ll find out how language and a communicator’s reputation, like it or not, are intertwined.

Our guest is a MIT professor that, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, well, I kinda disagree with him on some things. I mean, look, he’s an accomplished scholar that shapes minds at one of the more prestigious universities around the world and I’m, well, I’m just a podcast producer. Clearly I know when I’m outmatched and under armed but it’s just… I mean… I don’t know.  Let’s just get to our guest and see what happens.


Try not to show you’re panicking.


That’s Ted Gibson, a MIT professor in the Brain and Cognitive Science Department.


And I am a professor of Cognitive Science here at MIT.


One of Ted’s areas of expertise is the study of languages, how they’ve evolved over time and also how they’re used to communicate with an audience. And when it comes down to it, there really is sort of this delicate dance between language and audience.

Ted suspects that a preconceived notion or fact about the audience plays a role in the speaker’s mind about how this dance begins.


I think people talk to who they think their audience is, right? So I will talk to you based on what I think you know. I will talk to an audience based on what I, I mean, if I have a good audience design capabilities, and people will vary greatly on that, so depending on what I think my audience knows, I will say different things.

So there’s a lot of research on that. We actually do not know how people vary on this, how different individuals vary. But there are definitely better ways to talk to people, depending on what they know.

Depending on what the common ground is enough, I understand what our common ground is, then I will describe things at a very different level, depending on what I think my audience knows. If I think they know all kinds of math about, say, communication theories or information theories, this guy Claude Shannon who worked out all of this stuff, and if I think they know that then I’ll just start talking with technical terms like surprisal and entropy.

If I don’t, then I can explain all those, I will have to work through what the details of those things are, right, and explain. I would tend to do that anyway because in any audience sort of situation, I sort of think it’s important to bring in as many people as you can.


And you’re not just bringing them into the conversation, let alone an understanding of what you’re trying to convey. You’re actually giving them insight into what makes you – ”you”. Right or wrong, they’re going to make a judgement about the kind of person you are.


Language serves multiple functions. Ok, language is a communication function, but it also serves the function of letting others know who you are, right? So it has social functions.

So you are communicating not only some predicate argument structure about some things that you’re going to be doing today and whatever these things, but you’re letting people know by the words you use some features of yourself.

So what words you use in what context, you know, if you use swear words or whatever, these kinds of things, or if you use slang terms, people will make generalizations about properties they think you may be in some way or another. Some people will certainly think negatively of you for some things that you may say in some context. So you have to be careful of that.


See, now that’s what I’ve been saying all along.


I’m not saying that’s right, though. I am not advocating that.




But you should be aware that people make inferences based on what you write, what you say, how you talk, and how you write. If you spell things wrong, people don’t like it. I mean, not people, but some people. So that’s always a problem.

If you spell the word “there” wrong, people get so upset about it. So the argument is, from people who don’t like that, that’s failing communication. But it isn’t. It is actually completely predictable in that context.


It’s interesting to me, though, why people, myself included, can sometimes see that as failing in communicating. But is it really? According to Ted, we’ve been taught it’s failing when maybe it really isn’t.


It’s failing because of some sort of social conventions where you’re telling me that when you don’t spell that correctly, that you don’t care enough about our conventions of how you should spell or how you should know it.

It’s not a problem for me knowing what you meant in that situation, but you’re actually conveying to me that you didn’t learn enough about what the spelling conventions are in English to get that right. So then you are conveying to other people, which might be negative.

I would tend to be conservative on this and try to follow those conventions but I also don’t really like those conventions. I don’t think it’s so bad.


I just can’t seem to let go of this idea that how you speak and spell really matters… even though it was expertly pointed out that I need to get over it and a little context goes a long way.

But there is a common ground the distinguished professor and I agree on, and that is to at least know that if you don’t agree with some societal expectations when it comes to grammar, right or wrong, you risk losing your audience. To some, following grammar constructs shows you care. Or don’t.

And when it comes to knowing how to best communicate with your audience, if at all possible, try to find out a little about them first. This’ll go a long way in the language you use and how big of a first step to take when the dance begins.

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.