This is episode is the full, unedited interview with Tony Eng. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, we strongly encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined.
Guest Starring Tony Eng, Lead Instructor of Gradcommx & Senior Lecturer MIT EECS 6.UAT
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.
MUSIC & SOUNDS
“Divider” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under Attribution 4.0 International License (http://freemusicarchive.org)
Hello, Adam Greenfield here, host of The Great Communicators podcast series. What you’re about to hear is the full, unedited interview with one of the guests we spoke with. If you haven’t listened to the fully produced episode yet, I definitely encourage you to do so before listening to this one. They’re shorter in length and much more refined. You can find them all at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
The idea behind these longer, unedited conversation is to give you an opportunity to hear the entire talk, warts and all. This is not only a fun way to hear the full flow of the conversation but it also emphasizes the importance of the points made in the shorter, produced episodes, which again, can be found at gradx.mit.edu/podcasts.
Thanks for listening and enjoy the conversation.
Patrick Yurick: Do you want to tell me your name and talk a little bit about the work you do here at MIT?
Tony Eng: My name is Tony Eng, and I teach engineers how to communicate here. I graduated with a degree in computer science, and when I finished, I was asked to think about creating a communication class. I thought, well that is not really my background, but I was told, “ Well, you take a semester to think about it and then come back and let us know.” So, I went around the institute and did my due diligence. I tried to figure out what was being done here at MIT. I spoke to alumni who were out in the industry and I said, “What could be done here?” I talked to recruits and so forth, and everyone said, “We need you to teach the students to communicate better.” I proposed a class that was, in the beginning, both written and oral communication, but now it focuses entirely on oral communication. It became a requirement, and so here I am. I am still running this course for undergraduates in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
P: Great. You said oral communication is almost the complete focus. Do you work with grad students as well? Or is it…
T: The grad students don’t typically take this class. They can if they wanted to, but I think, I don’t know, it just has this stigma of being an undergrad class. So, they don’t typically take it. I have had some grad students take the course because when they did their oral exams, the committee said we will pass you on condition that you take a presentation class. I have run other courses and seminars that are either for grad students or grad students who have come and participated in those.
P: You said you went around, I kind of want to unpack that. You said you went around and looked at all these different sources to get an indication on how to lead, and you first started with writing and oral. How did it change to completely oral?
T: I found that I was trying to do too much in too little time. It’s a six unit class that is like a half class here at MIT. It was too much to do in a semester to try to get them to learn how to communicate orally and in written form. Rather than doing too poorly, we should focus on oral communication. I didn’t think, I thought of the two floors, more was being done here in terms of written work and less was being done in the oral form. So, it shifted entirely to oral.
P: How much of your class that you teach that you feel is specifically geared towards electrical engineering versus what anybody could learn?
T: To be fair, most of the ideas and skills can be applied to anyone with a technical background. I just happen to be in this department and alum of this department. So, to take the course, you really need to have had some, you have to have some exposure to say a technical project or just some of the technical ideas because they provide the content for which you give your talk. So, it is not just oral communication, but a lot of it is technical oral communication, how you take the stuff you are working on and presenting it to others with a different background so that they can understand what you doing.
P: What are some of the things you notice that are pretty standard with the students who are coming into the class? Maybe assumptions that they have that you kind of have to work with and massage.
T: To be honest, a lot of the students don’t want to take the class. I think when I was an undergrad, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to take class either because it’s scary to be in front of a group of people and to sort of exposure yourself. I think the general sentiment is, you know, I’ve been talking since age two, why should I take a class on how to talk? I came to MIT to take technical courses, and I want to learn about the latest advances in this field. Why do I have to spend time doing this nontechnical class? To be fair, I think a fraction of them actually speak pretty well, but that’s not the most. The majority of them are not able to clearly articulate and communicate what it is they’re working on, what they want to work on, or just technical ideas in the field that they’re working on. Their approach to the class then is, well, I have to take this class. So, why don’t I just attend? I think for those who actually give it a chance and for those who try to put in some work, they will get something out of it because the things that we present, I think a lot of the students come back afterwards. It’s one of those things where like, in the semester you’re taking it, you’re not. You don’t really appreciate until you kind of go out into industry academia, see what some of these presentations are like, and then try to remember back to the class and here are some things we talked about. They try to apply it. Then, we often get these e-mails back that say, hey, I don’t know if you remember me, but I took your class. I had to give a talk or I had to give a pitch, and I won the competition or whatever because I tried this or that. So, I think it’s useful stuff that they don’t appreciate until later on in their careers.
P: How many students roughly would you say you’ve worked with?
T: Up until this year or last year, it was a requirement for graduation in my department, which is the largest department at MIT. So typically, in the fall semester, we had 250 students. In the spring, we had about 200 at its peak. Nowadays, it is one of two classes you can take to graduate. The other one is more focused on research, and you have to apply to get in, so only a limited pool get in. So, I guess the numbers are probably around, I would say 150 to 200 per semester.
P: Wow, and how long have you been teaching it?
T: I created the class, and that was about 10-12 years ago.
P: Wow. It just strikes me that it’s kind of a unique position to be teaching communications to engineers at like one of the top schools in the country for engineering. I’m curious about what you’ve noticed about since you started the class? What you have noticed, what has become important in what you think about communications in this field and if that’s changed it all over the course of the class?
T: So, the question is, what have I noticed over the years in terms of like students’ abilities when they come in or their outlook on communication? Or just the way that we teach it?
P: I’m thinking about how it’s such, I mean, teaching communications to engineers at MIT must come with this kind of like hefty…like the communications teaching I’m doing is kind of really important because it is setting a standard in some way for what kind of work is done in this field around communications, and I’m wondering in that particular role where you are kind of setting trends in regards to that kind of an educational practice, like have you noticed it change? Or the needs of the field change in any way?
T: I think the needs of the field, for me, haven’t been changing as quickly as the course itself. Every semester, we try to do something new. We try to do something different. Part of it makes teaching a bit more interesting. I think we also try to find ways to improve things. One of the ways I push the class, okay, you have to give a talk. Here is a bare-bones way to give it. Now, you can all do that. The real question is how do you make it better? You can just give that talk and it’ll pass, but if you are going to give a talk anyway, you might want to think about great, easy ways to make it more memorable or to get more of the audience involved and engaged. With a minimal amount of effort, you might get a big output or a big positive response to that. So, why not do that? We try to incorporate different elements, like we have a game called out, well, it’s a version of Taboo. We play this in the course. The idea is that the top word is a technical term from the field, and all the words below are technical terms that you cannot use to describe the term above. The idea is, if you’re trying to explain this to someone with a nontechnical background, you can’t use technical jargon. So, it’s how you explain it. So, we give to get him some ideas for, why don’t you first describe what it is. Or, describe an application. Where would you see it? So, capacitive touch sensing might be something on your mousepad or cell phone, right? So, you don’t have to name it. You could say that this technology is used here, so relate, try to relate to the world that your audience understands without using jargon. That’s another element that we try to bring into play. Recently, I’ve taken ideas from improv, and will use that in the course. There’s one session on improve. The idea being is that, in many ways, you know the points you want to make and the actual words that you use, that’s all improvised on the spot. That is the philosophy I try to convey. We found that it’s not really if students sit there and memorize a whole talk. It doesn’t come across as a communication. It’s like a recital, and that’s usually not as engaging to listen to. You just can’t scale that way. If you have to give a 5-minute talk, okay, maybe you can memorize it. Or, a 1-minute pitch, okay, fine. But if you have to give a 15-minute conference talk frequently or if you have to give an hour lecture, you don’t have time to sit there and memorize every single point, how you are going to say it, how you are going to stand in the room, or what gesture you are going to make. So, just understanding the key points, and then you improvise the rest.
P: Yeah, and you have to know the room. You have to be able to read the crowd, right? Those are skills that come from practice more than they come from like an algorithm of communication. It’s more like you’re up there, I just said something that didn’t land. I have to switch to other tactics.
T: Right. You have to decide on the fly what you’re going to do.
P: I had another question. I kind of wanted to hear about how, you got chosen to lead this course and to kind of do this work here, how did that come to be? Like, what’s your story? Just backing up, how did that become something that people recognized in you was a skill?
T: I sometimes make a joke of it. I say that, well, no one else really wanted to do it because I think there’s a good chance of failure. So, why would someone put themselves in these shoes and found since I was kind of a nobody, I have nothing to lose. So, they asked me. My background is that I went to MIT for undergrad in computer science and did my masters here and stayed for a PhD. Along the way, I had become involved with one of the courses here, the first year computer science class. I taught that for several years. Again, my philosophy was, if you need to do something, you might as well do it as best you can. So, in all the different iterations, I found different ways to improve it. Eventually, I was made a recitation instructor, which is typically a post held by professors. I was a grad student and teaching these things, and I noticed that attendance would drop. I thought, well, what could I do so that students would come to class, instead of requiring attendance. I thought a lot about how I would make the section and the materials relevant and how students would, I think if they felt they were learning then it was time well spent. So, folks would come to section, and people from other sections would come to my section. I got good reviews from that. The professor who ran the class, who worked for many years, was on my thesis committee. When you do your defense, you have to give a talk. So, I think that’s probably when he was exposed to the presentation that I gave. So, when I graduated, he asked me, what are your plans? I said, well, I don’t know. I may be teaching, maybe not. Maybe industry. He said,” Oh, well, we have this new requirement, and we would like someone to think about how to teach it.” So, he asked that I look into that. That’s how it came to be. So, I don’t have a background in writing or public speaking or communication. I thought it was odd that he would ask me to do this because I, like every other computer science major, thought I would go off to Silicon Valley and make a lot of money there, but it was different. I like different. I liked the challenge. I thought, well, I could also learn how to present there on my own. What I did was, I did take a couple public speaking classes, but I found them to be wanting. I wasn’t too satisfied with them. I didn’t find them concrete or interesting enough. They weren’t things I wanted to teach. So, I decided that I would look to different disciplines and see how different disciplines handle communication and maybe bring some nuggets or ideas into the course. Examples: I went off and did improv for a couple years, and there are a lot of ideas from improv that I put into the class. I went to Paris to study mime for two weeks, and fascinating, there is a lot of communication that goes on with mime work that is nonverbal. So, I take some ideas for that, and use it in the course. I took an American sign language class for a semester just to understand what you could do with your hands. What is some of the vocabulary or some of the motions you can make. I went off and did bhangra, which is Indian dance, but the moves there are very big, and I was not used to big and having hands outside of my clothes. I was very comfortable with hands and arms very close to my body and not so away from the body. So, that taught me how to communicate that way and to be okay with that way. So, various things like that. I have done acting and voice work and singing so to me, it was like doing research. I was going off and going through these experiences. I knew what I was looking for, and so I had to discover them through the experience. I would bring them into the course and try to incorporate them in some way.
P: I relate to that quite a bit because I taught art, high school art, for like five years, but getting that position had a lot to do with similar things that people recognize talent that I, I don’t really know if I knew about it, but I think in the act of teaching that is really interesting if you start to, in the act of teaching…you moved something, and I thought you were motioning to me. In the act of teaching, I think what is interesting is you start to more consciously unpack the things that you are being recognized for that you probably were not aware of. They might have just naturally occurred or they were a culmination of things you didn’t think were important. Like, I have to backwards to design this because I am going to break down the parts for my students that they need to take away from that. In a lot of ways, teaching can be even more rewarding for your own educational process in that way.
T: Totally. I was watching…in my class, the students had to give a one minute pitch. That is in video form. I had to watch a bunch of them. I was watching one student in particular and I noticed that her gesturing was very, what I call, mimey. I was trying to figure out, what would I tell that student if I were working with her to try to improve her gesturing? So, I added to my list of things to do, and in spare moments, I think about that. I came up with some ideas for what to do. I sent her an email last week and said, “Hey, this is kind of weird, but if you want, would you like to work with me like outside of class? It will not have any bearing on your grade whatsoever if you say yes or no, but I have some ideas for a series of exercises you can do, and I would want each of them recorded. And at the end of the day, if it works out well, I might ask your permission to use them in class. But she has not responded to my disappointment, but I do not know. I enjoy the whole idea of observing, and in my mind, what’s wrong. What are some practical games we can play to elicit something that seems more effective? I think that is the fun part about teaching.
P: Yeah, I think when you see a student, it is so interesting, I always used to tell my students, “The only reason I am giving you a hard time or I am pushing you in this way is because I see potential there. It is not because I think you are doing something that there is no hope for it. If there is no hope, why would I be talking to you about it?” I always see it like the Plato’s cave paintings or the shadows on the wall. When, you know, the allegory of the cave where Plato talks about people, and they can only see the shadows on the wall from a light that is behind them, casting a shadow against other people who are walking by, but they look like giant monsters in the shadows, and they are too afraid to look back. But in reality, they are not that intimidating once you turn around. I think that when we have this ignorance around a topic, and that is kind of what our role as teachers is, right? We see there is an ignorance there, and we are trying to help them shine a light on it. A lot of times in the beginning of ignorance, there can be fear or denial if anything is wrong. Anyway, that is totally off topic, but actually I want to talk to you more. I probably want to do a second interview because, once we get the ball rolling, you will have a lot of insight around some of the stumbling blocks for our communications course. I definitely want to take some cues for you, somebody who is actually teaching one here. Let me talk to you a little bit about, I think I want to skip to public speaking. Why do you think it is important to know how to publically speak in this field, or your field, or in stem, or whatever?
T: Until the world becomes totally automated and you take the human out of the picture, there is always going to be a need to communicate with other humans. Whether that is in the form of movies and entertainment or just something as mundane as taking your research and presenting it to others. So, I don’t know, maybe it’s a trite answer. I can’t imagine a world where you don’t communicate with anybody. You might think that you don’t. You might be in your own world and you aren’t communicating with anybody, but even like talking to your spouse, your kid, or your roommate, there is communication going on. So, that is the general area. But, in terms of someone who is an engineer with a technical background, frequently, you need to get your work out there, whether it’s for funding, or you are writing papers, or you just are in a company working with others and have ideas on how to approach this problem or solve the problem, and you have to explain. There is always communication going on, and you can either do it clearly or you can muddle through it and there is a lot of miscommunication and just wasted time and effort. I think it is an easy question because as long as there are humans around, you still need to publicly speak and communicate.
P: I am very interested. I watch a lot of TED Talks and listen to a lot of podcasts. I’m always fascinated with this idea that even though there are a lot of unpredictable factors, you were talking earlier about how, like, one audience, you have like two minutes to present something and ten minutes, 15 minutes. I am really interested in what the through lines are, about how to construct logic for solving that problem that is communication specific but exists in each one of those things? What is the commonality?
T: The way that I look at it or I found that it’s best to think of it as a tree. At the root of the tree is the core message you want to make. As you go down the legs of the tree, the tree expands, but it’s more like supporting points, and more supporting points of the supporting points, and more supporting points for that. Where you decide to place your talk, or what level of the tree you use, depends upon time. So, if you have globs of time, like a whole semester’s worth, then I will visit all the leaves on the tree, all the things at the bottom and cover as many of the topics that I can. If I only have one minute to talk about the class, then I will only talk about the root. That is the main idea that everything falls out of, so that is the only point I’ll make. So, fundamentally, even though there are different time constraints, I always come back to this mental tree. What is the main point I want to make? If I have more time, I’ll elaborate. If I don’t, then I won’t. The other factor is who the audience is, and that will affect what I say for each of the components that I mentioned. If it’s an audience member of like mind and like background, then it is much easier. I don’t have to worry so much about jargon and the words that I use. If it’s a different audience, it’s not so much you want to avoid jargon, and you do want to avoid jargon if they don’t understand, but you want to use jargon that they do understand. So, if you happen to be fluent in their vocabulary, then it’s much easier for them to understand your message and to use words that they are more familiar with and terms that they are familiar with. So, to summarize, there is a tree with different supporting points. Depending upon the time I have, I will use a different level of the tree. Depending upon who I’m talking to you in the description of my points, I will be careful with the vocabulary that I use.
P: That’s pretty key. I think there are tactics even for how do establish vocabulary. If you’re trying to establish, I mean, musicians do it a lot where they create a chorus. It’s something you’ve never heard. It’s something you’re trying to create with the audience. I had to be conscious of that when I was teaching art as well because, it’s like, I know too much about comic books. So, I will start being like, you know, panel 1. They are like, excuse me? What is a panel? If you don’t know the audience, they may not even stop to ask the question and might just let you talk for 15 minutes and then be like, I got nothing because like you lost me on the second word. So, one of the things I always used to do was just start by being to my students, can you stop me when you don’t know something? Because, this is no good for me if I’m just talking.
T: So, that’s the thing. A lot of my students live and breathe this stuff. They don’t realize that they have to step back and first connect with the audience. Like, where are you at? Do you even understand what I’m saying? Yeah, it’s a nuisance because you can’t go to the good stuff. But if you don’t do that, then you are going to lose them from the very start. A lot of the students aren’t aware that they live and breathe this, but others don’t. So, they have to take time to define things or to explain things.
P: That’s super interesting. I guess I’m wondering, going back to audience, how important….I was thinking about how difficult it is sometimes to know your audience. Sometimes, the audience is described, like it’s a conference for these kinds of people. Then other times, you’re being thrust into a classroom or room and you don’t know who is in the audience, but you’re being asked to talk about a particular subject, which you would assume people are interested in. How much ahead of time before talk, I guess it’s going to vary by what you’re trying to talk about, but how much ahead of time and what kind of questions would you want to ask to figure out things about your audience so you could think about that when designing your talk?
T: Whenever I’m asked to give a talk or workshop, I always ask, how long? What is the goal? Who is the audience? Who’s the audience, like who are they? Where are they from? What age group demographic? How many are there? I think, as best as I can, every workshop is sort of geared towards a specific audience and goals that there are and the goals that I have in mind. It is very custom-made. That being said, there are different stages. So, right beforehand for prep work, I figure out as much as I can about the audience. I will typically also prepare backup material, like extra examples or extra stories, if I have more time or they didn’t understand something. Then, there is right before the talk. So, I like to arrive early and meet some of audience members because they may not exactly fit the description that I was given. So, I might arrive early and chat with some people, where are you from? Why are you here? I like to sit through, if possible, things with my audience before my time. What I mean by that is, if it’s a course, I will come to an earlier session to see what is going on, to meet them, and to see how they behave. If it’s a conference talk, then I will come in for the previous talks and listen to the talks, but I will be looking at the audience and trying to understand them. I might adjust things before that. So, there is before, there is this right before, and then there’s like during. If when I’m giving the talk folks tend to focus on their own content, but I think a good presenter finds that they know the content well and should now focus on the audience and whether or not the audience is responding or understanding. You need to learn to read the audience. If the audience is not following what you’re saying, then you kind of have to decide if you’re going to abandon your script and try to recover them or not. If they’re totally lost, it’s the same thing. I think a good presenter or an effective presenter finds that they should, in fact, abandon what they had planned to do and try to recover and try to see if they can get the audience to understand or even get the attention back. It reminds me of a time when I was asked to do a workshop in Pakistan. I was told that it’s a whole bunch of students who are interested in communication. I think in part they were also excited that an MIT person was coming. I think I was told there would be like 50 to 70 people, participants. It was about an hour and a half workshop, and I thought I would design it to be interactive, which is a lot of what I like to do. I tried to account for the fact that there were 50 to 70 people, split them into groups and so forth. I also checked that they would understand English because that would be an issue. I got the go ahead for that. When I showed up, what I had not realized, Pakistani students are very different from MIT students. They are also very shy. At MIT when you asked for volunteers, yeah, there’s a bit of a silence, but people will volunteer. People don’t mind if you volunteer them. It’s very different with this group. When I asked for a volunteer, no one volunteered. When I asked a second time, no one volunteered. I didn’t want to put anyone on the spot because all of a sudden I’m thinking, it’s a different culture and I don’t know if what I’m going to do might be construed as, “He’s being rude.” I didn’t want to embarrass anybody. So, on the fly, I’m thinking, “What I prepared is not going to work.” It requires people being willing to, if not talk in front of the group, talk with each other. I decided to change up things on the fly. What I decided to do first, I ended up doing third. I moved something else earlier because I thought that activity might warm them up better. I found that I had to repeat instructions several times because even though they do speak English, I think I was taking for granted instructions that my students would understand versus instructions that they would understand because, yes, it’s still English, but I guess their terms, or idioms that I use in language very liberally, but they can mean something else. It is perfect English, but it can also mean something else. So, I would repeat, I would give examples, this is what I want to you for example so that they would see and hear. At the end of the day, I thought this is an awful workshop and even though I tried my best to realign things and I was thankful I made it interactive because as they were working, I was sitting down changing things up and writing down ideas for what I should do instead. And, at the end of the day, I mean, I survived and I think it was okay. I got really good feedback from them but that is because I think they did not know what I had planned to do and how all of that was quite different from what actually happened. So, I guess the take-home message is that I’m the only one that really knew what I had wanted to do and what didn’t work, but as long as I could still package it up into a coherent form, then it probably does not matter as much from the audience perspective because they did not know what I was going to do, but it still made sense to them. I had prepared beforehand, too, and sometimes there is so much preparation you can do, and you just have to wing it in the moment.
P: Yeah, I think what you said earlier about the tree and understanding which parts are necessary for what you’re trying to convey. This came up in our interview yesterday about, we were talking about publishing research, but the students come in and they think all of the pieces are really important. If they do not get all in, and it sounded like in that example that you just talked about, you could think on the fly because you knew which part was important to get across, and you knew which parts were flexible. Maybe that is a part of preparation that is a step too, maybe prior to going in, how flexible am I with this? I have definitely seen presentations bomb in the fields that I work in, where people are just like not responding to the audience. They are just like, I am just going to give the presentation. It is already failing, so I am just going to keep failing.
T: Deer in the headlights. I do not know what to do, so I am just going to keep plowing on.
P: Yeah, and that is no good. I mean, it is something, but it is not necessarily good for you because if you are not having fun because you are not having the audience reaction and the audiences is not having fun, why are we continuing the thing? But, yeah I was also thinking about, you talked about vocal coaching. I remember when I was first teaching ninth-grade students. I had three periods a day with ninth grade students for an hour a piece. They have about a five-minute attention span, and I’m a long-winded guy, if you have not gathered. I also had a 55% English language learner population. So, I was smiling when you were talking about explaining stuff because I had about half of my students mad because I gave three examples about what I was talking about before I moved on. And, they are like, “We got it on the first one.” You got it on the first one, but those five kids over there did not get it on the first one. But, I also studied public speakers. I just listened to Martin Luther King Jr. speak or Randy Pausch did the last lecture, which I think is an amazing presentation. I just wanted to hear the rhythm and the modulation because I was like, “These are people talking for like half an hour, and I like listening to them. How does that work?” I wonder how much that plays a role, like understanding because you said the motif even earlier and I have not heard it called that but, where did you learn that?
T: So, is the question; where did I learned how to voice modulate?
P: Or, what is the role of vocal, like understanding rhythms and the way people hear things?
T: So, this comes back to the written word and spoken word. With the written word, I have it in front of me and I can read it and I can re-read it if I didn’t understand something. The spoken word, you typically don’t have a transcript of what the person is saying. You are sitting there listening to these words that are being emitted, and don’t know what’s important to listen to. You don’t know what to pay attention to. So, the burden is on the speaker to do things to help you parse the message. If everything comes out in equal pace, at the same volume, and everything is the same, nothing is going to stick out. But certainly, if there are important points, you can emphasize that, you can speed up for things that are not so important, and you can slow down or pause for something important. So, all of these things that have to do with vocal modulation, I think basically help a listening audience parse your message better. There are tools that a speaker can use.
P: Very interesting. When I first was training to become a teacher, I met with a guy who was a professional storyteller from Rhode Island. I met him when I was in kindergarten. My mom is an art teacher, so he would stay at her house when he was doing artist residencies. I just was fascinated because, even as I got older, I would still see him perform with younger kids. They were always very simple, like Cape Verdean stories about [39:03______________] and the coyote, but like what was fascinating is that he could walk into a room, start telling the story, and everybody got dead silent.
T: Yeah, that’s so cool.
P: And, and I was like, how are you? I mean, these are kids that are like in middle school, kids who are too cool for anything. He actually talked about one time how he would go into the middle school libraries, and they paid him to speak, but he wouldn’t tell them to all get around him. He would just go in, sit down the ground, cross his legs, close his eyes, and just listen to what was happening in the room and wait for somebody to just come up and be like, hey, what are you doing? He is an African-American gentleman. He has like long dreadlocks. He is not the kind of person you usually see in a public school. He is like 6’, 3”. Yeah, you just don’t see him. He has like jewelry, he’s just very ornate because it’s all part of the story telling. How he looks, his presentation, actually helps people engage, to draw them in. It was like, you know, within a couple seconds, he would just pivot that whole thing. Everybody’s paying attention, everybody wants to hear him.
T: I’d like to study that and see what makes….
A: There is a poet in San Diego, Chris Vannoy who I met at an event recently, probably 200 people in the room. Everybody is kind of chatting in between. He gets up there and starts reciting a poem while walking through the audience. In seconds, everybody just went…
P: Like, what’s going on?
T: What are these names?
P: Len Cabral is the storyteller from Rhode Island. I can totally put you in contact with him.
T: I just want to study them and figure out what about them creates this presence.
P: He mentioned the motif. When I first started talking to him because I said to him like how do you command it? He was the one who first introduced it to me as a comparison to the chorus in music because he said, “Basically there is information that you are saying that is new to an audience, and when you are talking to kindergarten kids, their ability to memorize or hold information in their working memory is really not that much. So, you know, all the new information has to build on the previous information in such a way that it reminds them of what they just learned, but they do not have a long space of time where they can learn new information before it gets overwhelming. So, he would always have a refrain, like there was a thing he would do when he was telling a story like, “and the bunny hopped home.” That would be the refrain. That would remind them, “Oh!” And, they would all say it with him. Like, he would encourage everybody in the room to do the hand gesture and say it with him. It is actually quite a clever psychological techniques because when you combine movement, vocal, and you’re hearing everybody else say it, and churches do this all the time with everybody kneel and say this prayer at the same, and all of a sudden, you are like, “I know this part. This is not new.” It jolts your memory into having a resting spot, and then he said, then you can introduce a little bit of new information then go back to the refrain and build it. It is very similar to song construction. But, again, he is storytelling. I mean it is a bit different of an art form than providing, but I saw Randy Pausch doing it a lot. He was not doing science talk, although he did produce some information on virtual reality and that kind of stuff, but it was anecdotal a lot of what he said was anecdotal. All of this, MIT communications stuff, is very new to me because I’m realizing how little I know about the sciences, the deep sciences. I kind of understand on a surface level what the departments do, but I’m like, oh I am at one of the smartest places in the world around this and I did not pass my high school science classes.
T: Shh, is that being recorded.
A: Yeah, I am totally leaving that in.
P: But, no it is just interesting because I am realizing what I don’t know is I don’t know what an audience expects when they go to, say, a talk on engineering. What I don’t know is how much new information they are expecting you hear that they don’t already know, and how they judge that if they’re not getting it. That is something that baffling to me because I’m like, “I’m not an engineer.” Now, if I was going to, see, we don’t have an equivalent to it in the arts because when you want to learn something new in the arts, well, no one is funding anything in the arts, so like you have to go find it yourself. That’s just how it is.