Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson can lecture on just about anything under the sun (and everything around it, for that matter). But what separates him from others in his field is his ability to express complex concepts and theories in a manner that resonates with common audiences. In a recent interview on The Nerdist with Chris Hardwick, Tyson shared the event that prompted him to learn how to speak in sound bites. His unique story highlights the importance for other industry experts to do the same.
Tyson explained the story of his first scheduled television appearance with NBC’s Nightly News in 1995; the same year the first exoplanet was discovered, as well as the year Tyson became the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. NBC called the planetarium, asking to speak to the director. “They didn’t know me from anything, but I have a title,” Tyson said. When asked on camera about the newly discovered exoplanet, Tyson gave his “best professorial reply,” but quickly learned that’s not what the network wanted to hear. “They sound bit me,” he recalled, of the network airing only a tiny blip of the interview. “I thought they wanted to hear my lecture in my space, but they want to hear me to speak as though I’m in their space.”
From that moment, he knew he would need to overhaul his speaking style if he wanted to connect with folks outside of his field.
To train himself to speak in sound bites, Tyson enlisted the help of some friends. “I looked in a mirror and had people bark [keywords] out to me…and each one, I would construct three or four sentences that were informative, tasty, make you smile, and have enough curiosity factor that made you want to share it with someone else.”
Tyson went on to explain how this newly acquired skill helped to propel him to the top of his field. “I started doing that, and more and more media came to me, and I realized I’m serving a role that had not been served before.” To this day, Tyson thinks of himself as a “servant of curiosity,” not only to the media, but to “anybody even on the street.”
To begin speaking in sound bites as Tyson does, along with other great communicators, follow these four steps:
- Be prepared. There’s a quote floating around the internet, often attributed to Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Before a meeting or speaking engagement, have a full understanding of the topic to be discussed, and create concise talking points around it.
- Know your audience. First, understand who you’ll be speaking to. Then, craft your message in a way that will resonate with them. Avoid using jargon, as it can dilute your message and lose the crowd. Also, eliminate messaging that may alienate or offend members of your audience–such as political bias, gender bias and cultural or racial insensitivity.
- Summarize key points. If you do catch yourself delivering a lengthy explanation of an important concept or issue, summarize it in a sentence or two with a line such as, “To summarize what I just said…” or, “The main point to remember is…” This habit helps to provide audiences with clear, memorable takeaways.
- Practice. See if you can avoid using jargon during lunch with your colleagues. Try speaking in sound bites while summarizing a movie to a friend. Practice in non-critical settings so that when an opportunity pops up that requires these skills, you’ll be ready to sound bite your way to success.
Learning to speak in sound bites is important, not only for astrophysicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, but for any industry expert, regardless of whether they run a hedge fund or a construction business. By resonating with community members, customers and other key audiences outside of their own peers, professionals have an opportunity to advance their businesses and careers by building new pipelines for growth and opportunity.