You may have seen him on Jon Stewart.
Or the National Geographic Channel, or PBS Nova’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist who has become a media rock star.
At WriteCulture, we use him as an example of the power of short sentences and how to write for the ear instead of the eye (video, speeches, etc.). As the good professor (with degrees from Harvard, UT Austin and Columbia University) says in this interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” he doesn’t “dumb anything down,” and yet he is a master of finding ways to “capture the flow of events in a way we can understand and relate to.”
In technology PR, we face the same challenge. But unlike Professor Tyson, we sometimes hide behind big words and jargon. Sometimes it’s because we (mistakenly) think it makes us or our client sound smart. Or we may not understand the content ourselves. Whatever the reason, we are guilty. At least sometimes. All of us.
So let’s lean in and take a page from the professor’s book.
In this “Fresh Air Interview,” he describes how he prepared for his first appearance on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”
The original full audio link is here. We recommend you skip straight to the 33rd minute to get our point. But the beginning of the interview is enjoyable, too, so take your time if you can spare it.
We transcribed that portion of the interview for you below.
Excerpt from the “Fresh Air” interview, beginning right after interviewer Dave Davies asks this question: When did realize you had a gift for communicating with people?
“People call it a gift and that implies you sit there and someone hands it to you. I want to encourage people to not think in terms of gifts but in terms of, ‘Wow, you work hard to succeed at that!’
Because that’s exactly what I do.
For an example, before my first interview on Jon Stewart — now that’s a tough interview right there, all right, because he’s brilliant and he’s laid in with pop culture referencing — and so I said to myself:
‘If I’m going to have a successful interview with Jon Stewart, I want to study how he talks to his guests.’
So I sat there and I timed how long he lets you speak before he comes in with some kind of wisecrack or a joke.
And what the average time interval of that is. Is it a minute, 90 seconds, 30 seconds?
I would create a rhythm in the parceling of the information I would deliver to him so that a complete thought would come out.
So when he does interrupt, there’s a complete thought and then a fun joke and then there’s a resonance to that where you can then move on.
So no, it’s not a gift. I worked at it.”
By all means, we encourage you to watch video of his 2014 series on PBS.
That’s where you will really see a great example of relatable language and pacing. He makes the hard stuff accessible and makes it look easy, but he in fact works at it, and so should we.
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Lauren Edwards is a former reporter for the Associated Press. She has been creating, customizing and delivering workshops for science and technology teams since 2000.
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