Writing & Speaking Lessons from a Primatologist: Learning from Frans de Waal

This week I was fortunate enough to see the primatologist Frans de Waal speaking at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. He spoke about empathy in primates -- the topic of his most recent book, The Age of Empathy; he also spoke about popular science writing and how he mastered this difficult craft. His lessons are especially interesting for people who are at the beginning of their career, but also useful for people who are already well established in their field.

Professor de Waal explained that his career as a writer of scientific books for the general public began in the 1970s while he was a young scientist working at Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands. Arnhem had at that time the world's largest colony of captive chimpanzees and his job was to study their behavior. Out of gratitude for this unique opportunity he volunteered to present lectures for visitors to the zoo. Visitors were mostly not scientists and this experience taught him what bores people and what engages them. He learnt, for example, that graphs, numbers and abstractions put people to sleep, while stories about individual chimpanzees and specific incidents kept the audience's attention. Later he began also writing popular scientific articles based on this experience, and in 1982 he wrote his first book -- Chimpanzee Politics -- a daring move for a scientist so early in his career.

De Waal is a fascinating speaker and confirms what I have always told people in coaching sessions: it is NOT the little technical details that makes a great speaker, it is having a story to tell and telling it with passion. He routinely makes what the public speaking textbooks would call "errors", like looking at the screen, or pointing out the poor contrast in a video. Yet nobody noticed and nobody cares because they are so engaged in the story. On the other hand someone can be technically perfect and also perfectly boring.

So what are the lessons we can learn from his example?

1. DON'T MISS A FRANS DE WAAL LECTURE. First of all, if you hear that Frans de Waal is speaking near you then don't miss the opportunity. More in general, take time to watch great speakers in action, either live or on video.

2. FOCUS ON STORIES. It's not the abstract concepts that people remember, or even the facts; it's the stories. Tell your messages through memorable stories.

3. CITE CONCRETE DETAILS. Be specific and name names, places, people and other facts. Generalities bore people and make no impact.

4. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Say a few things but say them well. It is very hard to get anyone to recall more than three messages so be selective and focus on the key topics.

5. DON'T WORRY ABOUT THE SMALL STUFF. Don't let little technicalities of presenting take all of your attention. Most of the rules are only generally applicable anyway. Sometimes it is ok to look at the screen, but not to read from it.

6. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Take every opportunity to speak and to write because you will master these crafts only through practice -- just like playing the piano or any other skill.

Learning the Frans de Waal way is probably the best when you are at the start or early middle of your career and you have plenty of time to master writing and speaking one small step at a time. For people who are already well established but want to improve their skills the best solution is 1:1 coaching because it takes little of your time and also because it avoids the risk of a public loss of face -- a concept that Professor de Waal's chimpanzees would understand very well.


Workshops on Speaking & Influencing
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Related Posts on Speaking and Influencing
Selling Your Ideas Influencing Your Way To Success
Three Simple Ways to Overcome Your Fear of Speaking
Writing and Speaking Lessons from a Primatologist
Nine and a Half Tips for Presenting to C.Suite Executives
Seven and a Half Things to do When Someone Asks You to Present Their Slides

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