Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a fantastic resource for comms professionals. Here’s why…

As an in-house speechwriter, you find yourself attending a great many training sessions for public speakers. Different coaches, you come to notice, offer different accounts of how to be a successful public speaker. 

One public speaking coach says you must leave…

… lots of silence…

… as you speak…

… because this is when…

… an audience internalises…

… what you’re saying.

The next says YOU MUST BOOM LIKE BRIAN BLESSED and learn The Techniques of The Thespians!

While it is always useful to learn a new approach to public speaking, I’m not convinced that there is One True Method. Public speakers need a working knowledge of a range of techniques, but should be a disciple of none.

Heterodoxy rather than orthodoxy.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book about how people make decisions, and how they decide whom to trust. It is immensely valuable for those involved in the business of changing people’s minds.

Packed with studies of human rationality and irrationality, the book offers many lessons that speechwriters and public speakers can easily apply in practice.

In this blog, I look at a few psychological patterns that Kahneman identifies and consider what their implications might be for speechwriters and Comms/PR professionals.


Kahneman writes,

“If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P and SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite effect would happen, of course, if you had just seen WASH. We call this a priming effect”.

Through certain forms of association and exposure, we can direct other people’s thoughts in particular directions. Crucially, we don’t need to make our point directly; we just point the audience in the right direction, and leave them with the satisfaction of making the leap for themselves.

In Thinking Fast and Slow Kahneman also discusses an experiment in which students were asked to hold a pencil in their mouths in one of two ways: either across the mouth, with the ends of the pencil at either side of the mouth; or pointing forwards, with the eraser in the mouth and the tip aiming forwards.

The students were then asked to rate the humour in some Far Side cartoons. The students with the horizontal pencils found the cartoons funnier than those with the pencil pointing forwards.

Kahneman public speaking

Why? Try it yourself.

Holding a pencil across your mouth forces you to smile; pencil pointing forwards forces you to frown. When you’re smiling, even unwittingly, things seem happier.

Smile public speaking

A similar effect works for context, too. Academics noticed that voting stations located in schools led to higher votes for education funding than stations located elsewhere.

Speechwriters and speakers can do all sorts of priming. It might be as simple as the speaker reminding — or being prompted on the script — to smile. It might be more subtle, such as the speaker choosing not to wear a suit and tie when speaking about creativity.

This is stuff that advertisers and marketers already know. That’s why watches are always advertised with their hands at 10 and 2.

Cognitive Ease

Essentially, Kahneman suggests, our brains are lazy. At least, they will prefer the easiest option available.

Studies have shown that when the legibility of a block of text is increased, the cognitive strain in understanding it is reduced. The easier something is to read, the more likely we will believe it. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman calls this a “truth illusion.”

Legibility = Believeability

Cognitive strain can be reduced through big fonts, bold text, high contrast between text and background, and simple language.

(This applies more to the printed word than to speech scripts. In fact, dark blue text on off-white card can be easier to read than white on black. On the topic of how to print a speech to read, let me also say that line spacing can do the work of punctuation, so long as you’re ok with your scripts looking like avant-garde poems!)

Rhyme = Memorability

Our brains want to take shortcuts. Speechwriters should take note of Kahneman’s observation that audiences are more likely to believe sources with easily pronounced names. As much as this poses a problem for those who write in international contexts, it has very real implications. As Kahneman writes,

“Stocks with pronounceable trading symbols (like KAR or LUNMOO) outperform those with tongue-twisting tickers like PXG or RDO  and they appear to retain a small advantage over some time.”

Familiarity = Favourability

But all is not lost for those of us who are obliged to speak of unwieldy acronyms and unfamiliar foreign names. Simply encourage “familiarity through repetition” — or what Kahneman calls “the mere exposure effect.”

The lesson? Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Confirmation bias

“Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold.”

A speech to a “home team” has a head start, in terms of confirmation bias, over a speech to an external audience. For internal communications, it is easier to identify and appeal to shared beliefs. But there will always be some point of contact with an external audience. The speaker might just need to move laterally to find that common ground.

In Thinking Fast and Slow Kahneman explains the “framing effect”: the same information presented in different ways will produce different results. He provides a fascinating demonstration: after reading their descriptions below, what do you think of Alan and Ben?

Alan: intelligent–industrious–impulsive–critical–stubborn–envious

Ben: envious–stubborn–critical–impulsive–industrious–intelligent

Most likely, your impression of Alan was more favourable. This is a great example of how the order in which information is presented will affect the impression created by that information.

Charles Fleming, in his excellent blog Expression/Impression, writes of something similar. When advising speakers on how to deal with hostile questions, Fleming recommends that they pick one word and run with it. As such, the speaker reframes the question put to them; they prioritise the key terms as they want them prioritised.

So, next time a speaker wants to “get the bad news out of the way first,” the speechwriter might have a quiet word in their ear!

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Have a speech coming up? Need some guidance from a professional speechwriter? Here’s what I offer. Feel free to be in touch.

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