It's not every day that an astrophysicist makes the rounds of the late-night talk shows. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the exception. He's promoting his new book, Letters From An Astrophysicist, which published just last week.
Television and radio hosts love interviewing Tyson for the same reason his 13.5 million Twitter followers enjoy reading his posts--he makes science fun to learn. But, as Tyson says in his book, effective communication takes practice and a strategy. "There are no shortcuts," he writes.
Tyson's book comprises actual letters and emails people have sent him and his responses. In one letter, a fan of his work asks how he became a skilled communicator in every medium from television to radio to books to social media. Tyson answers by using his favorite communication strategy--an analogy.
"My educational philosophy is quite simple," writes Tyson. "Think of a professor facing away from you, droning on while writing on the board in front of the class. That's lecturing."
Tyson explains that communication is different than lecturing. Effective communication is like a professor who faces the audience, makes eye contact, and has invested "time and energy thinking about how you think." That means the professor is aware of your attention span, what words you know, and which words confuse you. The professor tailors the content to the audience and makes pop-culture references as analogies.
"That's communicating," says Tyson.
Tyson Makes the Complex Simple
When I interviewed Tyson for one of my books on communication skills, he told me that the secret to getting people excited about complex topics is not to dumb down the subject but to "embed the concept in familiar ground." In other words, connect the topic to analogies or pop-culture references that your audience will know.
Tyson's recent discussion about black holes is a perfect example. This week Tyson, jumped on a Fortnite event that left tens of millions of players staring at a black hole at the end of the video game's season. Tyson posted a video where he described a black hole with the help of a simple analogy.
According to Tyson, a black hole is "the region of space where matter has condensed to such a high density and the surface gravity is so high that you cannot escape it--even at the speed of light. You are forever trapped. It is the human version of the roach motel. You check in but you don't check out."
One letter in Tyson's book asked him to explain how scientists can see black holes if they're invisible. Once again, Tyson uses an analogy to make it understandable. Tyson says they find these "invisible monsters" in the universe by studying the surrounding region. "Kind of like seeing a bear's footprint in the snow, which tells you a bear was there even if you did not see the bear itself."
The Power of Analogy
On a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, Tyson credited the late celebrity scientist Carl Sagan for helping him to understand the power of analogy. Tyson called Sagan--a best-selling author and frequent Tonight Show guest--the most famous "popularizer of science," whose analogies were a "potent way" of communicating science.
Tyson recalls one Sagan analogy that stuck with him. "I heard him give a talk and he was describing the size of a payload in a space mission. Rather than say it was eight inches by six inches, he said, 'It's about the size of a two-pound coffee can.' Something that simple--not giving the metric, but comparing it to something familiar in your life--somehow makes it real."
Sagan was so good at making analogies, Tyson decided that if he was ever in the position of communicating complex information to the public, he would use Sagan's potent tool.
Tyson says there's one way of knowing that you've mastered analogies to become a truly effective public speaker. It's the day someone calls you a "natural" communicator.