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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: I am here. Hear me roar! 

 *      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: How can you become a better communicator?

DUCKWORTH: I’m just going to mimic Barack Obama.

DUBNER: You sound a lot like Barack Obama, now that I think about it.

 *      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, you recently emailed me for my advice.

DUBNER: I did.

DUCKWORTH: I remember being, I think, on my phone. And I read your email quickly, and I typed out my reply even more quickly.

DUBNER: Oh, thanks. It’s nice to know how much you care. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s right. So, I just want you to know that I hardly thought about it at all. 

DUBNER: Angela, these are the things that we should think and keep to ourselves and not say aloud, but it’s okay because I’m a good friend, and I can handle it. No, actually, your answer was really useful. So, let me give a little context so people know what we’re talking about here. I recently played in a golf tournament in California. And it was an amazing and fascinating experience, because the groupings were a golf pro — these were the, what they call the “seniors,” the 50-over P.G.A. Tour players. So, there was one pro in each group, and then two amateurs. I was one of the amateurs. And then one, what are called a “junior,” who are also amateurs, but these are really, really, really good young players. But this young athlete, whose name is Sarah — I played with her, and she is amazing. She’s 16 years old, and already a very, very, very good golfer. So, she is the kind of person that could easily become a professional golfer if she keeps at it.


DUBNER: You would have a field day talking with Sarah, because her devotion in the form of a certain kind of grit is so, so deep. She gets up at something like 4:30 or 5:00 every day to work out, and then after school is practicing every day. And when you play with her, you’re not surprised that she works so hard, because she’s amazing. Anyway, I played a round with her. She did very well. And then, afterwards, I got an email from her dad, and I was so kind of moved by it — that he was asking for a little bit of help — that I, of course, wanted to help, and I reached out to you. So, the dad wrote to me to say that his daughter, Sarah, she’s never been super talkative. In fact, she’s often pretty quiet, and she’s a girl of few words in most interviews. But lately, she’s been practicing her speaking every night and recording herself on her phone. And recently, she had been interviewed on the Golf Channel, which is, you know, this big national —.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I’ve seen the Golf Channel. It’s, like, 24/7 golf. 

DUBNER: It is. And so, she felt that her interview on there wasn’t great. For instance, she’d used the word “awesome” three times in, like, five minutes. And I was like, “I don’t think you can give yourself big demerits for that.” Anyway, the father wrote to ask me, since he is under the impression that I am someone who speaks for a living and does it, you know, well-ish, that maybe we could have a conversation about how to get more comfortable speaking in public and so on. So, we set up a Zoom call for me and Sarah. And her dad, in advance, sent the following questions for me to think about trying to go over: “How do you suggest she practice? How do you know how and when to add humor? How to get relaxed and be yourself while also keeping yourself on task and articulating your ideas clearly? And how do you come up with ideas to speak about on the fly?” So, the reason I sent this to you, and the reason I thought it might be fun to talk about on this show is that, really, these questions — I think any of us could and should ask ourselves and other people, which is about: how do we have a good conversation with someone? How are we a good conversation partner? How are we a good public speaker? Because really, if you think about it, we’re all communicating all the time. But I thought it was really a good opportunity to take a step back and ask these questions about how to very deliberately think about and practice conversing. So, I sent you this list. And you wrote back some really interesting, but now I recognize —. 

DUCKWORTH: Very quickly thumb-typed. I think I was walking, typing, and probably eating at the same time.

DUBNER: Okay. So, you cared very, very little about helping me in this circumstance.

DUCKWORTH: It was spontaneous. That would be one way to describe it.

DUBNER: I did get a reply from you though, and I really liked your reply. In terms of the question about how to get relaxed and be yourself while also keeping on task, you wrote, “I think it’s about being truly in the moment, which means focusing a lot of your attention on the audience. There is relevant research on this, but that’s the take home. Don’t focus on yourself. Focus on the person you’re talking to.” So, tell me about that research and why we’re convinced that’s the right thing to do.

DUCKWORTH: Well, there is this research by Ellen Langer.

DUBNER: I feel we should add Ellen Langer —.

DUCKWORTH: To the drinking list!

DUBNER: Yeah, absolutely. 

DUCKWORTH: You know what, she is just one of the most creative — she has, like, ideas that are just like, they’re good, but they’re just so out there. Like, “Wait, what brain created that idea?”

DUBNER: And since we’ve missed the opportunity in the past — for those of you who do drink along, when we say: “Danny Kahneman,” “Marty Seligman” — now, let’s make up for lost time. Ready? On the count of three, repeat it. One, two, three. 

DUCKWORTH: Ellen Langer. Ellen Langer. Ellen Langer. You know what? This sounds like we’re trying to summon her. It’s like, “If we say it at the same time, Stephen, she’ll appear.”

DUBNER: You never know. You watched I Dream of Jeannie, did you not?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, yes, I did.

DUBNER: I think that wins the award for the most misogynist show in the history of T.V.

DUCKWORTH: Because she, like, lives in a bottle.

DUBNER: She has a master! I mean, everything about that show was wrong.

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. I forgot about all the details.

DUBNER: Whereas Bewitched — which on the surface seemed kind of similar — no, no, no, no. She had a lot of agency.

DUCKWORTH: Oh yes, that’s right. Gosh, imagine the comp-lit possibilities. “Please compare and contrast I Dream of Jeannie with Bewitched.”

DUBNER: Oh, that cannot have not been written. Don’t you think there’s got to be a good thesis out there somewhere?

DUCKWORTH: Somewhere in a liberal arts school, somebody’s done their thesis —.      

DUBNER: So, anyway, Ellen Langer, as you were saying —.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, Ellen Langer, Harvard psychologist, had a study. I think the basic idea was: she wondered how it was that a symphony orchestra might do the same performance of, I don’t know, like, Beethoven’s Fifth again, and again, and again. Can you imagine, like, having to play the Nutcracker again, because it’s December?! How do you not let your performance go stale? But what Ellen Langer did in this study that I can’t remember the exact details of is that she had this hypothesis that, if you have a kind of mindful state — I think when Ellen Langer uses the term “mindfulness,” she means it as being fully attuned to all the nuances of what’s going on in your immediate environment. But anyway, what she found is that they sound better. So, there are these symphony orchestra musicians, and they are asked to play a given symphony. I think it’s, one time that they play it, and they’re like, “Play it as well as you can.” And there’s another time where they’re like, “Focus on what’s new about this piece in this moment. What are the nuances that are just right now in this moment different from any other time that you’ve played this?” And then, a new group of people, they listen to these recordings. And you can show in that data that people actually enjoy the version that was played with this kind of mindfulness prompt versus just, you know, “play it as well as possible.” And, you know, there are some other nuances I think Ellen has shown in this study and others that people who are performers, they actually enjoy their performance more when they’re in this mindful state. But I think that’s the take home.

DUBNER: That is so interesting. It makes me think of the difference between a politician who’s really good at giving a stump speech and one who’s really not good at it. Because if you’re campaigning at a certain level, you have a speech or maybe a couple, and you have to give it over, and over, and over, and over again. And it can really sound like cardboard unless you are really good at thinking about what you’re trying to do, which is communicate to this audience, this stump speech, which I’ve already given a hundred times.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think it’s great advice, right? I try to do this when I’m teaching. And I think it’s good advice for conversation. It’s like, “I am here.”

DUBNER: I am here. Hear me roar!

DUCKWORTH: And I guess you could argue this for Broadway actors, or maybe you could even argue it for you, Stephen. Like, “Oh, yet another interview with yet another social scientist.”

DUBNER: Can I say, there is a difference though, because it is a different interview every time. I mean, yeah, there is a “sameness” to it. But honestly, one of the reasons I stopped playing music years and years ago is because, as much as I loved playing, if you wrote a song with your band and you got out and played it in a club or a little theater or whatever, as thrilling as it was the first time and maybe the 10th time was even better, by time 50, it’s already hurting. And imagine doing it times 500. So yeah, I’ve thought about this dilemma quite a bit.

DUCKWORTH: So, if you’re in a conversation, obviously you don’t have the challenge of it being the same exact conversation, but I think this advice to be so present — so attuned to not your own thoughts as much as your audience, your conversation partner. I think it’s a lot of charisma, actually.

DUBNER: Yeah. I agree with that, and I like it a lot. In fact, one of the things I told Sarah on this call was to consider the audience — at your advice. But one thing that was particular about the circumstance of this conversation that she’s having — let’s say, an interview with a golf journalist. And again, every conversation is different, right? The participants are different. The purpose is different. The context is different. 

DUCKWORTH: That just shows you how mindful you are, Stephen, just to notice the nuances there.

DUBNER: Really?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Ellen Langer would be proud. Drink up.

DUBNER: Now, are we just saying “Ellen Langer” so people get more shots of Schnapps or whatever they’re drinking?

DUCKWORTH: Yes, exactly.

DUBNER: But I did encourage her to think about her audience. So, I think that when you’re being interviewed by, let’s say, a T.V. journalist, naturally you’re thinking about responding to that person. They’re the person sticking the microphone in your face. In fact, who you’re talking to are the million, or whatever, people that are out there. I said, “Here’s the thing about everyone watching: they all love to play golf. Here’s another thing about everybody watching: most of them are way worse than you. So, you have something that they want. So, what’s a way to treat that asset? Should you treat it as something that, ‘Oh, I’m tormented about it. I wish I were better. I hope I can become pro.’ Actually, I think, that what most people want to hear is what it’s like to be that good, not in a braggy way, but to focus on the fact that this is a really talented and really hard-working person, because that gives them an opportunity to get into that mindset. And honestly, I think that’s what they really want. Everybody wants to be better.” So, in a way, she was considering herself kind of the young person in the room. You know, the “I don’t quite belong on the same stage as these pros that may be talking five minutes after me.” But, as a matter of fact, if you think about the audience, and not yourself, and not the journalist with the microphone, what you have is what a lot of people really want, and they want to hear about what it’s like to have that. How do you think that advice works?

DUCKWORTH: I am torn, because on one hand, yeah, I do think you’re right to have some empathy with the audience and what they’re expecting and what they’re going to get out of this conversation.

DUBNER: And yet?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. I feel like the people that I like to listen to most are the ones where they’re just being honest. It’s like, they’re just having a feeling, telling you what the feeling is, having a thought, telling you what the thought is. And there’s not a lot of deliberate maneuvering.

DUBNER: I should say, the other message I gave her was to be basically as authentic as she could, which was advice that you gave as well. I guess I am trying to combine these two things, but I don’t think they’re contradictory. I did tell her to show your intensity, to show your competitive spirit, to show your goofiness, whatever it is. Because a lot of people do try to tamp down their real selves.

DUCKWORTH: Right, their individuality. Like, who they really are.

DUBNER: Yeah. Then they sound like robots, and nobody likes that.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. How about this Venn diagram overlap. I’m agreeing with you that there has to be a sense of your audience, or your conversation partner, but also some authenticity. When I stand up in front of my students, I want to be myself, and at the same time, you’re right, it would be different, for example, if I were standing up in front of some big corporation sales gathering of 4,000 people. It’s a different vibe. Like, who is my audience? Where are they? What are they looking for?

DUBNER: And what are you trying to accomplish? To me, that’s the big question we often don’t quite ask ourselves. I think this goes for any conversation or any communication you have, written or verbal, I’ll say. I feel a lot of people try to show how smart and awesome they are. And I would argue that it’s better, from the audience perspective, to show how interesting, or human, or real you are. That would be my primary argument.


DUBNER: I remember advice I got — when Freakonomics came out, we started getting on T.V. a good bit and our publishers sent us to a media consultant. And the media consultant had some advice that I remember to this day. When you are talking, whether it’s in person with someone or on T.V., there is one thing that if you do consistently, people will listen to your message more willingly and more approvingly.

DUCKWORTH: Can I guess?



DUBNER: Smile.

DUCKWORTH: Because I got the same advice.

DUBNER: We probably went to the same media consultant.

DUCKWORTH: Bill McGowan!

DUBNER: Bill McGowan.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, literally.

DUBNER: So, you and I have been walking around smiling for the past 10 years. 

DUCKWORTH: He gave me the same exact advice, but it’s so true. And Bill McGowan is, like, the best.

DUBNER: Here’s another big Bill McGowan point. I’m curious if you remember this one. Instead of talking about theory and explaining the why, he wants you to tell a story.

DUCKWORTH: He always wants you to tell a story. And he wants you to be specific, and concrete, and vivid, and not get into these abstract words that don’t mean anything. Like, you want a mental picture to be created in the eye of the beholder.

DUBNER: This makes me want to hear from our listeners. So, if you have advice for speaking well, any secret tips, and I would say “dos” and “don’ts” — I would love you to send us what you feel is useful advice or maybe cautionary tales. Just use your phone, make a voice memo. Send it to We would love to hear what you have to say. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how distress affects communication.

DUCKWORTH: Holy Schmoly! Does every American with a problem suddenly become Shakespeare?

 *      *      * 

Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about how to become a better speaker.

DUBNER: So, let me ask you this. I think you’re a really good communicator.


DUBNER: Whenever you speak, you deliver a lot of useful information, interesting information, but also your tone is appealing, and so on. So, if we were to consider you a successful communicator, who have been your greatest influences on your success? Whether it was something that you read on your own, something that people have taught you, whether there was a role model for public speaking — anything like that.

DUCKWORTH: So, as you know, when I dashed off my thumb-typed reply, I immediately thought, like, oh, she wants to know — Sarah — like how to get better at speaking, she should ask herself, who’s her role model? I guess if I had to say, like, who is the best conversationalist or the best speaker, I think it’s Barack Obama. You know, half of people will think, “Oh, I hate Barack Obama, because I don’t agree with this politics.” But if you could, just for a moment, consider his oratorical skills, right? Like, his ability to tell a story, to be warm, to be so obviously in the moment with you — I just think he has no parallel.

DUBNER: And when you say he’s a speaking role model, would you say that you’ve specifically patterned yourself after him?

DUCKWORTH: You know, I thought to myself, like, “Oh, what he’s doing is: he’s being warm, he’s being present. He’s also doing a lot of things that very effective communicators do, which is: he’s using the intonation of his voice, he’s using pauses, he’s using eye contact, he’s using his hands. I mean, it’s like a full-body thing to communicate. I didn’t say, like, “I’m just going to mimic Barack Obama. Maybe I could sound like Barack Obama. Maybe my arm gestures —.”

DUBNER: You know, but now that you mention it, you sound a lot like Barack Obama.

DUCKWORTH: I do not sound like Barack Obama. I think the ideal for me — because I think I’d have to pick somebody who would be closer to my gender, for example, and maybe my age, although Barack Obama’s not that much older than me. I would say that — and she’s a lot older than me — I think, like, Oprah Winfrey is a great communicator.

DUBNER: Is there such a thing as a negative role model?

DUCKWORTH: Like, somebody that you don’t want to be?

DUBNER: Yeah. I think we’ve done a really good job of that for Sarah today. Sarah, when you think about how to communicate to the public, just listen to what Angie and Stephen did. And —.

DUCKWORTH: And don’t do that! 

DUBNER: Don’t do that.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. that’s right. I don’t know what the word is for negative role model. But, I will say this as a psychologist, Stephen: having an example of what not to do has some utility. It’s helpful to have “don’ts,” but it’s almost always better to have “dos.” Because, in general, when you say, “Oh, don’t do it this way,” there’s just so many things not to do. But it’s not without its merit. I want to sneak in one Bill McGowan story about what not to do. So, Grit is about to come out. And I’m told, not asked — I’m told by the publisher — that I have four hours of training with Bill McGowan, so I don’t screw up all the morning show interviews. And so, I meet with him. I’ve never met with him before. And I’m, of course, peppering him with questions as the clock is ticking down for my four hours. I was like, “What about this? What about that? How do I sit? Do I put my shoulders back?” And I asked him, like, “How do I drink water if I am lucky enough to get on one of these morning shows?”

DUBNER: Wait, wait, wait, wait. You have four hours to talk about how to speak well on T.V., and you’re asking how to drink the water? 

DUCKWORTH: It only took 10 seconds to ask him. But I remember he showed me footage of, like — who was that presidential candidate? Was it Mark Rubio?

DUBNER: Marco Rubio. 

DUCKWORTH: Marco Rubio. But he was like, here, let’s watch this YouTube video. And we were watching him drink water.

DUBNER: Was he really good at it or really bad at it? 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. It was painful. I think it was like a nervous tick, or maybe he had a dry throat, but Bill said to me, “There’s only one way to drink water when you’re on television, and that is not to drink water.”

DUBNER: So, wait a minute. You just got done telling us that there are dos and don’ts, but you should focus on the dos and not the don’ts. And now you’re telling us that one powerful takeaway was the don’t.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And this is nuanced, Stephen. Both/and. I want to say this. You probably, if you had only one model to choose from, would, like me, choose a positive role model, right? Like, if you only had one YouTube video to watch to get better at speaking, better to watch Barack Obama than Marco Rubio.

DUBNER: Or at least Marco Rubio drinking water. It’s possible he’s a fantastic public speaker.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. I can’t evaluate his other public speaking skills. But I will say I think don’ts have some value, but dos have more.

DUBNER: I will share this. I think the most I ever learned about communication, whether it’s speaking or writing, goes back to a course that I taught, not took — although I wasn’t really quite qualified to teach it. But, as you know, when you have to teach something, you get really good at it in a hurry — at least you try hard. And this was a course called “Logic and Rhetoric.” This was essentially the freshman comp for Columbia undergrads. I think it no longer exists, but it was a lot of writing in a lot of different formats. And it was a lot of thinking, as the name implies. And it boiled down to this simple, perhaps obvious, but sometimes overlooked fact, which is this: the best communication is the result of really good logic, powerful logic, and powerful rhetoric.

DUCKWORTH: Wait. What’s rhetoric that’s not logic?

DUBNER: If I were to put it really simply, logic would be good thinking.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Yeah.

DUBNER: And the rhetoric would be good talking, good writing.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, one is content, and the other one is delivery.

DUBNER: Yeah. You and I both know a lot of brilliant thinking that is poorly communicated.


DUBNER: And there are a lot of fantastic communicators who don’t have anything brilliant to say. So, the first thing I would say to anyone, Sarah or anyone, is: what’s your content? What are you actually trying to communicate? And have you done enough work, or thinking, or research, or reporting to make it worthwhile to communicate to other people? And then, you can start to worry about how you communicate it, which is what we have been talking about. You know, I will add one more thing. For anyone who cares about communicating well, I would suggest doing something that I did years ago, quite by accident, which was the result of the fact that my girlfriend at the time was an actress. And so, she was taking an acting course from a gentleman who became a big influence and a mentor in my life — almost a father-figure type — a guy named Ivan Kronenfeld.

DUCKWORTH: Wait. This is your ex-girlfriend’s acting teacher? 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, she dragged me along. He really encouraged non-actors to take the course. Another student in there was the boyfriend — or maybe even husband at that time — of another actress, and that guy’s name was Mehmet Oz, Dr. Oz—.


DUBNER: Who was a doctor at Columbia. And there were a lot of non-actors in this course who were usually attached to the actors in some way. And what Ivan persuaded all of us, and I really think this was incredibly valuable in retrospect for me as a writer, is that acting is not really about performance per se, or at least not fully. It’s about communicating the essence of something. And to do that, you need to really think hard and do good research to understand what exactly is it that I’m trying to convey here. So, good talking is usually the result of good thinking. And then, of course, there is a performative aspect. There’s the tone, the flow, the pace. There’s call and response, there’s tempo, there’s the strategic pause, there’s self-deprecation. And getting back to what you said at the beginning, there’s authenticity.

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s exactly right. And I think people get it exactly wrong. So, I think when you can’t express yourself — in writing or in conversation — you think the problem is delivery, the problem is you haven’t figured out how to say it, but really, you probably haven’t figured out what to say. And two things leap to mind. One, I remember being in, like, middle school or high school and complaining about writer’s block to my mom, because I had some essay due. But what my mom said to me — and she just said it kind of matter-of-factly without even taking a breath — she’s like, “Well, maybe you don’t know what you want to say.” And I was like, “Oh, such a good point.”

DUBNER: Wise mom.

DUCKWORTH: And around the same time, I got really into reading the Dear Abby column, you know, that advice column that I don’t think is around anymore. Right?

DUBNER: Was her sister Ann Landers?


DUBNER: That always confused me. So much talent in one gene pool.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So much advice in one gene pool for sure! And I remember thinking to myself, not only were the replies written well by Abby, the letters were written well. I was thinking to myself, “Holy shmoly, does every American with a problem suddenly become Shakespeare?” It’s like, well, you know, if you have something that you really want to say, it usually is not that hard to say it. So, people have it exactly wrong when they think the problem is delivery. The problem is content.

DUBNER: Okay. No. 1, you’ve just made me very suspicious that perhaps most of these letters were written by the Ann Landers/Dear Abby industrial complex.

DUCKWORTH: No, you cynic. No, no, no, no, no. Really?

DUBNER: Just saying — or at least polished. I’ve read a lot of letters to the editor, Angie, and they are, I would say, borderline literate, on average.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait, wait. Letters to the editor are edited? I was thinking that if you have a real problem —.

DUBNER: Then you turn into Shakespeare.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, because you have something to say! You know, what is good writing? Good writing is a thought that is delivered from one person’s brain to another’s. And the problem is usually the thought itself and not in the delivery. I mean, getting back to Sarah, I do wonder whether people her age, since they don’t use their phones for calling people anymore — and they often will, even when they’re in the same room, just be texting one another — I do wonder whether the craft of conversation as in the verbal exchange of information, I don’t know, maybe we should short that stock. 

DUBNER: Although that would be an argument for why we’re all becoming much better writers, right? Theoretically, if we’re all writing a lot more.

DUCKWORTH: Do you think we are becoming better writers? We might be.

DUBNER: I don’t. You know, I’ve thought about this for a long time now, because there was the argument back when the personal computer came around that this will deeply change the way people write.

DUCKWORTH: For the better, or for the worse?

DUBNER: So, there was this notion that now that you can eternally, constantly, and frictionlessly edit anything you write forever on a screen, then save to a disk, and then print it out, that we would become all brilliant — as opposed to the person who used to write on a typewriter, and used to have to carbon copy, and used to have to cross things out and then retype it. But I would argue that the computer has not made us substantially better writers, although I think it has made us, in some ways, more capable writers. We can communicate a lot more quickly.

DUCKWORTH: More prolific?

DUBNER: Prolific is a good word.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think, it was, gosh, 1994 when I went to Oxford to get this master’s degree in what I thought was going to be Politics, Philosophy, and Economics — the famous P.P.E. program. Doing P.P.E. at Oxford is like ordering a Big Mac at McDonald’s. It’s what you do.

DUBNER: And it’s not to be confused with personal protection equipment.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, it was definitely pre-pandemic. So, the only place that you could print out your work — which required you taking your little floppy disk or whatever it was, to the computer-printing room — was at the top of a stone spiral staircase in a turret. It was almost like you expected that Rapunzel would be up there when you finally got — I think I counted once, there was, like, 89 and a half steps. Then, there was this huge bolt lock on the door, which, you better have remembered the key that you had to get from the porter’s office by leaving your I.D. There was a lot of friction. So, I don’t know whether it was designed by behavioral economists to discourage printing out, but what you would do instead is you would write in longhand on a notepad. And, I have to say, that now when I think about what that was like compared to what, fast-forward, like, nearly three decades to what I do now: you open up the Google Doc, you save it, but you don’t even have to save it, because it’s constantly saved for you. I think the quality of thinking is different. And I think it is not necessarily worse, but I feel like when you’re on a computer, I get lost in my own document. I’m like, “Wait, what was I thinking? Where am I?” And there’s something about the physical page, and you can flip it over. And by the way, you can also lay it out on the floor. I mean, Stephen, you know, I’m writing a book. And what I have taken to doing is, I’m trying to escape my computer screen. So, I’m printing things out often, maybe every few hours, and, like, laying them out on the floor. I went to this Matisse exhibit recently. And he would have these installations, these murals, and in preparation for them, he would make little models — cut things out of paper and just lay them out and see what it looks like. And I have to believe that if Matisse were only working on an iPad, you know, there’s just something constraining. And you do get lost in what you’re doing. And anyway, I do think the medium matters. 

DUBNER: If it makes you feel any better, whenever I have reading or writing that matters a lot — not an email, but a script, or a book chapter, or something, I’m always working on paper. So, don’t feel bad that you’re so old fashioned, because I’m even older fashioned than you.

DUCKWORTH: And there is some research — not a lot — on hard copy versus electronic this or that. And it does seem like the medium in which you are digesting information does matter. And there’s something about being in an electronic document that encourages quick reading, and scrolling, and searching. And there’s something about hard copy that basically encourages you to do more reflection and more digestion of what you’re reading. By the way, if this is the advice that you’re passing on to young Sarah, you know, it’s like, “How do I get interviewed on Golf Channel?”

DUBNER: “Make a document for yourself, and print out all 85 pages, and take some notes in the margins. And then once you take those notes, make cue cards from the notes. Get a donkey. Put the cue cards on the side of the donkey. Have him walk by real slow, and just read them and smile.” 

DUCKWORTH: I think Sarah might be like, “Oh my God, they were so old they didn’t even understand the question I was asking them about.” But I do think this, like, slightly digressive, like, “what do we think about good writing,” not surprising that we went there because we’re saying, look, content matters. Content is king.

DUBNER: Or queen.

DUCKWORTH: Right. I would prefer to say, “content is queen,” and somewhere in the court there’s also delivery. But if you can focus on your content, you got it.

No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.

In the first half of the show, Stephen and Angela joke that repeatedly saying the name “Ellen Langer” might summon the Harvard psychologist — just as Barbara Eden’s character is summoned in 1960s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. However, in the television show, Jeannie doesn’t appear because her name is being repeated. She’s initially summoned when astronaut Tony Nelson — her, quote, “master” — rubs a strange bottle that he found on the beach. Stephen and Angela were likely thinking of the old trope of summoning supernatural beings by saying their names — an idea that’s at least as old as the phrase “speak of the devil,” and that recurs in urban legends about “Bloody Mary” and movies like Candyman and Beetlejuice.

Also, there are indeed academic theses comparing Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. We’ll link to one in the show notes. The University of Michigan professor Susan J. Douglas also explores the comparison in her 1994 book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, in a chapter called “Genies and Witches.”

After unsuccessfully attempting to summon Ellen Langer, Angela breaks down the psychologist’s research on mindfulness and symphony orchestras. Angela admits that she can’t remember the exact details of the experiment, which turns out to be true. In her description, she references the musicians playing Beethoven’s Fifth, but the study actually focuses on pieces by Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Victor Herbert. Angela also got this detail wrong when she first described this study in episode 77 of the show, “How Can You Avoid Boredom?”

Also, Stephen and Angela discuss the advice column “Dear Abby,” which first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle on January 9th, 1956. Angela believes that the column no longer exists. The original author, Pauline Phillips — who went by the pen name Abigail Van Buren — died in 2013. But the series still exists today. It’s now written by her daughter Jeanne Phillips, who originally began working on the column with her mother in 1987. As Angela mentioned, Phillips’s identical twin sister Esther Lederer also wrote a syndicated advice column under the pen name Ann Landers. (Phillips and Lederer were the twins’ married names: they were born Pauline Esther Friedman and Esther Pauline Friedman, respectively.) Esther Lederer died in 2002. Writer Amy Dickinson then took the Ann Landers column, which is now called “Ask Amy.”

Stephen suggests that the letters that run in advice columns are “written or at least polished” by the column’s editorial staff. I reached out to “Dear Abby”’s Jeanne Phillips to find out. She told me that the letters are tweaked for grammar, but their content remains the same. The names and locations of the letter-writers are changed.

Finally, Angela says that she went to Oxford believing she was going to study Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. While she was there, Angela switched to studying neuroscience, and earned her master’s in that field in 1996.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts on our recent episode about psychologist Paul Rozin’s theory of benign masochism. Here’s what you said:

Bora ERGOR: Hey, Stephen and Angela. My theory for benign masochism is that we seek out the pain because it makes us feel more alive. As a long distance runner myself, it’s exactly what I say to myself. Each time, it’s like a “suffer fest.” I know that when I complete this, I’m going to feel great. And actually, I’m very grateful to Paul Rozin for coming up with that phrase, because I’ve been accused of being a masochist many, many times over the past few years because of my running. And now I can just be like, “Yeah, but it’s benign masochism.”

Hazel TUCKER: Hi, Stephen and Angela. Firstly, thanks for such a great podcast. Secondly, in part, I think benign masochism serves a social function. Studies have shown that we build stronger social bonds through shared experiences. So, doing activities which involve fear, disgust, sadness, etc. would maybe enable quicker or deeper connections. Such experiences may also have the social benefit of providing an anecdote or content for future conversations so that we seem like fun and interesting people.

Reuben LIU: Hi, Stephen and Angela. Reuben here from Malaysia. Recently, I’ve been noticing that my tolerance, or my desire, for spicy food has been increasing, and it’s correlated with the amount of stress that I’ve been receiving at work, and life, and everything. And I think that kind of links, because when I cannot control the environment, I try to have things that I can control, which is: the food I eat, the movies I watch, and being able to regulate my emotions through these things that I so-called “suffer” from. I am still able to be the captain of my own ship. So Stephen and Angela, if you guys want to come over to Malaysia to try some real spicy food, you’re more than welcome.

That was, respectively: Bora Ergor, Hazel Tucker, and Reuben Liu. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their stories. And remember, we’d still love to hear your thoughts on how to become a better communicator. Send a voice memo to Let us know your name and if you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the challenge of getting someone a good gift.

DUBNER: I’ve given my wife a lot of gifts over the years, some of which have landed well, a couple of which landed amazingly, most of which didn’t land very well. 

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Katherine Moncure is our associate producer. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to

DUCKWORTH: They were called “word processors,” because you would process the words like a blender or a food processor.

DUBNER: And it was about the size of a small car. And these were big floppy disks — maybe, like, eight inches square. 

DUCKWORTH: Very floppy.

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