Big Presentation Interview with Paul Zak

Interview Post Photo TED.001

My job is to help people to give better presentations. What I’ve noticed is that it’s not so easy to give a presentation that would really impact the audience, but any presentation no matter good or bad always has a certain impact on the speaker. So this is what I would like to talk about with both high-profile professional speakers and common people who give presentations from time to time. Here is my question: "How your presentations have changed you, if at all?"

And today I’m going to ask this question to Paul Zak.

In your talk you mention that hugging raises oxytocin, but how would you give a hug over Skype?
Over Skype… Here we go! (Paul is hugging his web-camera, so it looks as if he was hugging Gleb) There's this Internet meme going around, of people hugging cameras on Skype. They say that there are people who don't get hugs and so they do this virtual hug and it's got like millions of views. We have done this research, I mean, seriously, to take blood before and after people Skyped, used Twitter, all that and it all released Oxytocin. Any connection's a good connection. That's what I'm saying.Did you take blood from yourself before and after that TED talk?

No, but I'm sure my stress hormones would be quite high if I did. I give a lot of talks, but I worked on that talk for six months on and off and did workshops and even up until 2 weeks before, I didn't have that ending with the high point of hugging somebody, so I was working on it, working on it, working on it and it’s the only talk in my life, prior to that or subsequent in which I got to the stage and my knees were actually shaking.

TED is three and a half days and my talk was on the last full day... That’s the worst time to have: people are tired and I was with a psychologist who worked with babies, so she had videos of cute babies, that’s awful to follow. And a Yale psychologist, Paul Bloom, who does work on happiness, and then a very well-known physician who works with HIV patients, almost a saint kind of human being. So, and me… I’m the third of four speakers.

The curator of TEDGlobal Bruno Giussani, he's just a big bear of a guy: Swiss-German, tough, and they’re really pushing you to send the slides you're going to use, practice and you get a rehearsal before you go on the stage and then… This guy Bruno was really tough on me. He’s just that tough. He wants really high quality and he wants to make sure you’re going to get high quality.

So, I give the talk and in the end of it I give that guy from the audience a hug, I come back on the stage and do the last 20-25 seconds and then, I’m done! I wanted to be good enough to get a standing ovation. And sure enough, standing ovation. People are cheering, clapping… So I come off the stage and this Bruno guy, this big bear of a guy gives me this huge bear hug and then the crowd goes wild and then I get to the little row of speakers, and the fourth speaker is this doctor who works with HIV patients. He stands up to go give his talk and he gives me this big hug and the crowd can see it because the cameras were still on us and everyone’s cheering.

The whole thing went nuts and that night, there’s a big dinner and cocktail party for the end of TED and people were just coming up and hugging each other and said to me, “Oh Dr. Zak, I got 6 hugs already, I’m working on 8!” The whole thing became viral. So, you know, one of the kind of impacts was, first of all, being on a really big stage, is like being in the club “Ok, I can do that”.

So last year I gave a kind of TED talk in Mexico called the “City Of Ideas” and there were three thousand people in the theatre and I realised that my palms weren’t sweating. I don’t know. It’s, once you’ve done that and you’ve done it well, then you exude a certain confidence that not only can I hold the audience, but I can play with the audience. I can let the talk have its own pacing. I can begin to read the audience.

For TED, I was just walking around Edinburgh for 3 days, giving the talk to myself. It’s hard to go to other people’s talks because you haven’t given your talk yet. That was a very practiced, memorized talk. But now, when I give talks, I don’t practice much. I actually just have sections and pivot points and I try to think about which direction I want to go, depending on how the audience is moving along with me and also I think it’s changed me in the sense that I really can’t stand giving academic talks anymore. I don’t want to give seminars. I want to give something that engages people; that tells stories, that… So that’s one of the changes.Can you say that you had a different life before and after TED?

For sure. Absolutely, a very high point in my life. No question about it.How did you sleep the night before?

I don’t remember not sleeping, off hand. But I took a lot of walks on my own around Edinburgh, practicing, you know. So you see the crazy man going through the streets in Edinburgh going… Right? Because I’m doing my talk, you know, on the streets.

And I remember giving it to my poor, long suffering friends who I just kept working with me on this. I kept giving it over and over: like, give it, critique it and I’ll give it again and then critique it and I’ll give it again. And one of my friends said, “You know, when you’re talking, your fists are like this.” She said, “You have to relax, you look so tense. You’re trying it so hard to reach out that you’re shutting me out.” That was a great comment. I didn’t know that, I didn’t know my hands were all clenched up.

So, these little things, like body language and eye contact. I was so stressed to actually go on up the stage that as I practiced it, I couldn’t do the pacing. I was so nervous I couldn’t get the clicks timed. I actually had the TED people click the clicker for me. I didn’t notice, that you were so nervous, I thought that this was a talk that you gave like thousand times before on other conferences.

That’s the hope. I gave a talk about a year later at TEDx Amsterdam, which is a really big TEDx, in a big theatre, and two nice things happened. One is, I hardly prepared at all, that’s a talk that basically is an excerpt from my book. So that was easy, not much prep, very loose. But the second nice thing was, in the program, it said here’s the blah blah blah and our professional speakers Paul Zak and Dan Ariely. He is a big TED speaker and so Dan and I were the professional speakers on that list. Isn’t that nice?

At some level, someone thinks you have something to say. It’s just that it is also a very naked stand, it is very honest, because you can see how many people watch that.Was that million views a goal?
I think not. Once it went online and the views started popping up quickly, and then I looked to see like who has a million views, and I said, you know, I think my talk is that good. And there were comments, some of which are very nasty. My kids read some of them and they were like wow, there’s some really mean stuff in here! I’m like, yeah, I wrote a book, all this published research, but you know, 16 minutes on TED and you’re going to critique me for not covering some area you cared about. I mean, I’m sorry…But why do you think, so many people shared your talk?

I don’t know for sure, but I’ll guess. I think it’s two basic things. I think the longest debate humans have had, since humans have been having debates, is about our human nature, are we good or evil? And we really have well developed science now that helps us understand, not whether we are good or evil because of course we can be both. But what’s that switch point in which we change from good to evil. And then number two, I think it gives you this kind of permission to connect to other people that, I mean, it’s not weird. I like to say in talks now, I’m giving you permission to use the L-word, you can tell people around you that you love them.

So I guess one of the changes that happened with the TED talk is this embodiment of this persona of Dr. Love. And I embraced that. I have this wonderful opportunity to use the word love in a scientific sense and encourage people to be loving towards each other that almost nobody gets that opportunity, other than you know, gurus and monks and priests and…

So from a scientific perspective, I can say, you know love is part of our human nature and we should embrace that part of it because it’ll really help us in life, in our relationships and I think that’s a kind of beautiful thing too. Let’s go back to presentations and public speaking. Do you remember your first presentation?

You know, part of our training as academics is giving workshops on our own research and so we would give seminars and once you go from that, kind of small room, to a classroom, which is bigger to getting on a stage, it’s not so unusual. I’m in a very technical field. When you’re first trained in a technical field, you do very technical talks and then you get more mature, you realize that story telling is an inherent part of this.

So I used to teach a class, first year doctoral course in Mathematics, but I love the history of Mathematics, I know a lot of the biographies and so I always infuse these Math lectures with stories about how these different techniques developed and what these Mathematicians were working on and why these techniques developed. So they would have some context to remember, not just this formula or this methodology, but in fact, where it came from.

By the way, we’ve been doing work now for about four years on the neurobiology of narrative: why we cry at movies and so. That work has been real interesting, funded a lot by the US Government. And I felt like it’s catalyzed and interested me on being a better speaker, being a better storyteller, but making sure those stories really have powerful content.

By the way, your syringe thing, was it your idea or was it TED’s idea?

That was my idea. Yeah. And the dollars, I think that came up at the workshops I was doing. Then we thought, you know, let’s have some physical objects. Even the syringe of oxytocin… You know, there are 7 cameras at TEDGlobal and so we worked out on the stage the lighting, where we’d stand, all that was very carefully planned so that the impact would be maximized.How would you rate from 1 to 10 the dependence of your professional career from your talent for public speaking and presentations? What would be your career without this, if you just made your work in your laboratory, only publishing some science notes?

For whatever reason, my work has got a lot of media attention, so I’m used to doing that kind of work and having a public persona, but I think giving these kind of profiled public lectures has allowed me to expand my career to include this kind of public intellectual kind of stuff that I do. And, in fact, I see this as a positive feedback between running the lab, raising the funds to do the research and having the public persona that allows access to decision makers that most scientists don’t have, allows us access to publicise information that most scientists don’t have. And so it really allows me to, kind of, have a much larger career, I guess. Ok, so if rating it from 1 to 10…

You know, it was pretty important, 7 or 8 maybe, hard to say.Besides the TED talk, is there someone helping you with your high profile talks or you do it just by yourself? The slides, the structure…

Basically me. Yeah, can you believe it? Yes, I can. It’s, actually, in my experience, the best speakers, they do it by themselves.

I guess so. Because to tell you that, I’m an introvert and I never really desired to be on stage. I mean, I’m not shy, but I really value my time alone. You asked earlier like how did this change your life, it’s that I really crave being on the stage and the bigger the stage, the more energy I pick up. I think for TEDGlobal, I was sapped by the stage; I was losing energy from that talk. I was so focused on doing it well that once it was done, I was just too exhausted. And now, when I go to a big stage, the more people are there, the more energy I have, the more fun I have, I think the better the talk is.

But acting is the farthest things from my… I’ve never wanted to do that. I don’t find it interesting, but if I’m talking about my work, the more people are there, the more the audience engages, the more I’m eager to go talk to the people and everyone's having a good time and you can’t sleep for 3 or 4 hours because you’re really up on this thing, so…So, you consider yourself as an introvert during your work?

Oh I’m definitely an introvert, yeah.But when you’re on stage, you’re switching to extrovert mode?

That’s right. I play an extrovert on TV or on stage. Do you believe that giving a presentation is one of the ways to raise your level of Oxytocin in your body?

(Laughing) It might be. It certainly raises… We use stress as a kind of negative, but stress is…but moderate stress increases it. If you get positive feedback from the audience, then you probably are releasing oxytocin as well. And you know for sure that no matter how it goes, it’s over, so the stress will reduce. And it gives you a chance to really connect with people and in the TED style to do that, you’ve got to reveal something about yourself. You’ve got to open up. You’ve got to allow people to connect to you and that was really hard for me. And now I'm like, my life’s an open book and I’ve nothing hidden. So, I think, that’s the hard thing to get over, particularly for introverts. It sounds like you should be out of your comfort zone, but not too far from it.

Perfectly put, yeah, exactly right. Like you have to be on the edge of your comfort zone. I think just a heel in the comfort zone, heel of one foot in and the two feet mostly out. If you’re not completely crazy, the further out you go, in my view, the more the audience will understand or react to that. You are doing something very hard and uncomfortable and you really want to do it well and there’s a reason to do it. It’s not just because you’re a wacko, whatever, but there’s a real reason and if you understand your presentation well enough, you’d look deep inside yourself and you’d come to terms with that reason.

I think it’s more likely to get a lot of views when you open up and are honest about the reasons for it, from an emotional perspective, like “This is why this is so important to me, and it might be important to you too.”