Neil deGrasse Tyson’s technique to never tell a boring story

David Starr | May 17, 2023

Question: Do you maintain people’s interest when talking?

It’s great to know a lot about something, but can you articulate it in a way that doesn’t make someone’s eyes glaze over?

Strong leaders are masters at great storytelling. They corral interest with a flick of the wrist and a seemingly effortless confidence. What will they say next? We hang on the edges of our seats to find out.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one such example of a storytelling ninja. The American astrophysicist, author, and champion of science is a wizard at getting others to lean forward while he talks about black holes and string theory. What’s his secret to be so interesting?

degrasse tyson

The Framework

Tyson makes sure a story never goes stale by using a method I call Frame Pivoting. It’s essentially paying attention… to attention.

He spoke about this in a 2022 interview with Steven Bartlett, where he recounts his first appearance on The Daily Show. He remembers that, leading up to the show, he was dreading the idea of John Stewart talking circles—like he had seen Stewart do to other guests.

In preparation, Tyson carefully studied Stewart’s conversational techniques and comedic timing. He went into that talk show with, as he puts it, a utility belt of ideas and thoughts. After the show, everyone came up to Tyson and told him that he was an absolute natural.

But let me backtrack. Frame Pivoting isn’t exactly about preparation. It’s about real-time adjustment during a conversation. Here’s a summary from Tyson himself.

“You sort things that excite you from things that excite someone else. Well how do you know [what excites them]? You have to practice that. Strike up conversations. Watch if people care about what you say. Is there some other conversation that distracts them from your conversation with them? Well, go back to the drawing board.”

In other words, take notice while you’re speaking if attention is fading. If so, pivot. But here’s the key:

Don’t just pivot to any new direction. Have a utility belt of directions you can go in based on your preparation and knowledge of that particular audience. What do they like? What do they find interesting? How can you frame what you’re talking about in interests that excite them?

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Tyson talks about how he puts this into practice during StarTalk, a podcast he co-hosts that combines science, comedy, and pop culture.

“Why do I care about pop culture? Because you walk into the room already framed in a scaffold of pop culture. If I know that in advance, I don’t have to start from scratch. When I’m teaching you something, I’m going to say, oh, I have a bit of science that I can clad onto this part of your scaffold, your pop culture scaffold. And you know something—it fits, it sticks.”

He did this exact thing when he talked about the rotation of the earth… in the context of an NFL game-winning field goal.

This is not me telling you to pander. Above all, stay true to yourself and your personality. But at the same time, Frame Pivoting is a technique you can use to slightly tweak and improve how you communicate. It’s a form of reflective socializing, good listening, and to a great extent, empathy.

How to put this into practice
    1. Enter a situation prepared. Ask yourself – who is my audience? What do they care about? What excites them?
    2. Use this as a way to build a utility belt of contextual tools and pivots. Practice how to frame your topic within context of what excites your audience.
    3. Pay attention to attention. If interest is fading, go into your utility belt and adjust. This takes practice before it becomes natural. As Tyson suggests, practice this by watching a romcom on mute and see if you can discern the emotions of the characters without sound.

I’m starting to practice this in my own life. Just yesterday, I watched The Notebook on mute. Still great.

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