Public Speaking Success: A Lesson From the Yale Class of 1953

collegeA number of speakers, books and other motivational programs talk about a famous study done with Yale’s class of 1953. The study states that only 3% of the graduating class had written goals. When the class was surveyed again 20 years later, they found out that the 3% who had written goals had a combined wealth that was greater than the combined wealth of the 97% that didn’t have written goals! What an interesting story. And it’s no wonder that so many self-help & personal development gurus and motivational speaker share this story. Too bad the study never happened.

Since I’m a big believer in written goals and I believe that people who write down their goals tend to do better than those that don’t, I have to say I was a little disappointed to find out that this story was an urban legend. Of course, the more embarrassing part of this story as that so many people used it in their books and speeches without realizing that it wasn’t true. I have to say that I can’t blame the folks who recently have used it because so many people – including two of the most successful motivational speakers, Tony Robbins and Zig Ziglar – have quoted this story. I found out it wasn’t true when I was researching it to use in a speech to get the facts. I had heard the story a number of times but I couldn’t remember the college, the year and whether the group with written goals was 3% or 5%. Thank goodness for search engines.

So the big lesson here is to do your due diligence before including stories in your speeches that aren’t your own experiences. I was researching this information for a motivational speech to a small business organization I was invited to speak to. If books and audio cassettes were as easy to search as the internet, I would have included the study. And it’s a good thing I didn’t because after the talk I was speaking with one of the audience members and he had asked me if I knew anything about that study. I told him I was going to include it but then learned it wasn’t true. He smiled and told me that another speaker brought it up once and someone in the audience called him on it. Had I made the same mistake and someone called me on it, I would have definitely felt embarrassed. I probably would have said something like “that surprises me because I’ve seen the study quoted in a number of different sources so I’ll have to look it up.”

Equally embarrassing was a story I heard from another speaker who regularly speaks to groups like the National Speakers Association and other audiences made up of folks who speak to groups. This person said he was sitting in the audience and was shocked to hear another speaker use one of his stories and claim it as his own. So lesson two is to either use your own originally stories or give credit to the person who originally shared the story with you.

Stories are a great tool to engage your audience
and explain a point. Your best bet is to take stories from your own experiences so that it’s original. But if you come across a better story to get your point across, just remember to credit the source and check your facts. Doing so will increase your credibility and relieve you of potential headaches.

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4 thoughts on “Public Speaking Success: A Lesson From the Yale Class of 1953

  1. Lisa Braithwaite

    Thanks for reiterating this, James. I think we’ve all been guilty of quoting statistics at one time or another without following up on the research. Now, I’m a huge stickler for looking up EVERYTHING, whether it’s for a presentation or a blog post. Credibility is all we have, after all.

    I wrote a post about this here: http://tinyurl.com/yful65q

  2. Rowan Manahan

    Yep – I fell into the trap of relying on previous mentions/publication of this story. Harvey McKay had it in one of his books and I saw him speak in the U.S. many years ago and he referenced it. I used it myself as an indication of the importance of clarity and long-term thinking. But then I went looking for it online and couldn’t find it. I ended up writing to Harvey, who responded that he had lost the original reference in the mists of time himself …

    Nowadays, people will check your facts and references during coffee break (or even while you’re speaking) so it really does pay off to drill down on the reference and make sure of your facts. Great post James – if that’s really your name! :)

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