The Articulate Scientist and his C-clamp

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The Articulate Scientist and his C-clamp

In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster took place. Many of us remember where we were on that day. Shortly after this tragedy, the US Government started investigating the potential causes. The group in charge of the investigation was referred to as the Rogers Commission and they were made up of a lot of really smart people (astronauts, physicists, politicians… maybe I should leave politicians off of that list of “smart” people  ;).  After some time there were a few theories about why the space shuttle accident happened.

One of the members of the commission, Richard Feynman, believed the cause of the accident was due to a rubber O-ring that lost its elasticity at low temperatures. The day before a televised hearing was scheduled, he bought a small C-clamp at the hardware store. When he arrived at the hearing, he brought a piece of the rubber O-ring and he poured a cup of ice water. In front of the live audience, he clamped the rubber material in the C-clamp and dropped it in the cup of ice water (see image to the right).

As he spoke, the rubber cooled off. As this happened, he reminded the audience of the cold temperatures that day. The night before it was around 25°F (-3°C) and at launch time it had just barely gotten above freezing (36°F or 2°C). He then pulled out the rubber seal to show that when you take the C-clamp off, the rubber doesn’t snap back into shape. It keeps the C-clamp imprint for some time.

This was a very memorable moment in the investigation and it put a lot of momentum behind his theory of what went wrong. This theory became the accepted theory for why the accident happened.

This is a Nobel PPrize-winning physicist. He could have given the details about the material properties and shown graphs displaying the testing they had done on the materials. He could have gone over equations and charts. Instead, he took the time to get a C-clamp and prepare a cup of ice water because it would help his audience understand him in a simple and persuasive way. See the video here…

It’s funny how the narrator in that clip says Feynman “startled the commission.” Is bringing c-clamp startling? I also think the body language of the person next to Feynman is humorous. At first, he looks like, “What the heck is Feynman doing?” but then he looks at the audience and realizes, “This is working.” Then, he leans in and starts paying more attention.

My point is this: If bringing a C-clamp and a cup of ice water is going to help your audience believe in you or your ideas, then go buy a C-clamp and bring a cup of ice water and prove your point! I know it’s convenient to have all of your information in your PowerPoint slides. I get it. But, it’s not about you and your convenience. It’s about the audience. What do they need in order to make the right decision?

There may be something your audience needs to see or experience that cannot be delivered in PowerPoint. Don’t be afraid to bring these things. They help the audience.

I like to think of Feynman as the role model for being what we call an Articulate Scientist. He is a genius and yet he could communicate in an interesting and persuasive way. As one commentator on YouTube wrote:

“Richard Feynman could explain the process of paint drying and it would sound extraordinary.”

Soon, you will have a situation when you have to persuade someone to believe in your idea or buy your product. What can you do to help them believe it in a simple and tangible way?

At Articulus, we preach about having “good” evidence and we talk about the different kinds of evidence. Make sure you ask yourself, “How do I make my evidence tangible? Is there anything I can do to help them experience the problem we are faced with or the solution I am recommending?”

If you have an example of your version of his ice water and C-clamp, please share it below. I love hearing and learning from stories like that.


Brian O’Keefe is a Corporate Storyteller at Articulus LLC. He can help you get to the point and help your audience make a decision. He coaches leaders, salespeople, engineers, etc. how to get to the heart of their message and be persuasive (not just informative).

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