How to Kill Your Audience


“Mr. Romano, can you explain to me the difference between phenotype and genotype again?”

“Sure” I replied, “First the easiest way to remember the difference is the following, phenotype is physical and genotype is genetic. Use the beginning of each word as a hint to remember.” I looked out over the room, I wasn’t sure if they were processing it, so I pulled out my favorite teaching arrow from my quiver…..

” Lets do a few examples, list some of my phenotypes…”

The flood gates opened….




“YES! Keep going…” I said excitedly.

“Brown eyes”

“I would call them caramel, I mean Starbucks could name a flavor after these.” I interrupted, which was followed by some laughter.

“Brown hair”

“Large nose”

“olive skin”

…..and it kept going until each physical characteristic was described. But this could have taken an ugly turn. I knew those first few students were testing my reaction, but all said and done they were right. I am short, I am balding, and yes I have gotten pudgy. If I reacted and didn’t own these characteristics the whole class vibe would have changed.  Instead they saw a teacher unphased and excited they were getting it right.  Showing them that their education was more important than my ego.

Every teacher and communicator needs to repeat this. Your audience’s education is more important than your ego.

This is never more important than when someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer. Never, NEVER try to pretend you know, because being wrong once ruins your reputation. However saying “You know, I am not sure, but lets find the answer” shows you are honest, genuine, and still looking to learn.

I made this mistake my first year teaching and paid for it dearly. Ironically I don’t remember the question the student asked me (which is strange for me) but I remember the fallout.  The student asked a question and I did not know the answer. Instead of saying  ”I don’t know” and risk being viewed as anything less than the “All Knowing and Powerful Romano” I stammered my words, avoided eye contact and sort of made up an answer.

Then the student  gave her interpretation which made a lot more sense than mine. Instead of acknowledging she was right I continued to try to back my answer in an effort to save face. I began getting angry, not at the students, but at myself. They did not know this, they only saw a person getting angrier, and presumably at them. But I was already dug in and did not want to look foolish……well even more foolish.

This was a mistake.  I literally watched my reputation crumble around me with that class, they knew I was wrong and would not admit it, and I lost them, not just that day, but for weeks.

I had to rebuild by fractured reputation over the weeks to come, and I did this by admitting when I did not know an answer and needed to look it up.  Each time I admitted  to being unsure I felt like I was adding “reputation repair putty” to another crack in my broken reputation.

But it wasn’t easy. I had to eat multiple servings of humble pie with a side of crow for weeks. I had to learn to put my ego aside for the greater good.  Something that is a Herculean task for a Sicilian man.

When you are teaching or blogging and  someone in your class or comments section has you cornered and your back is against the wall do not lash out wildly. This only works for Wolverine in berserker mode because he has an adamantium skeleton. We regular humans need to take a deep breath, admit we are wrong, and work together to find the solution. This will strengthen your reputation as an honest individual more interested in truth than being right, and that right there is the essence of science.

Every teacher and scientist needs to remember that our goal is to communicate the truth no matter how badly it bites us in the ass…..and trust me, I have a lot of battle scars from the education arena.

So, take it from a man who emulates Wolverine in every facet, the claws-out attack doesn’t work. All it does is kill your audience.


Lab Chatter