Talking business: Janna Levin

I find Professor of Physics and Astronomy Janna Levin a great role model for speaker women, which is why I translated her latest TED talk into German and have been showing it in all my classes this week.

First still impressions may differ: She looks like Amy Winehouse, one student said. Others said: She scares me. Some said: Wow. Just look at those shoulders.

I am all in the wow-corner: Just look at those shoulders. Just look at that stance. Just look at that posture.

Why is that good? Why is posture important for women?

Because we still have not enough good role models. Because we still try and hide, when out front. Because we still feel we got nothing to say and show it. Because we all know how to be cute, but not how to be convincing.

Levin talks about space, and she takes her space. She is not making herself small, invisible, light grey.

She has something to say. And it shows.

Her gestures seem natural, precise, dynamic, not studied and learned. They go hand in hand with her words.

Her voice carries, and yes, she could work a little on her intonation, and yes, if you talk about the sound of black holes banging on space like a drum, please do not make your audience wait for more than ten minutes… (11:10)

But she does not raise her voice at the end of every sentence, like we all do, you know, when we are, like, nervous, when we do not know how to go on, like, you know, because we do not know where we are going.

Levin makes statements. She knows, where she wants to go, and she is taking us with her. Full stop.

And I find it charming, really, to see she is nervous like the rest of us, and at one point even giggles. It’s the human touch. Machines may be perfect. The rest of us. Not.

The point is simply: Small things do not matter, if there are enough big things in a talk.

If you look at the script, you will notice many small repetitions. Wobble like a drum. It made translating her pretty hard work.

If you listen to the talk, you will find the repetitions helpful. Talk is different from text. 


I love her posture, voice, energy, power and determination. I love the way she spreads energy. I love her dense, visual language. And hell, do I love those shoulders :)

The talk is a great example for how to condense complicated matter, such as gravitational waves into visual and verbal images an educated lay audience will easily understand.

Favorite moment:

11:15 The sound of the universe. Tock-tock-tock-tock-tock-tock-tock…. and then it’s gone.

That is how you build up tension. And the silence after is part of it. 

Ideas for improvement:

A slight change of choreography. Do not delve into Einstein and the Great Theory of Relativity before your audience has heard the sound of a first black hole for the very first time.

I played the talk for 3 minutes and then everybody said: We want to hear the black holes. Now

Do not wait for another ten minutes. Give your audience a taste, an idea, a first, brief big bang. Make them hungry.

Then feed them Einstein. They’ll be eating out of your hands by then.

And whatever you do: Do not talk over the sound everybody has been waiting to hear.

Do not talk over movie clips, do not talk over music. And never, ever, talk over the sound of two stars colliding.

That could seriously backfire.

Even more so than the question if maybe we are not the only intelligent life form around, ours not the only thinking, talking, presenting unviverse, and our species not created by some fairy tale God, but flickering, golden star dust.