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  • Bruce Rule

Repetition is Your Friend in Public Speaking

Rule Communications Bruce Rule
Aristotle Says "Tell them..."

In public speaking, repetition can be your friend. In fact, it can be one of your most useful tools in making your point and you can structure your entire presentation around the idea.


One of the most basic structures of a presentation boils down to this: Tell the audience what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.


That advice, which even sounds repetitious, has been attributed to everyone from the philosopher Aristotle to best-selling author Dale Carnegie. No one really knows who came up with the saying. The website says the earliest mention it could find came in 1908, but the preacher it was attributed to later said he heard it from someone else.


While no one knows where the saying came from, the reason it is so often used is simple: It works.


Why? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, capturing and keep an audience’s attention can be very difficult. The project you are pitching to the big bosses may be very important to you, but it is simply one item on a long checklist for them. They may only be half-listening while they ponder more pressing issues that they will need to attend to. Other listeners may be thinking of their own problems, or the presentations they are about to make. It’s safe bet that at least some are worrying about a personal problem or what they will have for lunch or dinner.


Because of all the distractions, the structure of telling the audience up front what you will tell them, then telling them, and then repeating yourself by telling them what you have told them, is a strong way to make sure they got your message. (This is one of the biggest differences between a speech or presentation and something that is written. In a speech it is perfectly OK to repeat yourself to make sure the audience gets the point. After all, listeners can’t go back and re-listen to what you said earlier, as they could if they were reading a paper.)


To be clear, we aren’t talking about repeating the exact same language—although sometimes that can be effective as well. We are talking about ramming home your main point (which we discussed here.) You want them to understand that point, so use crystal-clear language and repeat yourself so there is no confusion.


Sample Structure


Here’s a simple example. Say you want to get a new project approved by the top executives that would mean a step up for you in the company. The project also would save the company X amount of dollars per year. Here is how you might structure your presentation:


1)   Attention-grabbing opener (icebreaker): “Wouldn’t it be great if we could cut our annual costs by X amount of dollars? Well, we can.”


2)   Tell them what you are going to tell them: “There’s a new system that we should adopt, because if we do, it will save us that much money each year. How? I’m going to show you right now.”


3)   Tell them: “This new system does A, which cuts costs by X; B, which provides savings of Y; and C, which trims costs by Z.


4)   Tell them what you have told them: “These cost-cutting measures total up to X amount of dollars per year. That is why I believe we should adopt this new system. Do we have your approval?”


Obviously, this is just a bare-bones example. But notice how we have put into play the various elements of a presentation we have discussed earlier. Start with an icebreaker that answers the question, what is in it for them?  Even the most distracted executive is going to pay some attention when you say right upfront your proposal can save the company money, since that will affect the bottom line (and make the executives look better.) And remember, there is no reason to say how it will help you in direct terms.


Next, notice how you make clear the main point of your presentation right up front: We should adopt this new system.


Next come the reasons backing up your main point. There are different ways to present these that we will go into in the next post.


Finally, tell them what you told them: This will save X dollars. Can we move forward?


Speak Plainly


Do not be afraid of speaking very plainly about what the presentation is and what you are going to tell them. Remember, your listeners don’t know where you are heading, so by explaining upfront what you are going to tell them is a helpful guide. They will find it easier to follow along with you as their guide. Done well, and by the time you get to the point where you are going to tell them what you told them they should be sold.  

One big mistake that I have seen speakers make is being too detailed when telling the audience what they are going to say. Stick to your main point and give a brief overview of what you are about to tell them.


For instance, using the above example, it is fine to say in your beginning that there are three ways the new system saves money. That previews the body of the presentation. There is no reason to go into all the details at this point. Save those for the body of the speech.


One thing you should not do if you use this structure in a PowerPoint presentation: Have a slide up front with a lot of bullet points detailing all the reasons for the new project that you are going to explain. That is too much and most people’s eyes will glaze over.

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