I have a first law of presenting: “Never underestimate the ability of your audience… to completely miss the point!” I have a second law of presenting: “Never underestimate the ability of the audience to completely miss the point!” And I have a third law of presenting: “Never underestimate the ability of the audience to COMPLETELY MISS THE POINT!”
Audiences are wonderful. They bring warmth, bring energy, bring their own insights… but only when they’re listening. And here’s the sad fact — they’re not listening very often.
Humans are designed to be distractible. One minute we’re listening, and the next we’re wondering if we left the iron on.
The audience mind is a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of detours and sidetracks that you — the speaker — need to penetrate.
And let’s assume your audience is remote. For a remote audience, sitting alone in their room, that Tea Party becomes a full-on food-fight. Everything from the ability to look at other screens, through to the dog barking, and that weird smell of burning. Did I leave the iron on?
An easy fix is available, and it’s an ancient one. It’s the tool of rhetoric.
Rhetoric is a magic-spell book. This is how I’ve regarded it for years. It’s packed with tips and techniques for making messages sing, dance, and occasionally morph. As one Roman orator put it, rhetoric is the ‘hidden dart’ that lets words pierce the audience mind, regardless of distractions.¹
Here are a few repetitive tools to make sure messages land, regardless of how far the audience mind might wander.
Effective communication achieves two things. It frames the way people see the world, and moves them to action. Sounds simple enough. Simple that is, until you remember those people are in a roar of distractions.
For a message to stick, and for a message to work, it needs to be driven home with the subtlety of a jackhammer. It needs to be repeated.
What’s the one thing you want everyone repeating as they leave the room or close the screen?
It’s often hard to tie this down when planning a presentation. Repetition means you have to nail your key message. You must be laser focused on what it is you want to repeat.
Without awareness of key message, repetition gives you pretty soundbites, but not much else.
Repetition emphasizes a point. Studies show it also makes your message more believable.
The human mind is lazy. This is no bad thing. Pound for pound, your brain is the most energy consuming chunk of meat in your whole body. Anything the brain can do to save energy, it will. One of those things is recognise things it’s met before, and use that familiarity to process information more rapidly.
This especially applies to words.
The more something is repeated, the more we become inclined to believe it. Cognitive scientists call this the Illusory Truth Effect. In his book “Win Bigly”, the author Scott Adams (he of the Dilbert cartoons) explores this phenomenon and how it’s used and abused in politics.
How does this apply when we’re presenting?
We’ve all been in other people’s presentations. We know it’s tough to maintain concentration on what the speaker is saying, no matter how hard we might try. The poor old brain burns fuel just trying to hold position and not drift off. If you’re the speaker, anything you can do to save a little of that power-drain is to be encouraged.
Can you have too much repetition?
If you were making the keynote speech at a party conference and looking for that thunderous standing ovation, then the answer would be that ‘too much’ would be an impossibility. If using repetition to get your point across during a regular business presentation, then there is a magic number…
Two repetitions aren’t enough to establish a pattern. Use more than four however and the fact you’re using a ‘technique’ becomes overt. This is meant to be a hidden dart rather than a spear to the back of the head.
So — repetition is a good thing. How to use it? Think of repetition as one of those summer recipes for sauce. You’ve got a pile of fresh tomatoes and the question is how to flavor. Here’s four of my favorites:
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” — Humphrey Bogart in ‘Casablanca’
First Word Repeats are everywhere. They’re in speeches. They’re in songs. They’re in poems. And that’s because they’re simple and punchy.
Take your key phrase, stick it at the front of the sentence, repeat three times. Job done.
“...see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” - Japanese proverb.
When you take a First Word Repeat but run it backwards, you get a Last Word Repeat — and it drives your message just as effectively.
Just like it’s forward facing cousin, this structure can be found all over the place, and often with more than three repetitions. A word of caution — when using this for a presentation, keep it to three. Four or more might sound great if you’re Bob Dylan, but not if you’re presenting at the all-staff meeting.
“History is ours and people make history.” — Salvador Allende, 1973
Moving up the rhetorical scale and getting just a little fancier, you can take the Front-Word and Last-Word repeats, and combine them to create a Front and Back.
This structure is more visible. It sounds a little more clever. This might sound like a good thing, but if you’re aim is to drive home a message without sounding like you’re using rhetoric, this structure needs to be used sparingly. In fact — for this particular one — just once.
“Bond, James Bond.” — Ian Fleming’s 007
A-B-A is a super-concentrate version of Front and Back. It’s structurally identical apart from the fact that it’s limited to just three words.
That compression produces a stiletto-knife of wordplay. It’s a short, sharp jab to the subconscious of the audience. You keyword is the ‘A’ element, and your adjective is the ‘B’ element. For example, if your message is about how your company is service oriented, then a super-simple A-B-A might sound like “Service. Comprehensive service.”
Think of this as being a sandwich where your key word is the bread and your adjective the flavorsome filling.
We all face a challenge — the world has never been noisier! When we need to deliver a message, that noise gives us a problem.
The Greeks and Romans had the same problem. Their noise was the literal din of the forum and the street-market. To cut through that noise, they developed the tool of rhetoric — simple word formulae to help your message hit its goal. At the heart of many of those techniques, sat the Swiss-Army knife of repetition.
2000 years later, it’s just as sharp.
¹ Marcus Quintilian — Roman orator and author of the ‘Institutio Oratoria’; the world’s first public speaking handbook.
⁴ Symploce or Epanalepsis