3 common tactics that public speakers should abandon

Many pepper their presentations with abbreviations or lay out lists of how-to rules—replete with extensive ancillary guidelines. Improve your talk by avoiding such pitfalls.


Some approaches to public speaking certainly seem to make sense.

Over time, however, you realize they are best modified, unlearned or avoided altogether.

Here are three common practices to ditch:

1. Embracing the acronyms. Acronyms and abbreviations are everywhere, from the FBI and CIA to FOMO and SMH. Some are helpful, even essential. The FBI would never get anything done if all its agents had to say, “Federal Bureau of Investigation,” every time they explained where they worked. So, acronyms can be a time-saver.

In public speaking, they are not very good at doing what they’re enlisted for: helping the audience remember a long list of concepts.

You, the speaker, may have spent hours figuring out that E.X.C.E.L.L.E.N.C.E. stands for, well, excellence, “xpertise,” craft, endurance, lavishness, length, enquiry, nonchalance, cleverness, and evergreen. Those in your audience won’t assimilate that. Back in the office, they’ll be scratching their heads saying, “What did the third ‘e’ stand for?” if they think about it at all.

Medical speakers are particularly prone to abbreviations, having relied on them as students to memorize body parts. Remember how much fun med school was? Do you really want to inflict that same mental pain on your audiences?

2. Adhering to chronological order. Most great literature doesn’t tell its stories in sequence, yet many speakers do so because that’s the way the story rolled out to them.

The “Iliad” begins near the end of the Trojan War it describes, just as “The Odyssey” begins with happenings in Ithaca to prime the reader for Odysseus’ extended journey and tardy homecoming. The juxtapositions of past and present bring the overall sagas to life.

Avoid a strict chronology, especially if the story is about you; the temptation to keep needless detail is almost irresistible.

3. Offering lists of rules. Years ago, in the early days of the internet, a speaker promised to tell us how to get rich quick, using just three rules.

The first rule, it turned out, had 12 sub-rules. The second rule had seven sub-rules. The third had 15—fifteen—sub-rules. We realized we had been tricked. There weren’t three rules to remember; there were 34, plus the original three. We in the audience skulked away with our heads down, feeling conned.

The technical term for these useful lists is taxonomies, and they require extreme care. They must make deep sense, be used sparingly and be integral to the topic. You can get away with one, or maybe two, in a talk.

Nick Morgan is communication coach, speaker and author. A version of this post first appeared on Public Words.

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