Just because it’s possible to sum up the key takeaways in your presentation in one of those annoying acronyms doesn’t mean you should yield to the temptation. “And here’s an easy way to remember the four rules of successful selling – C. R. A. P. –  where C stands for Connection, R stands for Rapport, A stands for Assumptions and P stands for Positioning!”

Of course, the silliness of the word phrase usually undercuts the effectiveness of the mnemonic, but beyond that – and the sheer hideousness factor of having to learn that the first E in E.G.G.S.E.L.E.N.C.E. stands for “Excellence” but the second one stands for “Execution” and so on – there is a deeper reason for avoiding them in your speeches.

If your message is complicated enough that even to grasp it at the slogan level your audience will have to commit some ghastly acronym to memory, then it’s too complicated. And it means that you’re thinking of your presentation in the wrong way – as an information dump – rather than an act of persuasion.

Your job is not to inform the audience of enough stuff to fill an acronym, but rather to move their thinking from where they are now to some better place, post-you, where they have been persuaded by the sweet light of reason and your eloquence to think differently.

That’s changing the world, and it’s the only reason to give a speech.

Changing the world means changing your audience’s perspective on something, changing their minds on an issue or a cause or a way of working, so that by the end of your speech they are ready to act differently.

That’s worth doing. Dumping information on an audience is not worth doing, because they’ll forget the information so quickly. We (people) are not very good at remembering what we hear for the first time, so to set us up to have to remember a ton of stuff is simply going about the exercise in the wrong way. We can only remember – what is it? — five plus or minus two things? That hopper is full after about 30 seconds of an information-dump-presentation.

Don’t do it.

It will only make us, the audience, cross, and that will ensure that we forget even more things out of the five.

Instead, talk about a problem the audience has, to get them engaged, and nodding their agreement.   Then, once you’ve completely won them over and convinced them that you’re the only one who understands them like you do, hit ‘em with your solution. Dazzle them with your expertise, your understanding, your wit. There minds will be prepared to hear you, and remember you better, because they’ll see your ideas as the solution to a problem you’ve just talked about.

Now, if in addition you make sure that you’re telling the audience your solution in the form of stories and examples, then the odds that the audience will remember what you’ve said go up exponentially. We remember stories, because that’s how we’ve learned things from the cradle. If I touch my finger to the stove it will get burned is easy to remember if we’ve experienced it. If you tell me that as a rule it will have much less impact. We naturally reason from the specific to the general, but speakers are always giving us the general and forgetting the specific. The result is both harder for us to understand and harder for us to remember.

Avoid mnemonics, and instead tell stories. They are the ultimate mnemonics. I explain this approach to successful speechwriting in more detail in my new online course, Presentation Prep: 10 Steps to Persuasive Storytelling, available starting next week. You can order it here.

Now, what’s the right acronym for that course – PPTSTPS? Does that help? Or does it sound like a disease?

6 Comments

  1. Great advice.

    I find most acronyms cutesy, not memorable. They’re like props. They seem clever and dramatic during the speech, but confusing afterwards. “What did pulling a bowling ball out of a briefcase have to do with innovation?” (I have seen props used well on rare occasions; I don’t know if I’ve ever remembered an acronym.)

    And yes! to telling stories.

    1. You’ve never remembered an acronym? Apart from common ones like POTUS, and SMART goals, what about Nancy Duarte’s STAR moments, or Julian Treasure’s HAIL, or his venue – TED!

      I love good acronyms, which are made to be memorable – utterly unlike “EGGSELENCE”! A few years ago, I wrote [here] that an acronym “should of course be an appropriate word for your audience – with positive or neutral connotations, not negative.” So “CRAP” doesn’t fit the bill either (for businesspeople, anyway).

      I often use acronyms like FIRST, AIM, and PACE. Typically they’re just 1 syllable, their letters aren’t repeated, and they’re spelt as you’d expect, all of which makes them easy to recall.

      Acronyms exist because they’re useful, as they can pack several specifics into a tiny term. For instance, PACE stands for making content Personal, Actionable, Conversational, and Emotional. So PACE represents 16 syllables in just 1 – a pretty good ratio, which is extremely handy in this age of tweets, texts and memes.

      Because stories are long-form and analogue, they’re not well suited to digital media. Sure, you can share your speaker video online, and you might tell a story in it. But to my mind, it’s a great help to also coin an acronym that encapsulates your message in just 1 word.

      If I was giving a talk about PACE (or some other group of tips), naturally I’d need to persuade people. But I’d also need something to persuade people about, and PACE gives the content a concise, concrete structure, which many people find compelling. It’s also so much easier to say frequently (and to hear) than “Make your content Personal, Actionable, Conversational, and Emotional.”

      Nick, I agree that changing the world is the only reason to give a speech, and that talking about a problem faced by the audience is a great way to engage them. Neither of those preclude using an acronym though.

      You say people will remember your solution better if you tell it as stories. I believe it’s better to tell people your solution in short form at some stage, even if that’s when you sum up at the end. Support your solution with stories of course, and maybe even introduce it that way too. But wrapping your solution in an acronym gives your message both a neat structured and a highly tweetable “handle”.

      1. Thanks, Craig — we’ll have to agree to disagree. I see you passion for the well-turned acronym, but if you’ve ever listened to an executive team talk for an hour in an acronym-heavy industry, you’ll perhaps understand my reluctance to add any more WYSIWYGs to the mix. After all, OMFG.

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