There are some approaches to public speaking that seem, on the face of it, to make sense.  But when you see the results of them over the years, as I have, you come to realize that they are probably best modified, unlearned, or avoided altogether.  These may surprise you, as the Internet likes to say, or they may not – you may find yourself agreeing wholeheartedly.

1.Embracing the acronyms.  Acronyms are everywhere, from the FBI and CIA to FOMO and WTF.  Some of them are helpful and indeed essential.  The FBI would never get anything done if all its employees had to say, “Federal Bureau of Investigation,” every time they explained where they worked.  So acronyms can be a time-saver.  And we’re saying “What the F**k?” so often these days, that the acronym not only avoids having to curse in public, but also adds valuable milliseconds to our day.

But on the whole, in public speaking, they are NOT very good at doing what they’re enlisted for:  helping us remember a long list of complicated concepts.  The reason is that, while 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 – your audience doesn’t get the time to bake these into its individual heads in the time it takes you to walk through it with them.

When it gets back to the office on Monday, then, it will be scratching those heads saying, “what did the third ‘e’ stand for?” if it thinks about it at all.

The medical world is particularly prone to acronyms, and thus medical speakers, but that’s because one of the ways med students remember all those bones, muscles, organs, and other human body parts is with endless acronyms.

Yeah.  Remember how much fun med school was?  Do you really want to inflict the same mental pain on your audiences?

2.Telling it like it happened to you.  Most of the great literature of the world doesn’t tell its stories in chronological order, yet speakers do this all the time because that’s the way the story happened to them.  The Iliad begins near the end of the Trojan War it describes, just as the Iliad begins with what’s going on in Ithaca in order to raise the stakes for the reader/listener about Odysseus’ tardiness in coming home.

There’s usually a better way to tell a story than a chronological one.  Especially if it’s about you.  The temptation to keep too much detail in your own stories is almost irresistible.

3.Giving us useful lists of rules. I once remember hearing a talk from someone who was going to tell us all how to get rich quick in the early days of the Internet, using three – only three – rules. The first rule, it turned out, had twelve sub-rules.  The second rule had seven sub-rules.  And the third rule had fifteen – fifteen – sub-rules.  Once we got to the end of the list, much, much later, we realized we had been tricked.  There weren’t three things to remember to succeed in the new world of the Internet, there were thirty-four, plus the original three.

We, the audience, crawled away with our heads down, feeling conned.  The technical term for these useful lists is taxonomies, and they need to be used with extreme care.  They need to make deep sense, they need to be used sparingly, and they need to feel integral to the topic.  And you can probably get away with one, or at most two, in a talk.

So there you have it – the seemingly obvious, often used, speaking devices to help create a talk.  My advice to you is don’t use them.  To help you remember, here’s a useful acronym:  T.A.R., where T stands for Telling, A for Acronym, and R for Rules.  Not helping?  Hmmmm.




  1. I agree about those long acronyms – you can never remember what they stand for, and then you think, “Am I just being dumb here?”

    One acronym that did seem to work well the other day came from KFC. I don’t know if this story made its way across the pond but they ran out of chicken in the UK! Distribution problems apparently. They handled the apology well afterwards though, with an ad that pictured a bucket with ‘FCK’ on the side. I think they scored some points with that one!

    (please resist chicken-related puns).

    1. Hi, Andrew — good to hear from you. I can’t resist pointing out that, technically, “FCK” wasn’t an acronym, but in fact an abbreviation. Agreed, though, that the response was brilliant, and perfectly in tune with the age, which is freer with the expletives than in olden times.

  2. OK, there’s some good advice here, and also what I think’s a harmful example. Let me explain…

    There’s stark contrast between the real acronyms you mentioned and the made-up one in the example (EXCELLENCE). Namely, the real ones are 3 or 4 letters, but the fake one’s a whopping 10 letters.

    What’s more, no real acronym uses the same letter to stand for 4 different terms, like E in EXCELLENCE. (And by “real”, I mean an acronym that’s used by people who hear it, not just by the person who coins it.)

    So the advice here on acronyms is a bit like if I said “The starfish story’s a cliché, so that means you shouldn’t tell any stories from the stage.” (Still, I’m glad you said “on the whole” – giving room for exceptions.)

    From your points about acronyms (#1) and rules (#3), what I take away is that speakers shouldn’t use long list of points. And I agree with you on that. I also agree that “bad” acronyms (e.g. long/repetitious/misspelt) aren’t helpful, and even good ones should be used wisely.

    My own advice to speakers is this: Once you’ve refined your content into 3 or 4 points, then adding a rhetorical device like alliteration, rhyme, or an acronym – plus stories, examples and metaphors – is a superb way to help make your well-crafted content “sticky”.

    Lastly, on telling stories non-chronologically (point #2), I must say I’d not even thought of that. So thanks for the helpful and thought-provoking advice.

    1. Hi, Craig — thanks for your thoughtful comment. And yes, of course I was exaggerating my dislike of acronyms to make the point. But there’s a deeper issue here which is a problem with even short acronyms. And that is, the whole idea of acronyms is a semi-arbitrary association of letters with a list of things to remember. That kind of word association is not the best way to commit things to memory, but it is one way. The best way, used by public speakers since the Ancient Greeks, is to associate a concept or item you want to remember with a room in a building that is deeply familiar to you — your house, or something like that. Then, when you want to remember various items, you mentally walk through the rooms to recall. The Victorians used this method to remember their 3-hour after dinner speeches without notes. BUT the further point is that any of these methods takes mental effort. And it’s mental effort the speaker has already undergone, thinking up the list and committing it to memory with the acronym. Now, on the spot, in the speech, the speaker asks the audience NOT ONLY to remember the items in the list BUT ALSO to associate the list with an arbitrary set of letters (the initial letters of the acronym). You’re making the audience do two mental jobs instead of one. That in itself is not a reason not to do it — when an audience is highly motivated to remember something, an acronym can come in very handy — but it does suggest that acronyms should be used with great care.

      1. Looks like we won’t fully agree about acronyms! A balanced discussion of them’s helpful, though.

        For instance, as I mention here, it’s worth noting that acronyms have been coined by many top speakers, like Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, and former World Champ speaker Craig Valentine. (That post also details 5 reasons acronyms are helpful, like that they’re so easy to share (online, or on letterheads etc.), and they intrigue people to find out more about the content.)

        Certainly, I agree that presenters have lots of time to think up their content, and the audience has only minutes to absorb it. To me though, using stories and acronyms (plus other techniques, like the rule of 3, metaphors, etc.) actually helps listeners remember. The more (complementary) mental pathways, the more people’ll remember.

        So – along with Nancy, Garr and Craig V – I say, please don’t dismiss acronyms!

        1. Thanks, Craig — we can agree to disagree gently. I spend a lot of time helping speakers up their game, to keynote level, or higher keynote level, and acronyms are often associated with breakout session speakers, so that’s a non-substantive, image-conscious reason to use acronyms with care. Your comments about using stories, the rule of three, metaphors, and so on, I would agree with wholeheartedly. The Rule of Threes, for example, goes very deep into the way our brains work, so I think it’s far more important, convincing, and memorable than most acronyms. Onward!

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