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.