ORACLE: The Orator’s Parable

Doug Samuelson

Ben and Brett, two OR/MS analysts, had sat quietly through the presentation by a senior government official and potential research sponsor at a professional conference. “What did you think of that?” Brett asked Ben. “He seemed to have a lot to say.”

“Yes he did,” Ben concurred, “but that’s the problem. He had too much to say and tried to cram all of it onto those slides. Made it awfully hard to follow and digest, didn’t it?”

Brett nodded.

“I wonder,” Ben continued, “whether that guy would let me sell him a few speech coaching sessions. Heaven knows he needs them.”

“You coach speakers?” Brett asked, surprised.

“Yeah, believe it or not,” Ben affirmed. “I took state in oratory back in high school. I’ve done some speechwriting and speech coaching back when I was in government agencies. And, of course, plenty of briefings and conference presentations and classroom lectures myself. So, yes, I could help him. It wouldn’t be that hard. He literally doesn’t know the first thing about pubic speaking.”

“And what is that?” Brett inquired, even more surprised.

“Forget about what you want to say,” Ben smiled.

“What?” Brett blurted.

“Focusing on what you want to say is a distraction, or worse,” Ben explained. “You want to focus on what you want the audience to remember.”

Brett took a moment to absorb this.

“This has several advantages,” Ben elaborated. “First of all, you figure out who your audience is and try to meet them where they are – that is, start with what you’re pretty sure they know and believe and build from there. You emphasize major points more, repeat them several times, and make sure they’re clearly and simply – memorably – worded. Write your conclusion first, then your introduction, and make sure the conclusion summarizes your key point in a short, catchy phrase that they’ll remember if they remember nothing else. Then you build from introduction to conclusion in the order that’s easiest to follow, not the order that makes the most sense to you. This also means you time it so that if a session chair might cut you off, you make sure to get the conclusion in even if your delivery runs longer than you intended.”

Ben went on, “Use examples close to their experience, if you can. Use examples to back up your most important points and try to keep the descriptions limited to what does back up those points – extra information is distracting and confusing, not helpful. You can provide backup slides or additional reading material to add detail, but the main spoken and slide presentation should be terse, no more than five bullet points per slide, in a large font. And I usually go with yellow or orange print on a blue background, because that’s the easiest color scheme for people to see. Black on white is much harder to read.”

Brett listened attentively.

“Humor is good,” Ben said, “but you have to be careful. A speakers’ bureau rep pointed out to me that if you have a thousand people in the room, and you tell a blue joke that offends three of them and amuses the rest, the speakers’ bureau will get one laudatory letter from the event organizer and three complaint letters. So your mail is running three-to-one against you.

“There’s a similar insight about contests,” Ben continued. “There you have to change your focus from what you want the audience to remember and like to what you want the judges to like. If there are a few hundred people in the room and most of them like your speech, but three of the five judges don’t, you lose! And one quick way to do just that is to challenge your audience. Instead, you tell the judges exactly what they already passionately believe, in a slightly novel way. You tell the American Legion that communism is bad; you tell the Chamber of Commerce that business is praiseworthy.

“And if the judges are Toastmasters,” Ben went on, “you get a Toastmasters ballot and make sure to use the rhetorical devices they include in their scoring system. Toastmasters is great for helping scared beginners make competent speeches, just like Arthur Murray is good at getting beginners to dance. But when you want to get good, you have to change your style so that it’s not obvious where and how you learned. So you have to alter your style to fit what the judges are looking for. I gave a lot of thought-provoking speeches my friends and I thought were good – but I didn’t win. After I got coached about how to win, I gave speeches that didn’t impress my friends so much, but I went on quite a winning streak!”

“OK. Next week I’m scheduled to give a presentation to a research group that might hire me,” Brett told Ben. “How do I impress them?”

Ben laughed. “My dissertation advisor told me how to do that. Research types think what you say is trivial if it’s too easily understood. So identify the key decision-maker – probably the department chair. Let’s say you have an hour, that’s pretty typical. In the first 15 minutes, describe the problem you tackled and why anyone should care. Everyone in the room should understand that. Then in the next 15 minutes, lose the graduate students. In the third 15 minutes, lose everyone except the department chair. In the last 15 minutes, lose him.”

“Cynical, but most likely accurate,” Brett chuckled.

“It is. And that,” Ben concluded, “helps to explain a lot about academic presentations and publications, doesn’t it?”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va.