Why you shouldn’t use a Table of Contents

Too many people treat their speeches like term papers. Great recipe for putting your audience to sleep! In the odd case the you aren’t a sleep therapist and have to speak to people at some point in your life, you might want to read this post.

Don't like boring speeches? (Courtesy of Shilly Shallys World on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Don’t give the punch line away

Your introduction is important. The first 30 seconds is when the audience decides whether to listen or tune you out. If they already know everything you’re saying, they’ll stop listening. If you reveal everything you’re going to say… well, would you listen for ten minutes when you already know everything in the first minutes?

Your speech is not a book. You don’t need a table of contents. Think of it this way: when was the last time you were deciding whether to read a book from the table of contents? Seriously; your introduction should look like the back cover of a book; not the table on page xii.

Don’t bury the lead

Anyone who knows anything about journalism knows this is key. Don’t bury your lead. Taking too long to get to the meat of the argument also puts your audience to sleep.

The trick is to give your audience just enough to want more. Use a good murder mystery as your guide. Good authors always give you just enough to ask questions (“whose the killer?” “who is going to find him?” “is the victim telling the truth?”) but not enough to guess the end. Sometimes it’s even useful to mislead the audience in order to bring to light and shatter some misconception they may have.

Make your audience ask questions - like it's a mystery. (Image from Gregory Wake - used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you said.”

Probably the worst advice for a speech you want people to listen to. Definitely the most boring.

Still, can’t really blame those who give this advice. I mean, repetition is good. It’s the root of learning. Instead of saying the same thing over and over and over, come up with different example, application, and phraseologies. Keep hammering the same point, just use a different hammer. Say it a different way each time. (get my point?)


just take it from me. Go read Beth’s the three points of death.

This is a big ‘ol list of “don’ts.” To hear about the “dos” of making ideas interesting, my recommendation is Made To Stick by the Heath brothers.


One Response

  1. Thank you for finally saying something about the “Say what you are going to say, say it, and then say what you said” concept. It’s bad advice.

    The Washington College of Law (American University) had a guest speaker at their recent Moot Court competition. He would tell you what he was going to talk about, then he told us what he was going to say something before he said the actual content of the speech, then he said what he was going to say before he said the actual content of the speech, then he told you again what he was going to talk about again (in case you forgot after is long detour) then he said the actual content of the speech, and then concluded by telling you what he said.

    It was mind-numbing.

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