The Rule on Repetition in Talks

I’m in the midst of a series of three talks and workshops on how to Put Audiences First To Deliver Persuasive Talks. It’s great to interact with audiences and provide tips on how to structure and edit content into captivating, and therefore more memorable, presentations.

Within the week of this post, I will have had the pleasure of first presenting at the State University of New York’s Research Foundation (SUNY-RF) in Albany, NY, then at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) in Tempe, AZ, followed by a two day workshop preparing participants ready for a speaking event at the American Geophysical Union‘s annual meeting in Washington, DC.

My focus on the first two sessions has been words and stories; this is also the core of the AGU workshop, along with slide design and participants repeatedly revising and delivering their talks.

In these workshops I speak to the in medias res structure used in memorable literature and cinema that I have mentioned previously. When used strategically, this narrative structure ensures that your centrally important content is repeated. Participants often latch onto this potential, imaging how to use it with their own stories of research or business opportunities.

A common question: “How many times should I repeat in my talk?”

This question especially comes from scientists and engineers. With my academic training in analytical chemistry, I completely understand where this question is coming from. These are experts who daily use step-wise methods and algorithms to discover new things, so naturally they are drawn to standard (operating) procedures.

My common answer: it depends.

It depends on the medium. If you are posting on Twitter, it can be hard to repeat your point more than once in a single tweet. But you could repeat your sentiment over a series of tweets – reinforcing your content brand.

If you are delivering a talk, you can repeat several times, depending on the duration. With in medias res at its most fundamental, you repeat at least twice: start in the middle, then at some point refer back to the middle as you speak to the beginning and the end. Chances are this middle you’ve chosen is a resonant theme throughout, so in that sense you’re repeating many times.

It also depends on your tone. For an imperative talk, where you are insisting on a course of action, chances are that you will repeat the goal several times. In his “Rice University speech”, President John F. Kennedy says the word “moon” seven times, and twice in the that speech’s infamous quote:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard …

John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, Rice University, Houston, TX

For a talk that uses more of a literature-style story, the exact words might never be repeated, but the themes will be continually apparent. A character, be it a person or a sort of data collection, might be seen to repeatedly go through tests and discoveries.

Ultimately, story craft is art, not an algorithm.

Effective communication, as this post and many others out there attest, can include the science of persuasion. However a given writer and speaker might not know such psychology. They include and cut content, experiment with delivery, and revise as much on feeling and experience as any “rule”.

Presentations are a creative act, regardless of the content.

However, there is a process that every presenter should follow to develop more persuasive talks: practice, practice, practice.

Only by learning from audiences, be it a single coach or a large crowd, will your presentations improve.


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