SPCM 101

Harvard’s Dr. Mankiw highlights a spectacular presentation on the wealth and health of nations by Dr. Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor who studies global health and schools us all in how to use visual aids:

So how’s your slideshow coming along?

Rosling’s presentation epitomizes the proper use of visual aids. He condenses an enormous amount of data into a clear, memorable visual format. He doesn’t let the visual do all the work for him. He explains the visual format. He interacts with the graphics. And even amidst a really engaging and dynamic visual presentation, he keeps our attention with his own voice and enthusiasm. (A cool Swedish accent also helps. :-) )

You may not have the time, tools, or tech team available to put together a four-minute animation for your next speech. (Actually, Dr. Rosling may be able to get you the tools on his Gapminder website.) But even if you’re just working with a marker and a flip chart, you can take lessons from Rosling on clear, engaging visual aids.

A good speech requires good grammar and word economy. Good grammar shows you paid attention in school and know how to use the language properly. Word economy shows you’ve thought about and revised your text so as not to waste even a second of your listeners’ valuable time.

One small step toward better grammar and word economy is the elimination of the “By…, it…” construction. Today’s example comes from this news article:

By moving thousands of feet of railroad tracks, it‘ll open up 20 acres of land for the redevelopment of downtown.

The grammatical problem: what is it? The subject of this sentence, represented by the pronoun it, will apparently “move thousands of feet of railroad tracks” and thus be able to “open up 20 acres of land.” But nowhere are we told who it is. Without knowing what it is, the initial prepositional/gerund phrase doesn’t have a clear subject with which to connect. This sentence stumbles into the room like a pair of untied shoes.

The speaker isn’t specifically referring to an entity that will do both actions. The speaker is saying that the first action will result in the second action. If anything, it represents “moving thousands of feet of railroad tracks.” In that case, the speaker is stacking a pronoun and an antecedent on top of each other, which in English is just flat bad (akin to saying “John he went to the store” or “Mary she don’t study grammar much”).

The proper form saves words:

Moving thousands of feet of railroad tracks will open up 20 acres of land for the redevelopment of downtown.

Now if you really, really wanted to, you could name the agent of action:

The city public works department will open up 20 acres of land for the redevelopment of downtown by moving thousands of feet of railroad tracks.

There’s nothing wrong with that wording, but the addition seems to change the speaker’s intent, just a little. The first proper version emphasizes the action and result; the second version gives the actor some attention. Both beat the original on grammar by getting rid of the detached prepositional phrase and the vague pronoun.

Hey, speech students! Here’s your chance to critique your instructor. (Well, actually, you had a chance with the course survey; here’s another one!) I gave the first talk at the inaugural IgniteSD event in Brookings on April 21. You could look at it as 60-some people coming to a diner to hear a bunch of visual aid speeches. You could also look at it as 60-some people spending a spring evening giving a darn about what their neighbors have to say.

Here’s my Ignite talk on blogging:

The video doesn’t capture all of the slide show. The Ignite format requires each speaker to put together a sequence of 20 slides, each timed to display for 15 seconds. That’s 5 minutes on the dot, no more, no less. To keep my main points in time with my slides, I had to practice more than usual and fight my urge to go off on tangents. I like the discipline of the format, although it does restrict a speaker’s ability to adjust to the audience — to hold for laughs, to elaborate on ideas the audience seems puzzled by, or even to stop and take questions. But at five minutes a pop, that just means you concentrate on interacting with the listeners before and after the talk.

My critique notes:

  1. Check position on stage: I started standing right in front of my slides! I’m used to my classroom, where the projector is on the ceiling and I can move freely without blocking the beam. At IgniteSD1, the projector was on a table, and I didn’t catch it right away because the beam was just below my eyes, at my chin. Eventually I realized what a shadow I was casting and moved stage left.
  2. Some enunciation gets mushy — I notice early on the word pajama-clad disappears. Part of this may be audio pickup from the camera mic, but no excuses: you should always spit your words with the intention of making your voice clear to the weakest microphone or hearing aid in the house.

Ignite is a lot of fun, for speakers and listeners. Keep an eye out for an event in your town!

Speech students, pay attention: some big guns in the U.S. military hold PowerPoint in about the same esteem they hold al-Qaeda:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable” [Elisabeth Bumiller, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint,” New York Times, 2010.04.26]

Ironic that it takes soldiers to tell us that bullet points aren’t the best way to explain a complicated problem.

PowerPoint presentations are apparently pretty common in the field, the Pentagon, and even the White House. They aren’t all bad: General David Petraeus tells Bumiller the program has its advantages, like sharing maps and statistics. But slides with bullet points too often produce sloppy thinking:

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs [Bumiller, 2010].

Read more officer thinking on PowerPoint:

“Before PowerPoint, staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper. Of course, the staff involved in the discussion would also have read the paper and had time to prepare to discuss the issues. In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision. Compounding the problem, often his staff will have received only a five-minute briefing from the action officer on the way to the presentation and thus will not be well-prepared to discuss the issues. This entire process clearly has a toxic effect on staff work and decision-making” [Thomas X. Hammes, “Dumb-Dumb Bullets,” Armed Forces Journal, 2009].

Thomas Ricks, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of two books on the Iraq War, notes that the use of PowerPoint slides instead of written text permeated the US military during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Ricks noted in his book Fiasco, that General Tommy Franks’ reliance on passing PowerPoint slides to his subordinates in order to plan the initial stages of the war, instead of explicit, written orders, caused much frustration among senior military officers. Ricks notes that military leaders such as General Robert McKiernan were often baffled as to how to interpret the slides. Ricks also interviewed Dr. Andrew Bacevich, who felt that substituting PowerPoint slides for formal, written orders was “the height of recklessness” [Crispin Burke (a.k.a. Starbuck), “The TX Hammes PowerPoint Challenge,” Small Wars Journal, 2009.07.24]

[but see also Burke’s praise for PowerPoint done right in Capt. Travis patriquin’s game-changing 18-slide presentation on the 2007 surge in Iraq]: The 18-slide presentation—looking for all the world like something out of a Jack Handey sketch—was distributed among a number of senior officers. Despite the near-Hollywood production values which go into many PowerPoint presentations, it was this presentation which caught the attention of senior officers. The ideas presented by Captain Pataquin helped to change the course of the Iraq War. The format and look of Patriquin’s message wasn’t what counted—it was what he said. For all the satire and adolescent humor contained in his presentation, it presented a much clearer message about The Surge of 2007 than nearly any other document.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs isn’t just for psych students: it’s a handy framework for public speakers to use to figure out how to persuade their listeners. It states (among other things) that different people will be motivated by different needs at different times. A pitch appealing to a sense of patriotism or moral duty may work with some customers, but not others. It may even work with with certain customers one month but fail to move those same customers a month later. As people’s needs are met (or no longer met), they will present different levers that you can use to motivate them.

The diagram of Maslow’s Hierarchy I presented in class is available on Wikipedia. You can also read another instructor’s take on Maslow and persuasion here.

Of course, all you really need is a little INXS:

Laura DeMars and I maintain that qualifying your sentences with phrases like “I believe,” “I think,” “I feel,” and “In my opinion” can undermine your credibility by conveying uncertainty when you don’t want to sound uncertain. That’s not an absolute rule: there are plenty of times when you will be unsure, and you will want to convey that unsureness. There are also some situations where those phrases serve to distinguish or affirm your belief. But when misused or overused, those phrases can weaken your message… and you don’t want that!

First, some examples of when “I believe” et al. are perfectly fine:

Genuine uncertainty:I think our operating expenses will only be $250,000 next year, but with energy prices so volatile, I’m nervous about budgeting only that amount. What do the rest of you think?” (Note this usage includes the inherent invitation for others to provide information that can clarify your uncertainty and either support or refute your tentative position.)

Distinguishing your beliefs from specific opposing views: (Bryan’s example!) “The Senate Finance Committee thinks $400 million will fully fund the program, but I think anything less than a billion means the program tanks.”

Actively affirming a fundamental tenet or statement of faith: Robert points us toward the FFA Creed, in which every clause starts with “I believe….” But note that three of the five statements are “believe in” rather than “believe that.” The verb believe means something different in those two situations.

Another example of this usage is the Nicene and Apostles Creeds—the “Credo“—in the Catholic Mass (everything sounds more impressive in Latin!). Credo in Latin means “I believe.” Repeating that word—credo, credo, credo—is not a sign that the good Catholic is wavering and doubting God is in the house. It is an assurance, an affirmation, to fellow believers and the speakers themselves that their faith is alive and well.


So no, I’m not going to drop in on the next FFA convention and razz the kids for not sounding confident in the future of American agriculture. However, I will criticize speakers for misusing and overusing belief phrases. Some examples of “I believe” phraseology that will detract from your speeches:

Stack ’em up:In my opinion, I think—”

Oh really? It’s just a matter of opinion that you are thinking? Well, I suppose one could contend that you are not currently engaged in cognitive activity and perhaps never have been, but never mind, please continue.

My point is not to be a jerk. My point is to emphasize the senselessness of putting certain words together. It is not your opinion that you think. You need only one phrase—”I think” or “In my opinion” or “I believe”—to establish that you are stating a matter of uncertain opinion. Strive to use just as many words as you need to convey your meaning and not one word more (unlike your instructor…).

Bonus phrase to avoid: “Personally, I think—” Stop. All thinking is personal. The phrase is redundant.

Repetition: I think that any phrase repeated too often loses its punch. I think it’s like starting sentences with “And” or “But”. I think you can use either of those words to start a sentence; I just don’t think you should use them to start every sentence. I think you can see what I mean.

Ego problems? This is more an issue in writing than speaking, but it’s worth considering. Academic writing tends to frown on using the first person. Many, perhaps most, of your professors will require that you remove references to yourself in your papers. The idea is to remove personal perspective and focus on objective analysis of the ideas.

If a prof says you can’t write I or my or me (“It seems to me that…”), all the phrases we’re talking about here go poof. You could try replacing “I believe” with something suitably third person, like “It is believed that…,” but such phrases only make your sentences even puffier. Just say what you’re thinking.

Now I actually don’t mind first-person references: I think there’s a very important place even in academic communication for personal context and perspective. But constantly prefacing statements with “I believe” tags may unnecessarily draw attention to ourselves and away, maybe just slightly, from the important ideas we’re discussing.


As the Precise Edit language consultants say, “I believe” phrases usually convey uncertainty, delay your message, and add no value to what you are saying. There are exceptions, but more often than not, a sentence will convey just as much information, and do so more confidently, if you skip the opening clutter and just get to the point.

Check out the following texts! Click on the links to see what I and others say about good public speaking, and be ready for some quiz questions over the content.

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