How do you think, whose job is more difficult during a speech or presentation: the audience or the speaker? Speaker, right? I mean, come on… Speaker is the one who’s under pressure. Speaker has to put in the time, the hours to prepare. He has to stand there with his credibility on the line while audience casually yawns and scribbles on conference materials or napkins provided.

Speaker of course, you’d say.

And I would, of course, disagree.

Audience is hard work

Think about it. You have studied and prepared for your speech. You have spent hours working on your key points, backing arguments and stories. You have rehearsed it, which means you have heard the speech before, leaving your mouth. Most importantly, you are the author.

You know where you are going with it. You know how it ends. You see the finishing line.

They don’t. They are not you. Take a second for this to sink in.

The audience is not in your head.

As you speak and move from point to point, from story to story, you always see the horizon. You know where to go next. The map is in your head.

Audience? They only see a few feet ahead. They don’t have the map. For the audience, trying to make sense of speaker’s intentions is hard work. It really is.

Curse of knowledge

Seems obvious as we discuss it. And yet like many cognitive biases we experience on a daily basis, it is quite difficult to realize that we are affected by it. This bias is called the Curse of Knowledge.

The famous “tapping” experiment organized at Stanford in 1990, is by far the best way to understand how it works. During the experiment, subjects were divide into two groups, tappers and listeners. The tappers were supposed to tap the rhythm of a well-known song to the listener, by tapping at the table (they tapped out 120 songs in total, things like Happy Birthday to You and other well-known).

Now where it gets interesting. The tappers were asked to predict what were the odds that listeners will guess what song is being tapped. They predicted 50% on average. The actual result?


(yes, you see correctly, there is a dot between 2 and 5)

How could they overestimate by so much? When you tap out the song you know, you will hear that song in your head. But the listener is not hearing the song. All he or she is hearing are some disjointed taps at the wooden table. However you are biased, because you assume since you heard the song, by the magical force of your tapping, the listeners will hear the song as well.

You see, it might be just that when you speak to others.

The audience is not hearing your song. 

Repetition is enjoyable

Speaking of songs, have you ever wondered why (most of us) enjoy rhythm and music so much? Interestingly, according to the TEDx video below, in one scientific experiment people rated music with repetition as more enjoyable and more interesting.

Why is that? Thanks to the Mere Exposure Effect. Simply put, being exposed to certain passages and sounds repeatedly, increases our attention and positive approach towards it.

In addition repetition in music:

  • invites us to active participation in music, instead of being just listeners
  • helps us to visualize what is going to happen to next, since we already heard the pattern
  • allows us to dig deeper and deeper in our understanding and awareness of various layers of sounds

Simply put, repetition is enjoyable for humans. Keep all of that in mind when you are speaking to others, trying to convey an effective message.

Repetition when public speaking

When you repeat certain phrases or key messages throughout your speech you can count on one of two things happening:

  1. Audience will feel smarter. They heard it before, the remembered it and now they can mentally high-five themselves for being smart and attentive.
  2. Audience will get back on track. Assuming they got lost, you can pull them back and synchronize them with the rest so that they are not left out. Not knowing your key phrase or message can hinder the way they experience your whole delivery.

Simple formula for message stickiness

I am sure you heard somewhere along your education that is not good to repeat yourself. That you should strive to find synonymous words to not feel monotone and things like that. I strongly feel this does not apply in speaking, when your goal is to be effective in conveying your message. The more you repeat the key elements that you want them to remember, the greater your chance for success.

Try this proven process to ensure that audience is able to follow along as you take them by the hand. Help them see the horizon.

You can use this for any kind of talk, speech or presentation. You will be amazed by the results.

Step 1. Tell them what you are going to tell them

[Expectation] In this phase, people are asking themselves – what will this be about? What’s in it for me? What will I learn if I listen? Make sure to be explicit about what are they going to learn during your speech. It is helpful to stick to the rule of 3 – tell them what exactly will be their 3 key takeaway’s.

Lay out the expectations of the reward for attentive listening.

Step 2. Tell them

[Promise] In the body of your speech, do as you promised. Cover your 3 key points. It is critical to deliver on your promise here. Expectations were already built. At this stage the factor of feeling smarter already kicks in – “Hey, I remembered what the speaker said in the begging, and now he is doing that. I remembered! I’m smart”.

Help them feel smart.

Step 3. Tell them what you have just told them

[Proof] Summarizing your speech, make sure to clearly state all the (in our case 3) things you have covered. Give them closure. Help them feel that the expectations you have laid out in the begging were fulfilled. Again here, they will feel good about themselves since they could follow you all the way and now you have one more time reassured them – they have not missed any of your key points.

Wrapping it up

Repetition is key, whenever you speak to deliver effective and clear message. Don’t make it too obvious though. Repeating whole passages or paragraphs is not going to work well. Focus on they key messages, key learning objectives.

Make sure they don’t loose sight of the core of your message. Take them by the hand. Look them in the eyes and:

  • [Expectation] Tell them what you will tell them
  • [Promise] Tell them
  • [Proof]… and tell them what you have just told them.

Now it’s your turn. I want to know:

  1. If you ever had the experience when someone was going somewhere with their speech/presentation but you lost track?
  2. How did you feel?

Leave a comment now.

Wojciech is a trainer, teacher and life-long learner on the topic of effective communication. He believes that speaking clearly, effectively and with confidence is essential to our success and taking advantage of all life’s opportunities. READ MORE
  • Interesting points here, Wojciech. When I saw that you’d laid out the 3 “tell them…” statements, I was concerned, because (as you say) repeating big chunks is bad. But I like your expectation/promise/proof model.

    I’ve a slightly similar post on this same topic, too. Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    (At the bottom, there’s a link to a related post called “Nail your point”, which is about repetition on the “micro scale”. See what you think…)