Public Speaking By Numbers

by Stephen Boyd | August 17, 2011

When I was a boy, a popular pastime was to paint by number. You would buy a kit that included an outline of a picture or scene and each part would have a number. A key told what color to paint a certain number. The “artist” would then paint the colors according to the corresponding number and behold! Once you painted in all the numbers, you had completed a “real” painting.

I think speakers can also use numbers which, when connected to the content, produce an excellent presentation.

The number ONE means to have one clear theme throughout the presentation. Sometimes called the thesis, it is the essence of your speech in one sentence. If the main idea is not clear to the speaker, then neither will the theme be clear to listeners.

Number TWO refers to the use of contrasts. With contrast you are showing differences to dramatize a point. In a presentation, especially a persuasive one, the salesperson is seeking to show how his or her product is less costly than the competition. The minister might be showing the difference between heaven and hell. The politician could be concerned that his constituency sees how his holding office will be a great improvement over the job the incumbent is doing.

THREE is the number of pieces of evidence you need to prove a point or help an audience understand how something works. The number three has held great power and intrigue for humans through the centuries. We think about time as past, present, and future. We divide our meals into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In popular literature we have all kinds of threesomes, from the three witches in Macbeth to the three little pigs. A speaker should have three specific instances, or three statistics, or three examples in proving points. This makes sense to the human mind.

The number FOUR is the sound of the first part of a word important in your preparation: forethought. You want to give forethought before you start writing ideas down on paper. Writing main points or evidence you want to include may limit your thinking. The more forethought, the more your mind will be stretched in looking for ideas.

The number FIVE refers to the last five minutes of your talk. These may be the most important part of your speech because here is where you want the strongest evidence and clearest explanations. Don’t forget: The audience remembers best what you say last. Those last five minutes should clarify understanding and move people to action.

A presentation after SIX o’clock p.m. should have humor in it. People have worked all day and they want to enjoy themselves with good food, fellowship, and humor. You don’t have to be a comedian, but you can include an embarrassing personal experience, show a cartoon (with permission), tell a short joke, or give a one liner. You want people to smile and be in a festive frame of mind.

The word SEVEN comes from a Hebrew root word that means complete. The presentation should be complete with evidence and structure. Everything should make sense. To be complete, the introduction should have an attention device and a preview. The body of the speech should have two or three main points with corresponding evidence for each of the points. The conclusion should include a summary and a move to action step. All three parts of the presentation should be tied together with smooth transitions.

Often people in certain occupations deliver the same speech many times. The CEO might report to different divisions of the company throughout the United States, Asia, or Europe. EIGHT is the maximum number of times you want to give the same material without rearranging or seriously revising the content of your presentation. If you don’t, the material on the day you give the speech for the ninth time will be boring to you, and certainly to the audience. Use different stories, or rearrange your points. After eight times the speaker may have better ideas. You might add a new attention device or deliver with a different style.

The number NINE conjures anticipation. 10 follows 9, 100 follows 99, 1000 follows 999 and so on. We may anticipate change, or reaching a goal, or accomplishing a great feat. Going from the year 1999 to 2000 was traumatic for people, with a tinge of uncertainty and anticipation of how things might be different. Anticipation is an important method of holding the attention of the audience. We want to know how the story will end, or the solution to a problem, or new research that holds much promise for a new drug or cure.

I stop at the number TEN because this is a logical progression of thought for us. We have a "top ten" list. The anesthesiologist will say when starting the medication, "Now count to 10." In other words, ten is a logical place to stop. In a successful presentation, know when to stop. We have all heard speakers we enjoy listening to, but our pleasure is diluted if the speaker speaks five minutes too long or begins to repeat material. That is why having a clear conclusion is so important. When you follow earlier advice and have a specific summary and a thought-provoking ending sentence, you are more likely to stop at the right time.

Public speaking can be very effective and fairly simple when you speak by number.

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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