Drowning your story in a sea of detail

Talking is a very ineffectual way of communicating detailed information – it’s like trying to collect water from a well with a colander. When you give a speech or presentation always imagine yourself writing with a thick waxy crayon, not a slender mapping pen.

If you choose to make a point with a story, make sure you’re clear in your own mind what the point you’re making is. Ideally you should be able to express it in a single word or short phrase.

Our clients often find that their expertise can be a handicap when it comes to sharing knowledge. The client knows too much and is reluctant to simplify because they’re afraid of being inaccurate and misleading.

Such punctiliousness is admirable in the drafting of an official – or technical – document, but totally inappropriate when speaking to an audience. However fascinating your audience find what you’re saying, there’s only so much they can take in – the rest is white noise.

Take the following example:

“I was instrumental in highlighting the exploitation of internationally recruited overseas domestic workers and worked closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to develop a Code of Practice to close off the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers being brought into this country by disreputable agencies and employers.”

If you’re in the audience when a speaker hurls a pile of official-sounding abstract words like these at you, you’re likely zone out immediately. Truth is, they’re difficult enough to make sense of on the page.

“Instrumental in highlighting” draws us into a labyrinth of beffudlement – it leaves us yearning for a simple verb to guide us towards enlightenment. Everywhere we turn we’re besieged by trees – but there’s absolutely no sign of the wood!

It’s especially ironic that these words should leave us feeling as empty and confused as they do because they were written with the sole intention of establishing the ethos of the speaker. Their purpose was to establish the speaker’s credibility, achievement and trustworthiness.

Instead they have the opposite effect – leaving us feeling confused, unmoved and increasingly irritated by their opacity. This is a real pity because buried just beneath the verbiage is something really positive and impressive.

The first thing we need to do is to connect the “I” with the simple verb we’ve been craving for – in this instance the verb “develop”. Next we look for some kind of object for develop to get its teeth into. This gives us a promising start:

“I developed a Code of Practice…”; but this begs the question, what Code of Practice? In the original it’s a Code of Practice to close off the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers being brought into this country by disreputable agencies and employers.”

The problem here is the euphemistic phrase “to close off”. If we substitute something more direct like “stop” or “put an end to”, the cloud cover of bewilderment falls away dramatically. “Put an end to the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers recruited from overseas by disreputable agencies and employers.”


Our final version reads like this:

“Working with the Department for Work and Pensions, I developed a code of Practice that put an end to the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers recruited from overseas by disreputable agencies and employers.”


We’ve reduced the number of words by over 25% from 47 to 32. We’ve cut out the deadwood – e.g “instrumental in highlighting”. And we’re left with a clear statement that has impact, and increases our respect for the speaker. It may not reach the acme of oratorical art, but it does the trick!


  1. I disagree with your statement “Talking is a very ineffectual way of communicating detailed information – it’s like trying to collect water from a well with a colander.”

    I do agree that talking as if you were writing is ineffectual.

    The key is to structure the message to give the information in a comprehensible way.

    An important step is to use simple language, and I would always recommend “The Complete Plain Words” by Sir Ernest Gowers.

    But this should be after much thought has gone into thinking about structure and order, building the ideas and perhaps weaving it into a story.

    The problem is we’ve forgotten how to concentrate and the trick is to keep your audience engaged and attentive. Stories and rhetoric will certainly do that.

  2. Martin Shovel says

    Thanks for your comment Sal. I don’t disagree with the gist of what you say. My point is really about the amount of information an individual – however interested and willing – is capable of absorbing during the course of a speech or presentation. You’re quite right to suggest that a story can be a very effective mnemonic device, but only within pretty modest limits. Things might be different if live presentations could be paused and rewound.


  3. Couldn’t agree more. As I said in ‘Lend Me Your Ears’ (and in pretty well every course I ever run, the biggest single problem I’ve come across since getting into this field (20+ years ago) is the sight and sound of speakers trying to get across far too much information than is possible via the spoken word – to which the recommended motto for curing the problem is to ‘simplify beyond the point at which you, as an expert, feel comfortable’. And that, as I’m sure you know, means simplification of both content and language (not to mention the pointlessness of thinking that detailed slides will somehow fly through the air and penetrate the skulls of those in the audience).

  4. It’s easy to confuse information with ‘information’, isn’t it?

    You can communicate a vast amount of information in a presentation, especially if you follow @sal’s advice and take pains to avoid speaking as you write.

    Whether the information has anything at all to do with with your message is another matter.

  5. Martin Shovel says

    Very good point Simon!

  6. Reading this made me remember a very good illustration of this point Martin. The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, provides the perfect case study for this – look at this clip for a humorous look

  7. Martin, I agree with you in every way.

    Many of my clients (especially those in the high-tech arena) seem to think that clarifying their material by selecting the most pertinent information (and leaving the rest out or passing it along in another medium) will make them appear dishonest or uninformed. One engineer actually claimed that presenting so much information that it confused his audience was a positive sign: “It shows how complicated the issue is.” (I think he also felt it showed how smart he was.)

    Some material is so complex and detailed that it can best be communicated in writing — in reports, spread sheets, and the like. The oral presentation can then help people understand the information and its implications.

  8. Sorry to be picky (but then, that’s part of what we language people do isn’t it!), but I think you’ve changed the meaning of the passage.

    The orginal “I…worked closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to develop a Code of Practice” is rather more modest that your “I developed a code [sic] of Practice.” More importantly, you’ve changed “to close off” to “that put an end to”. By including the word “that” you are suggesting that the discrimination and exploitation has stopped. The original doesn’t say that – it is talking about an intention, not an achievement.

    Maybe you could take some more “deadwood” out – you don’t really need “disreputable” if we already say the agencies are discriminating and exploiting. It’s also not really necessary to bring in another verb to explain that the domestic workers are from abroad; “foreign domestic workers” is a common phrase that might do instead.

    You suggest “stop”, and it is a much more resonant idea than “put an end to”, so why not use that. And why not use powerful verbs like “exploiting” instead of abstract nouns like “exploitation”? This connects the exploiters with their verb, as you have done with the “I” and the “developed”.

    So maybe we get something like this:

    “Working with the Department for Work and Pensions, I developed a Code of Practice to stop agencies and employers exploiting and discriminating against foreign domestic workers.”

    This also reduces the word count further, to 26.

    Interestingly, by changing the abstract nouns to verbs, we expose a question about who is doing the exploiting. I have made a guess that it is the employers and agencies. If it isn’t, we should say who it is, or at least take the employers and agencies out of the picture, with something like: “to stop people exploiting and discriminating against foreign domestic workers”.

  9. Martin Shovel says

    Many thanks for your comment Simon. As always, a piece of writing out of context like this can be interpreted in a number of ways. Perhaps a bit of background will help explain our approach in this case.

    This particular extract – slightly altered for the sake of confidentiality – comes from the text of a speech we worked on with a client. We always write with our clients – not simply for them – and when we worked on this particular passage together it became clear that our client was in danger of hiding his light under a bushel.

    The purpose of his speech was to impress and persuade his audience; and this passage offered us an opportunity that was too good to miss. You were right when you wrote that the original talks “about intention, not achievement”, and our aim was to underline what the Code of Practice had accomplished – and the major part that our client had played in initiating and developing it.

  10. Daniel Kaye says

    I have now been working in a design and branding agency for around a year. I had no prior experience in this world and no official training. As a result, nearly all the ‘professional’ terminology being used was totally alien to me. The amount of branding jargon used in both internal meetings and when presenting work to clients is ridiculous.

    Following on from what Chris said, I have learnt that (even though they would never admit it) many of the senior people in my company and industry feel a need to package simple ideas and concepts with buzz words and waffle, so that the ‘complexity’ of an issue or concept is made evident to the client.

    As I have learnt my trade (which happens to be the marketing and new business development of my company), I have asked many ‘obvious’ questions to people with years of experience. Unfortunately I have often been greeted with the following responses:

    1. A barrage of jargon and non-specific answers that either highlights their lack of understanding (as I believe you can only explain something in simple terms when you really understand it well) or (more often) is a way of them showing off/proving to you that they are superior and have a vast bank of knowledge that you should try and decode.

    2. An expression as well as an answer where the underlying message reads “I can’t believe you don’t know that, that really is a silly question”.

    In my opinion, when you are a total novice at anything, there is no such thing as a stupid or silly question. I hope that those of you who are senior or experienced in your various fields bear this in mind, not only when training newbees, but when making your presentations. I was recently explaining to one of my Directors that I though it was a good thing that I was inexperienced as it meant my descriptions of recent work that my company produced were not ridden with words that meant nothing.

    Simple and clear are good things! Imagine you are trying to present to a group of smart 22/23/24 graduates next time you put together a presentation. If you think that they would not understand or be engaged, then you are probably chatting a whole lot of rubbish.

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