Repeat after me. Repeat after me. Repeat — that’s right, repeat! — after me: Repetition is a powerful component of effective presentations.
In this annual survival guide issue of U.S. 1, in which we address one or two themes that might help you advance your career or grow your business, presentation is the focal point. And that gives me the opening to talk about repetition as a rhetorical device, something on my mind since I attended a dinner in November at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton.
The event was the church’s monthly “One Table Cafe,” a community pay-what-you-can dinner that is prepared by some of the higher-priced restaurants in town. The idea is that families or individuals who might normally find an evening in a fancy restaurant beyond their means can instead stop by Trinity Church for an equally delicious meal in a family-style setting and depart after leaving as much or as little in an envelope placed discreetly at the table.
I wasn’t there for the economical gourmet dinner, but I nonetheless enjoyed every item on the menu: from salad with butternut squash to the entree of Griggstown Farm chicken, served with red quinoa, to the baked apple crisp.
I was there for was the speaker, Sam Daley-Harris, the Princeton-based author of “Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break Between People and Government,” a book now in its 20th year in print (U.S. 1, November 13, 2013).
One of the points Daley-Harris raised in his U.S. 1 interview was that lots of people complain about a public policy, but then shrug their shoulders and say you can’t fight city hall. But you can, he argued. I went to the Trinity Church presentation partly to see if I could learn anything more about how you can fight city hall and win.
Daley gave an example of a political action group — fighting for more awareness of climate change, as I recall — and how the group launched a campaign to get letters printed in the local newspaper. The first month someone wrote a letter to the editor and made a follow-up phone call that went nowhere. The second month, they wrote the letter, made the phone call, and reached a secretary but got no further. The third month, they followed the same steps and got to the secretary and requested a very brief meeting with the editor to plead their case. The fourth month they followed the same steps, got the meeting with the editor and it turned into a 20-minute discussion. The next month they got an op ed opinion piece printed in the paper.
As Daley-Harris described this process, he repeated each element of the effort along the way. For month two he repeated everything he had just said about month one, and so on. Repetition was key both to the effort and the presentation of the effort. As Daley-Harris said, imagine if the group had just given up on the letter-writing idea after one month and turned its attention to another issue.
This was obviously Daley-Harris’s “stump” speech, and at several opportunities he recited — from memory — some relevant quotations from persuasive sources. What was interesting to me was that Daley-Harris did not just recite the quotation, he repeated the recitation. Former Republican Senator Mark Hatfield got quoted. So did George Bernard Shaw, from “Man and Superman.” My reconstruction of the Shaw quote:
“This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it what I can.”
“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
Daley-Harris spoke the words, stopped, paused for a moment, and repeated the same words from Shaw: The full minute-long recitation. If I repeated those 145 words from Shaw here, you would say I was just trying to fill out the space for this column. But in the oral presentation the repetition worked.
Repetition, a powerful component of effective presentations. Powerful, but not used very much in an age when audiences begin to squirm if a speech goes longer than 18 minutes, and when television panelists answer complex public policy questions in 18 seconds.
A few days after the Trinity Church supper I recalled a sermon I heard nearly 40 years ago at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton. I was on assignment for New Jersey Monthly magazine, profiling the Rev. S. Howard Woodson Jr., the pastor of Shiloh Baptist and the first black to serve as president of the New Jersey Assembly.
I was reminded of Woodson’s sermon in the 2008 presidential campaign, when the kerfuffle broke out about Obama’s minister, the fiery Jeremiah Wright. Woodson’s sermon was memorable because of its theme, repeated throughout, about the need to draw on your faith to see you through life’s many challenges.
The essence of Woodson’s message was that you might find yourself out of work, unable to make your rent payments, close to being thrown out on the street, but that’s the time you have to hold on, hold on, hold on to your faith.
And so it went through the sermon. Woodson acknowledged the travails of life faced by his parishioners, and then turned back to his refrain — to hold on, hold on, hold onto your faith.
In our cluttered media environment, with our attention spans assumed to be measured in seconds rather than minutes, the way to reach an audience — and hold on, hold on to that audience — may be a simple rhetorical device that dates back the ancient Greeks. I would state my case again, but at this point, I hope, it’s so obvious that it scarcely bears repeating.