The 4 Most Important Elephants of Presentation

In grad school, a marketing professor insisted on an oral report. One student in class did not speak English as her first language.

When she gave her report, she began talking about “The Most Important Elephants of International Marketing”. We all thought, of course, that she mispronounced “elements”. After the first time, most audience members, including myself, merely smiled.

But after a few minutes, it became clear that she was going to repeat the word “elephants” — multiple times — for the remainder of her presentation! So our professor interrupted the speaker.

“Excuse me,” he said kindly. “I hate to interrupt you. Your speech content, so far, is very good. But one small thing is unclear.”

He explained that an elephant was a huge animal with a trunk, tusks, and floppy ears. The speaker looked bewildered.

So the professor pantomimed the trunk and made a strange elephant noise. The professor suggested that perhaps the word she wanted was “element”.

Down for a drink!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mara 1

The speaker looked embarrassed. She blushed and stammered. Trying to recover, she asked the laughing audience:

“So elephants are very big, powerful animals, yes?”

Of course, we all agreed with her.

“My ideas are big, powerful ideas. Just like elephants. So please continue to think of my elements as elephants.”

For the remainder of her report, she would say the word “elephant”, then excuse herself and carefully say “element”.

It became clear to me that she had rehearsed her report, and used the word “elephant” in rehearsal . For her speech, the wrong word was ingrained in her brain. It wasn’t going away any time soon! Nonetheless, she recovered nicely. She delivered a wonderful presentation, elephants and all!

I learned four unintended lessons from her talk:

  1. Practice doesn’t make perfect. If you’re rehearsing incorrectly, you can count on faulty delivery. Rehearsing alone is fine – but not forever. Get feedback.
  2. Mistakes can be endearing. No one thought the speaker was an idiot for making a mistake. The audience empathized with her, and found her mistake charming.
  3. Preparation pays. Even though the speaker bobbled one word, it was clear she knew her material. She recovered, and delivered a report that likely earned her an “A”.
  4. The unexpected can rivet attention. Because of one mispronounced word, I remember a 15 minute speech — 20 years later. Why not use a homophone — or other unexpected technique! — to make your next presentation more memorable?

What’s your most important elephant when you deliver a presentation? Or rather, what unexpected technique do you like to employ to make your presentation content stick?