A public speaking fable

This post is an adaptation of a story that Garr Reynolds recounts in his book Presentation Zen. Reynolds heard the story from a man who recalled it from his childhood while listening to Reynolds speak about the need to reduce the text on presentation slides to what is essential. The next time you find yourself filling your PowerPoint or Keynote slides with lots of words, remember this story and look for things to cut.

The Tale of the Fishmonger


Once upon a time, there lived a young man in a village by the sea. He was renowned as the best fisherman in the land and he did his work with care and dedication. Eventually, he saved enough money to open his own fish store.
The night before the grand opening, the young man made sure that everything was in place. The last thing he did before going to bed was to hang a sign outside his store that read:

WE SELL FRESH FISH HERE

The next day, everyone from the village came by and all were impressed by the display of succulent scallops, crab, tuna and other seafood. The young man’s father arrived and beamed with pride at what his son had accomplished.
“My son,” he said, “you have achieved much. Everything is perfect. There is only one thing that concerns me. The word ‘WE’ in your sign puts too much emphasis on the seller instead of the customer. It is the customer, not you, who is most important.”
The young man looked at the sign and realized that his father was right. So he took it down and changed the wording. It now read:

FRESH FISH SOLD HERE

Later, the young man’s sister came by. She gave her brother a big hug and congratulated him. “It looks wonderful, little brother!” she exclaimed. “Everything is perfect. But I have a suggestion for your sign. You don’t need the word ‘HERE’. It is obvious that this is the place where the fish is sold.”
The young man agreed that his sister was right. He took down the sign and replaced it with one that read:

FRESH FISH SOLD

Next, the young man’s brother paid a visit and he too was impressed. “Well done, little brother! You are a real businessman now! Your store is most impressive, but can I give you some advice? The word ‘SOLD’ in your sign is not necessary. It is obvious that this is a store where fish is sold; it’s not an aquarium!”
The young man laughed. He and his brother had always kidded each other growing up. But he realized that his brother was right. So he took down the sign and put up a new one that read:

FRESH FISH

That afternoon, one of the village elders came to the store. He was revered throughout the countryside for his wisdom. He looked around the store and selected a fish for his dinner. As it was being wrapped, he spoke to the young man.
“You have done well, my son, and have brought honour to the village with your hard work. Only one thing troubles me – the word ‘FRESH’ in your sign. It is clear that you have only the freshest fish in your store. The word ‘Fresh’ sounds almost defensive and could lead some to question the quality of your product.”
The young man thanked the village elder for his advice. He handed him his fish and bowed deeply. When the elder had left, the young man once again changed the sign. It now read:

FISH

Later, the young man finally took a break. He had been working since sunrise and needed to clear his head. He went out for a short walk. As he was returning, he caught the scent of fresh fish from his store being carried on the breeze. He was still a ways off and could barely read the sign. It was then that he realized that even the word ‘FISH’ was not needed.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Gray

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4 Replies to “A public speaking fable”

  1. Thanks. This fable taught me to be ruthless in cutting down unnecessary and filler words so that we deliver message in apt words. It makes audience time more valuable.

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