A Lesson From Leo Tolstoy

In this age of social media, it’s easy to overlook the stories from classic literature. And yet, they contain valuable lessons that are just as important today as they were centuries ago. One such lesson comes from Leo Tolstoy in his novella, How Much Land Does a Man Need?. James Joyce called it “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows”.

The story of Pahóm

The main character is a man named Pahóm. At the beginning of the story, he is a person of humble means who bemoans the fact that he does not own enough land. He states that “if I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!”. Little does he know that the devil is sitting behind the stove and listening.

Shortly thereafter, Pahóm manages to buy some land from a lady in his village. He works hard, makes a profit and is able to pay off his debts and live a more comfortable life. But he is not satisfied and moves to a larger area of land. Pahóm grows more crops and amasses a small fortune but it is still not enough.

Finally, Pahóm hears about the Bashkirs, a simple people who own a huge amount of land deep in Central Asia. After a long trek, Pahóm meets the Bashkirs on the vast steppe. He is prepared to negotiate a price for as much land as possible, but before he can do so, the Bashkirs make him a very unusual offer, the same one that they make to anyone who wishes to buy land from them.

The Bashkirs’ offer

For one thousand rubles (a large sum in those days), Pahóm can walk around an area as large as he wants. He has to start at daybreak and mark his route with a shovel at key points along the way. As long as he returns to the starting point before sunset, the land that he has marked off will be his. If he fails to return on time, the money is forfeited.

Pahóm is thrilled. He is certain that he can cover a great distance and that he will have more land than he could have ever imagined. That night, Pahóm has a foreboding dream in which he sees himself lying dead at the feet of the Devil, who is laughing.

The next day, with the Bashkirs watching from the starting point, Pahóm sets off at a good pace as soon as the sun crests the horizon. He covers a lot of ground, marking his way as he goes. At various points he begins to think that he should change direction and work his way back, but he is constantly tempted by the thought of adding just a bit more land.

The day wears on and, as the sun begins to set, Pahóm discovers that he is still far from the starting point. Realizing that he has been too greedy and taken too much land, he runs back as fast as he can to where the Bashkirs are waiting. He arrives at the starting point in the nick of time just before the sun sets. However, as the Bashkirs cheer his good fortune, Pahóm drops dead from exhaustion.

Tolstoy concludes: “The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity. His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahóm to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

The lesson

In the story, Tolstoy addresses the age-old question of how much wealth does a person need. How much is enough? It is always a question worth pondering. However, it occurs to me that Tolstoy has provided a valuable lesson for speakers when it comes to their presentations.

Too often, we are like Pahóm. We keep adding more and more to our presentations: one more idea; a couple more slides; a few more bullet points. The result is presentation that is packed to the bursting point with information, much of which will not be retained by the audience. Important points are lost in a sea of extraneous detail.

Furthermore, just as Pahóm had to race to complete the task before his time ran out, we often find ourselves in a similar position. With only a few minutes left for our presentation, we realize that we still have a lot of territory to cover. As a result, we race through the remainder of the material, skipping some points (and slides), and glossing over others in order to finish on time.

If Pahóm reminds you (a little bit) of yourself when it comes to presentations, remember the rhetorical advice that Tolstoy offers: “How much land does a man need?” What is your key message? How much information does your audience need to understand it? How many slides (if any) do you need to convey the message? What do you need to do to convey your message in a convincing and memorable fashion? What is essential and what can be omitted?

There is no magic formula. As I noted in a previous post, each presentation is different. What is important is to plan your presentation carefully and to rigorously ask yourself whether each piece of information — each idea, each slide, each word, each image, each handout — helps or hinders your message.

Pahóm understood — too late — that he had tried to take on too much. There is no reason for you to find yourself in the same position with your presentations. Learn the lesson that Tolstoy gave us.

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  1. John,

    I liked the story and your extrapolation for presentations. I make a living by presentations and find a lot of tips here useful. Thanks.


    1. Thank you very much for the message, Ganapathy. I am glad that you found it useful. There is a lot of wisdom in the writings of Tolstoy and others and it can definitely benefit us in many ways.
      All the best for 2011.

  2. I had heard the story, but applying it to presentations was an eye-opener. Definitely, there is a point in it and this story will always revolve in my mind at the time of presentations.
    Thanks for the insight.

  3. John,
    We met in Barcelona! I hope you are doing well! I seriously loooove your blog, John!!
    Thanks for sharing! Write a book! :))
    Salam! 🙂 See you in Lisbon!

    1. Hey, Ibbe. Thanks for getting in touch and thanks for the kind words about the blog. Glad you enjoy it. In fact the book is in progress; a long process, but enjoyable. Looking forward to Lisbon. Wa alaykoum as-salaam.

  4. John,
    Thank you for this post. I had read Tolstoy’s tale in 1957 and still have vivid memories of the impression it made then. He managed simplicity and profundity in one swoop. You have done a great job in the re-telling, and I thank you.
    I am a pianist recently joined a Toastmasters group in OKC to improve my speaking skills since my programs increasingly contain commentary. It was the ‘public speaking’ tag that brought me to your post.
    Your blog is very attractive, magnetic.
    See you later.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment and kind words, Wayne. “How Much Land Does a Man Need” is one of my all-time favourite short stories. Glad you enjoyed the post and welcome to the blog. I goof around a bit on the piano – nothing like you, I am sure – but in our family, my youngest daughter is the real pianist.

    1. Thanks very much. Glad you enjoyed the post and welcome to the blog. Nice to see people from Acton. Though I now live in Switzerland, I used to be just “down the road” from you in Oakville. I note that we have a similar image on our respective sites.

  5. Significant message for all of us speakers who may feel that tantalizing temptation to put in “just a little more”. Like one of your letter writers, Toastmasters has been part of my life learning since way back in 1978! Still need reminding to stay concise, clear and relevant. Loved the Leo Tolstoy story and it could apply to much of life could it not? Positively Pauline ,

    1. Thank you for the comment, Pauline. Having the confidence to say less and say it well is a hallmark of an experienced speaker. But the temptation to add more is always there. And yes, Tolstoy’s principle applies to so many more things in life.

  6. I look forward to & love your blog John. Aways inspiring and planted with gems. The wonderful response from your readers makes for great reading & education also. Toastmasters shines through (true) as well, as an organisation worthy
    of joining to develop self development, education & the slaying of glossophobia!

    1. Thanks, Ted. Much appreciated. Still ironing out the bumps after the transition to a new design / site, but we will get there. Thanks for being a reader.

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