Ten Commandments for Writing and Speaking

I spent some time yesterday going through a box of old papers, filing some and recycling the rest. As I worked my way through the documents, I discovered an old photocopy entitled “Ten Commandments for Plain Language Documents”. It came from the Canadian Bar Association and is dated October 1990.

Ten Commandments

There’s a lot of wisdom in this little document. As I went through the commandments, it occurred to me that they also apply to public speaking.
Have a look. Substitute “audience” for “reader” in the first commandment, and consider all of them (especially Numbers 2, 9 and 10) not just in terms of speaking but also in terms of any slide presentations that you create.

  1. Consider your reader and write with that reader’s viewpoint in mind.
  1. Write short sentences.
  1. Say what you have to say, and no more.
  1. Use the active voice.
  1. Simple, “everyday” words are the best words.
  1. Use words consistently.
  1. Avoid strings of synonyms.
  1. Avoid unnecessary formality.
  1. Organize your text: (a) in a logical sequence; (b) with informative headings; and (c) with a table of contents for long documents.
  1. Make the document attractive and designed for easy reading.
Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments
“Bad presentations be gone!”

Perhaps these commandments are not as dramatic as the ones that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, but they are important. Remember them the next time you have a presentation.

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  1. Good checklist, John.
    It reminds me of Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
    For number 5: use simple words – I wonder whether before we can use simple words, we have to think simple thoughts! By which I mean taking the often complex ideas in our heads and condensing them to easy to explain concepts. It’s an idea I am playing with currently and I would like to add it to my next book project.
    All the best,

    1. Hi Warwick. Great to see you here on the blog. I am delighted that it now appears that people in China can access it.
      Thanks much for the comment. “Elements of Style” is a classic that sits on my shelf next to “Fowler’s Modern English”. And I agree with you about simplicity. In the courses that I teach, I stress the importance of simplicity in a presentation. By removing what is extraneous, the message becomes easier to understand and remember. Here’s a post in which I talk a bit more on the issue: http://wp.me/pwfa1-hT

  2. As always, John, you make it seem incredibly simple and I’m with you. I always enjoy your posts.
    I was talking to a high school teacher of English the other day and as she talked about teaching kids who didn’t want to learn about writing or speaking. I kept thinking how all her explanations had made it more difficult for me as a student. I was lucky. I was good at it anyway. Imagine if kids could put it all together as simply as you’ve made it here. This is just good communication–plain and simple. It doesn’t have to be rocket science.

    1. Hi Jack. Thanks for the comment and the kind words about the blog. The reality (as I’m sure you’re aware) is that it often takes a lot work to make things look simple. On the other hand, making the effort to be simple from the outset almost always pays dividends down the road. The alternative is too often confusion and wasted time.

    2. Can only agree with that Jack. John does have a way of making things easy and … enjoyable. I judged a childrens Public Speaking contest last week and it struck me that what the kids needed was inspiration. They needed to see a speaker speak with passion.

  3. Hi John,

    I don’t know who “…the Canadian Bar Association” are but they talk a lot of sense. LOL

    The ten commandments in a nutshell. I’ve just kicked off a mini series on using video in blogging. First article is a guest post by Paul Wolf. If you get a minute a comment from you would be much appreciated and I’m sure that you could add to the conversation.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Keith. I wondered whether I would get any comments about the CBA. In fact, the “Bar” in the Canadian Bar Association is the legal bar (as in being called to the bar and not for a drink). I am a lawyer and the the CBA is a professional association for lawyers in Canada. I’ll be sure to swing by your blog and check out your new series.

      1. Appreciate that John. “as in being called to the bar and not for a drink” – might use that some time. LOL
        You’re a lawyer? Better be careful what I say.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International