The Ripple Effect

Have you ever tossed a pebble into a lake when the water was completely calm? Although the pebble is small, the effect is large. From that tiny “plop”, ripples begin to spread out in all directions. And it never ceases to amaze me just how far they can extend. A tiny pebble, no bigger than a thumbnail, can affect an area thousands of times its size.

The same holds true with our speeches and presentations. Every time we speak in public, we are being given an opportunity to toss a pebble into the still water that is our audience. Although we can never be entirely sure how far the ripples will extend, the possibilities are almost unlimited.

I recently had the privilege of working with members of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at the World Health Organization (WHO) on their presentation skills. They are doing incredibly important work to rid the world of an age-old scourge.

As the workshop approached its conclusion, I left the participants with a final thought on the far-reaching effects of our words. I said that they can change the world in ways that we cannot know at the time we are speaking. And then I offered the following scenario:

  • A member of the polio team prepares thoroughly and delivers a compelling presentation with conviction and passion.
  • Because of the presentation, a member of the audience is persuaded to make a large financial contribution to the fight to eradicate polio.
  • Because of that contribution, extra vials of vaccine can be purchased and additional personnel can be hired to distribute them.
  • Because of the extra vaccine and additional personnel, the vaccine reaches a village that would otherwise have missed out.
  • Because the vaccine reached the village, a little girl (or boy) is vaccinated.
  • Because the little girl was vaccinated, she does not contract polio.
  • Because she does not contract polio, she is able to concentrate in school and get good marks.
  • Because she gets good marks, she is able to go to university where she becomes an engineer or an artist or businesswoman or, perhaps, a doctor.
  • Because she becomes a doctor, she is one day involved in groundbreaking work that ultimately leads to the cure of some other disease.
  • Because a cure is found, the lives of thousands of people are saved.

Now, stop and play it backwards:

  • Thousands of lives were saved because a cure for a disease was discovered.
  • The cure was discovered because the doctor was involved.
  • The woman became a doctor because she went to university.
  • She went to university because she got good marks in school.
  • She got good marks because she was able to concentrate and work hard.
  • She was able to concentrate and work hard because she did not get polio.
  • She did not get polio because she was vaccinated.
  • She was vaccinated because the vaccine reached her village.
  • The vaccine reached her village because there was enough money to purchase the vaccine and hire the personnel to deliver it.
  • The money was available because a person was persuaded to make a donation on the strength of a presentation.
  • The presentation was compelling because the presenter put effort into its preparation and delivery.

Will this happen? I don’t know. Could it happen? Absolutely. And keep in mind that this is just one possible scenario of the effect of one presentation on one member of an audience and the impact that it had on one little girl. In my scenario, if you factor in the other members of the audience (and other audiences) and all the other children who are vaccinated as a result, the mind begins to boggle with all the exciting possibilities.

So whatever the subject matter of your next speech or presentation, spend a few moments thinking about the effect that your words could have. Like the ripples from a small pebble, they could extend far and wide in many directions.

Photo courtesy of zander x

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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9 Responses to The Ripple Effect

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  3. Kamran says:

    John, thanks for the thought provoking commentary.

    You have narrowed the “The Ripple Effect” here to presentations and speeches but I would go further and say, during all of your wake hours, whatever you do, including all of your non-verbal gestures, cause a ripple effect in the world. The question is only how far will the ripples travel.

    Simply sulking while riding the tram or electing not to strike up a pleasant conversation with a stranger sitting with you on a train could also have a ripple effect.

    In the end, what kind of ripples you set off depend on your conscious effecting of the ripples by your general disposition towards life which themselves originate form your ethical and moral principles. If you love the world and humanity, then your behaviour and disposition will more likely generate ripples that will reach far, and leave a positive effect everywhere where your foot prints were seen.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Kamran. Thanks for the great comment. Of course, I wholeheartedly agree with you. As Manner of Speaking is a public speaking and presentation blog, I keep my focus narrow. But the ripple effect applies in almost everything we do.



  4. Bjarne Hadland says:

    Dear John,

    This was a very powerful contribution to the art of presentation. Thanks so much.

    Do you mind if I translate this to the Norwegian language and publish it to my friends on facebook? Furthermore, I will in the translation refer to your name (full name) as the author.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Dear Bjarne,

      Thank you for the comment. I am glad that you enjoyed the post. Please feel free to translate it (and any other post you happen to like) and post it on whichever website or social media forum you like. All I ask is that you attribute it to me (which you have indicated you will do) and to provide a link to the original in English.

      Many thanks! Tusen takk!


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  6. Gaëlle says:

    Great inspiring article to start the day with a different mindset than the famous “metro-boulot-dodo”! Thanks.

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