The beauty of a formula is that it is predictable. If you apply it properly, if you follow it correctly, you will not be surprised by the outcome. If, for instance, you add two ounces of vodka, a half ounce of Chambord, and two and a half ounces of pineapple juice to a shaker filled with ice and then stir it all up, you will have concocted a French Martini. Never will that formula produce a pineapple orange smoothie. Never.

Formulas exist for all kinds of things—for solving an equation, for determining taxable income, for applying the right amount of fertilizer to a lawn. They can be helpful, even necessary. But sometimes they're not. Into that category we put the "Tell'em" formula.

It's human.


Chances are good that you know the formula, that it's been recommended to you, that you've even used it when writing or presenting: "Tell'em what you're gonna tell'em, tell'em, then tell'em what you told'em." It's been in use for a long time; some people say it originated with journalists, others with public speakers. Either way, it's usually presented as a suitable and dependable structure for communication.


The formulaic approach to writing and speaking may actually have a place in communication. If the facts matter and somebody needs those facts—how to make a French Martini, for example—the Tell'em approach might work well enough. It could work for giving all kinds of directions and instructions. But for most other communication purposes, the formula is not appropriate. It does not further any persuasive purpose; it does not lend itself to narration or argument. Even for the purposes of entertaining or expressing ideas and emotions, it's just too inflexible and dull.


Most audiences will be bored by a formulaic structure. The moment they hear a speaker tell them what he intends to tell them, they shut down. They disengage. What they want at the start is to be grabbed, compelled, interested. The beginning sets a tone, an expectation of energy and creativity. It establishes ethos, the audience's sense of the speaker's credibility and authority. When you begin with the Tell'em formula, listeners quickly predict what will come next; their interest dwindles. Their opinion of you as a speaker may fall as well because by using the Tell'em formula, you are projecting an image of someone who is formulaic.


The Tell'em formula is a version of the five-paragraph theme, a form many composition students mastered in school and then replicated for standardized tests such as the SAT. Such forms are tactical, not strategic. That's the trouble with communication formulas. Although they may sometimes supply a suitable organization, most often they limit and constrict thought and its expression.

Instead of utilizing a "time-honored" but often worn formula such as "Tell'em," let the arrangement grow from content, purpose, and audience. Use all three to shape your message into a structure that reflects your own style and substance. Mix up your next presentation by throwing away the formulas and preparing to give your audience a taste of something refreshingly original.