Zeno, Pareto and perfect presentations

An Ancient Greek aphorism, often misattributed to Epictetus or Socrates, advises us to use our ears and mouth in the proportion bestowed upon us by evolution.

The words appear to belong to Zeno of Citium – founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, c.300 BC. (1)

Zeno said to a man who wanted to chatter more than listen “Young man, Nature gave us one tongue but two ears so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.”
— Stobaeus (Anthologus, 3.36.19)

Listening is more than simply not being the one talking – it requires concentration: resist the distraction of another device or something else popping up on your screen; avoid being lost in your own thoughts or preparing what you will say in response; be present and focussed.

What if we took Zeno’s proverb a step further and applied the Pareto principle? If 80% of the effects comes from 20% of the causes, then should we have four ears and one mouth?

It seems reasonable that 80% of intended meaning can be conveyed by 20% of the communication.

Or in other words, once the most informative 20% of words on a given matter has been spoken, continuing to talk represents diminishing returns: the more someone drones on, the less attention is paid to what they are saying.

Consider a presentation where the most important slide bears the key message that the presenter wishes to press upon the audience.

In pitch A, the slide has eight statements explaining the key message.

In pitch B, the slide has one statement explaining the key message.

In which presentation will the greatest amount of attention be paid to each point?

However, not all meaning in communication is conveyed by words alone. In fact, only a very small percentage.

Albert Mehrabian, a pioneering researcher of body language in the 1950’s, found that the total impact of a message is about 7 percent verbal (words only) and 38 percent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds) and 55 percent nonverbal (i.e. body language). (2)

So perhaps Zeno should have also paid reference to the eyes: if 55% of information is visual (body language) and 45% aural (the words spoken and how they are spoken) then nature has, more-or-less, given us the correct proportions of eyes and ears.

(The fact we do not have 11 eyes and 9 ears is a sure victory for aesthetics over mathematics)

People may have two eyes and two ears, however they only have one trail of thought.

An increasing volume of research demonstrates the fallacy of multitasking: not only is it significantly less productive than doing one thing at a time, but it has been shown to lower iQ and potentially cause lasting physical impairment to the brain. (3)

Returning to our presentation scenario, this gives further reason to avoid the approach of pitch A: not only is the audience’s attention being diluted across eight points, but there is a greater chance that they will be trying to read and listen to the presenter simultaneously – and be destined to miss nuance or misinterpret the message.

In summary:

  • Take the time to listen – really listen. Be present and focussed.
  • Use your air time wisely: boil down your key points; identify and hone the critical message; communicate it with precision and brevity.
  • Ensure your intonation and body language are consistent with the message and maximise its impact.
  • When presenting a deck, minimise the number of words on screen if you want the audience to listen to what you are saying.

“I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
— Blaise Pascal


  1. https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2016/05/15/two-ears-one-mouth-hunting-a-proverb-from-zeno-to-pauls-mom/
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/24/books/chapters/0924-1st-peas.html
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/10/08/multitasking-damages-your-brain-and-career-new-studies-suggest/

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