Tell ‘Em What You’re Going To Tell ‘Em; Next, Tell ‘Em; Next, Tell ‘Em What You Told ‘Em

Aristotle? Dale Carnegie? J. H. Jowett? Fred E. Marble? Royal Meeker? Henry Koster? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: For many years I have been encouraged to split my speeches into three parts. Here are two versions of the guidance:

[A] Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.
[B] Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; then tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.

This popular advice allows speakers to hammer their points with repetition, but I wonder how many members of the audience will remain awake. Do you know who originated this tripartite template? I have seen it credited to the ancient philosopher Aristotle and the self-help pioneer Dale Carnegie.

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1908 in a short piece titled “Three Parts of a Sermon” published in the “Northern Daily Mail” of Durham, England. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Mr. Jowett, of Birmingham, tells of a lay preachers’ conference, in which a veteran described his method of sermon preparation. “I take my text,” he said, “and divide my sermon into three parts. In the first part I tell ’em what I am going to tell ’em; in the second part—well, I tell ’em; in the third part I tell ’em what I’ve told ’em.”—The “Sunday Strand.”

A later citation expanded the name of the religious figure to “J. H. Jowett”. Interestingly, Jowett disclaimed credit and assigned the saying to an unnamed “veteran” preacher. Also, the “Northern Daily Mail” acknowledged the “Sunday Strand”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Aristotle did discuss the structure of speeches in his work on “Rhetoric”, but he did not employ the template specified by the quotation. For example, Aristotle split simpler orations into two parts and more complicated orations into four parts. 2

It follows, then, that the only necessary parts of a speech are the Statement and the Argument. These are the essential features of a speech; and it cannot in any case have more than Introduction, Statement, Argument, and Epilogue.

The Epilogue was further split into multiple sections: 3

The Epilogue has four parts. You must (1) make the audience well-disposed towards yourself and ill-disposed towards your opponent, (2) magnify or minimize the leading facts, (3) excite the required state of emotion in your hearers, and (4) refresh their memories.

Repetition was employed in the fourth section of the Epilogue, but this repetition did not really fit the tripartite template under analysis. Perhaps the ascription to Aristotle was based on a vague inaccurate memory of the ancient philosopher’s writings on “Rhetoric”:

Finally you have to review what you have already said. Here you may properly do what some wrongly recommend doing in the introduction-repeat your points frequently so as to make them easily understood. What you should do in your introduction is to state your subject, in order that the point to be judged may be quite plain; in the epilogue you should summarize the arguments by which your case has been proved.

A 1908 citation was given near the beginning of this article. In 1909 a convention of the Presbyterian Brotherhood of America was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and The General Secretary Rev. Fred E. Marble delivered a speech that included the saying, but he did not assume credit: 4

From what I have seen and heard since my arrival this morning I am persuaded that anything I might say would be a twice-told tale. It would be like the sermonizing of an old minister of whom I heard in England last summer. When asked how he did it, he replied, “First I tells ’em what I am going to tell ’em, second I tells ’em and third I tells ’em what I told ’em.” (Laughter.)

In 1910 a Unitarian publication called “The Christian Register” of Boston, Massachusetts printed a passage that was very similar to the text of the 1908 citation: 5

Rev. J. H. Jowett of Birmingham, England, tells of a lay preachers’ conference, in which a veteran described his method of sermon preparation. “I take my text,” he said, “and divide my sermon into three parts. In the first part I tell ’em what I am going to tell ’em; in the second part—well, I tell ’em; in the third part I tell ’em what I’ve told ’em.”—Christian Endeavor World.

In 1911 Royal Meeker who was a Professor at Princeton University employed the saying during a speech delivered at “The New Jersey Conference of Charities and Corrections”: 6

I might tell the story of the very successful English lay-clergyman who was asked, once upon a time, how he constructed his sermons. He replied: “Well, I always divide my sermons into three parts. First, I tell ’em what I’m going to tell ’em; secondly, well, I tell ’em what I tell ’em; and, third, I tell ’em what I have told ’em.” Now, if I followed that plan, I think we would need to prolong the Conference until the coming day.

In 1912 a bank advertisement in a Durham, North Carolina newspaper printed this instance: 7

An old colored minister down in Georgia said about his sermonizing:

First, I tells em what I’s gwin ter tell em,
Den I tells em:
Den I tells em what I done tole em.

In 1922 a trade publication called “Gas Industry” printed an anecdote about an unnamed Irish attorney: 8

A story is told of an Irish lawyer who being asked how he always managed to get a decision from a jury, replied, “I make ’em understand! —First I tell ’em what I’m going to tell ’em; then I tell ’em; and then over and over again I tell ’em what I told ’em.”

In 1925 “The Los Angeles Times” of California linked an instance to a notable clergyman: 9

Dr. Henry Van Dyke, the famous clergyman-author, said at a Princeton dinner: “There are two kinds of oratory. The best kind is the simplest; it’s modern; and I once heard an orator explain it thus:

“First tell them what you’re going to tell them; then tell them; and then tell them that you’ve told them.”

In 1937 a gossip columnist ascribed a variant to Hollywood film director Henry Koster: 10

Henry Koster tells how he directs child actors: “First I tell ’em what I’m going to tell ’em. Then I tell ’em. Then I tell ’em what I told ’em. Maybe after that they remember something.”

In 1948 a newspaper in North Carolina printed an anecdote set in “pioneer days” with an elaborate version of the saying: 11

An illiterate but earnest itinerate preacher who in pioneer days accomplished a lot of good, when asked how he did it replied: “First I tells ’em what I’m goin’ to tell ’em, second I tells ’em with all my might what I said I’d tell ’em, and third lest they forget what I told ’em I tells it all over again with some ‘rousements’ added for good measure.”

In 1949 Bennett Cerf shared a version in his widely syndicated newspaper column: 12

Radio expert John Horn says the continuing popularity of several stale and long-familiar comedy programs reminds him of the political spell-binder who gave this frank explanation for his success: “First I tells ’em what I’m gonna tell ’em. Then I tells ’em. Then I tells ’em what I told ’em.”

In 1985 the saying was presented as astute advice in a chapter of the book “The Great Communicators”: 13

A saying among professional speakers refers to these three basic presentation segments this way.

In the opening, you tell them what you are going to tell them.
In the body, you tell them.
In the conclusion, you tell them what you’ve told them.

Like many of the simpler things in life—it works. The audience can follow you, they can understand what you’re saying, and they can grasp your meaning.

In 2005 the collection “Big Wisdom (Little Book): 1,001 Proverbs, Adages, and Precepts to Help You Live a Better Life” credited a well-known self-improvement guru who had died in 1955: 14

Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.
—Dale Carnegie

In 2012 an article on the business website “Inc.” attributed the saying to Aristotle: 15

I like to impart a little advice I received from a Jesuit teacher who coached me for extemporaneous speech competitions.

“Three things you need to do, John,” I recall him saying. “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” It was not until years later that I learned that this advice was not developed by the good Jesuit fathers but rather by the master of rhetoric himself, Aristotle.

In conclusion, the earliest strong match located by QI appeared in an English newspaper in 1908. The saying was ascribed to an unidentified preacher, and it circulated in the domain of religious orators during subsequent decades. The ascription to Aristotle is unsupported although he did discuss the structure of speeches in his writings on “Rhetoric”. He also stated that repetition could be used effectively.

Image Notes: Picture of microphone from pablojuliann at Pixabay. Arrow designs from SavanasDesign at Pixabay. Images have been retouched, cropped, and resized,

Notes:

  1. 1908 August 13, Northern Daily Mail (Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail), Three Parts of a Sermon, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Durham, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  2. 1924, The Works of Aristotle, Translated into English under the Editorship of W. D. Ross, Volume 11,Rhetorica, Translated by W. Rhys Roberts (Formerly Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge), Book III, Quote Page 1414b,Oxford University Press, London, England. (HathiTrust)
  3. 1924, The Works of Aristotle, Translated into English under the Editorship of W. D. Ross, Volume 11,Rhetorica, Translated by W. Rhys Roberts (Formerly Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge), Book III, Quote Page 1419b,Oxford University Press, London, England. (HathiTrust)
  4. 1909, The Brotherhood and the Church: Report of the Third Convention of the Presbyterian Brotherhood of America, at Pittsburg, February Twenty-Third to Twenty-Fifth Nineteen-Nine, Article: Greetings from the Baptist Brotherhood by Rev. Fred. E. Marble, Ph.D., General Secretary, Start Page 134, Quote Page 134, The Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1910 January 13, The Christian Register, Pleasantries, Quote Page 56, Column 1, Published by The Christian Register, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1911, Proceedings of the New Jersey Conference of Charities and Corrections, Tenth Annual Meeting, Held in Princeton, New Jersey on April 2 through 4, 1911, Section: Session on Homes in the Country, Article: Living Conditions in Rural Communities, An Address by Professor Royal Meeker, Princeton, New Jersey, Start Page 226, Quote Page 226, MacCrellish & Quigley, State Printers, Trenton, New Jersey. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1912 April 24, The Durham Sun, Advertisement for The First National Bank, Title of advertisement: Disaster, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Durham, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1922 April, Gas Industry, Volume 22, Number 4, Manfacturer’s Section, Quote Page 145, Published by Periodicals Publishing Company, Buffalo, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1925 August 2, The Los Angeles Times, Section: Sunday Magazine, Good Short Stories from Everywhere, Compiled for the Times Sunday Magazine, Winning Talk, Quote Page 30, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1937 July 25, The Coshocton Tribune, Queer Doings Being Noted in Hollywood (In Hollywood by Paul Harrison, NEA Service Staff Correspondent), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Coshocton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1948 December 9, The Gastonia Gazette, As Others See It, Cactus Jack’s Advice (The Kannapolis Independent), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Gastonia, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1949 September 22, The Linton Daily Citizen, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Linton, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1985 Copyright, The Great Communicators, Edited by Dottie Walters, Chapter 4: A Crash Course on Vocal Communications by Brian Taylor, Start Page 62, Quote Page 71 and 72, Royal Publishing, Glendora, California. (Verified with scans)
  14. 2005, Big Wisdom (Little Book): 1,001 Proverbs, Adages, and Precepts to Help You Live a Better Life, Quote Page 209, W Publishing Group, A Division of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee. (Google Books Preview)
  15. Website: Inc., Article title: Give a Great Speech: 3 Tips from Aristotle, Article author: John Baldoni (President, Baldoni Consulting), Date on website: May 4, 2012, Website description: Motto: The Magazine for Growing Companies. (Accessed inc.com on August 15, 2017) link