Where’s my pony?

Former US president Ronald Reagan was famous for his sense of humour. One of his favourite stories concerned two little boys and a pony. The boys were twins, but had radically different personalities. One was a total optimist, while the other was a total pessimist. Their parents became so concerned by this that they took them to see a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist treated the pessimist first. He took the boy into a room piled high with toys. Instead of shouting with excitement, however, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” asked the psychiatrist. “Don’t you want to play with these wonderful toys?” “Of course I do,” sobbed the boy, “but I’m afraid that I’ll break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. He took the boy into a room piled high with horse manure. Instead of holding his nose in disgust, however, the little boy shouted with delight. Then he jumped on top of the pile and began digging through it with his bare hands. “What are you doing?” asked the puzzled psychiatrist. “With all this manure,” said the boy, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

Reagan told this story so often that it became a running joke with his staff. Whenever things went wrong, a staff member would say, “Don’t panic! There must be a pony in here somewhere.” The story is a good reminder of the importance of positive thinking. But things don’t always work out well in the real world. What happens when there is no pony…when there’s just a pile of horse manure?

Nowadays we’re bombarded from all sides with the message that we must think positive. Everyone from current US president Barack Obama (Yes we can!) to motivational speakers like Tony Robbins beat the drum with their incessant positivism. But telling yourself that everything will work out well is poor preparation for when the opposite occurs.

Perhaps the ancient philosophers can remind us of a few things today’s management gurus seem to have forgotten. The ancients understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, success with failure. The Stoics of ancient Greece recommended something they called “the premeditation of evils”. Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, explains that this is “a wonderful technique which involves deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario, instead of the best one. One benefit of that is that you replace limitless panic and fear – which is how we often respond to problems – with a sober analysis of exactly how badly things could go wrong.”

This concept is similar to what psychologists now call defensive pessimism. Defensive pessimism is a type of negative thinking that produces highly positive results for many people. When faced by a new challenge, defensive pessimists have limited expectations for themselves and analyze in detail everything that may go wrong. They then figure out how they will respond to each potential difficulty. In today’s ‘yes we can‘ world, business people would do well to remember the importance of negative thinking. It can help us accurately assess risk, focus our efforts on achievable goals rather than waste time on unrealistic dreams, and even lower our levels of stress – after all, few things are as stressing as the constant demand for 24/7 positivity.

So, the advice is clear: always looking on the bright side is a mistake. Indeed, some of your most valuable team members may be those who raise objections and appear less than positive. After all, as someone once said, “I like pessimists. They’re always the ones who bring life jackets for the boat.” And as someone else said, “There MAY be a pony in here somewhere. But let’s get real, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s (probably) a duck!”


My son has trouble remembering things.


Me: Bryan, do you have any homework this weekend?

Bryan: Homework?

Me: Yeah, you know, schoolwork you do at home. So, have you got any?

Bryan: I’m not sure. I don’t remember what the teacher said.

Me: How many times have I told you to note down your homework assignments?

Bryan: Oh, wait a minute. I think I remember noting something down. Here it is. Yes, I have to write a book report for Monday.

Me: Fantastic! I’m proud of you, Bryan! You see how noting things down is important.

Bryan: Papá, just one problem. I forgot to bring the book home…


My son is not alone in having trouble remembering things (I also have a wife, but that’s another story)… Many participants on our public speaking courses comment that they find it difficult to remember everything they want to say in their presentations. The most obvious solution to this problem is to prepare well. You should never make a presentation without first rehearsing what you are going to say…out loud! Practising your presentation out loud will not only give you a feel for the language you are going to use, it will also help you memorise the order and flow of what you want to say: first this, then this, then that and so on. You can also make notes if you feel this will help. Imitate television presenters and use small cards that you can hold in one hand easily. This will allow you to continue gesturing with both hands as you speak. Just write the key words necessary to jog your memory and only look at the cards if you get stuck.

But what else can you do to remember what you need to say? And by the way, you’re not the only one who needs to remember your presentation. What about the audience?  They’re the people who really need to remember it! After all, that’s why you’re giving the presentation, right? So, how can you make it more memorable for both your audience and you? Here are a few ideas to get you started. In each case, imagine you have to give a presentation with a three or four-part structure and you’re worried you might forget something –or worse still that your audience won’t remember your main points.

  1. Alliteration: Use words that begin with the same sound to label each section in the presentation. For example, if you structure a sales presentation around your product’s benefits you could make it more memorable by labelling the sections Convenience – Compatibility – Cost. Or in a marketing presentation, you might talk about Product- Price-Place-Promotion.
  2. Acronyms: In this case each letter in the acronym represents the first letter of one of your section labels. For example, every US school student is taught that the easiest way to remember the five Great Lakes is HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). It’s not that difficult to transfer this idea to a business presentation. How about a project update presentation that deals with Assignments – Requirements – Timings (ART).
  3. Acrostics: Another initial letter memory technique, but this time the first letter of each word in a statement represents a target word to be remembered. For example, ‘My Dear Aunt Sally’ is often used to teach children the correct sequence for mathematical operations (Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract).  Once again, a little creativity can go a long way to solving your memory problems.  Acrostics and acronyms are particularly useful if you need to remember information in the correct order.      

OK, you say, but you’ve forgotten that I have a bad memory. How will I ever remember these ideas? Easy…you just need to think A-A-A (Alliteration Acronyms Acrostics). And that’s something even my son can remember!