Was George Washington Our Country’s First Presentation Skills Coach?

Jul 2, 2013 by

On a recent visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home on the Potomac in Alexandria, Virginia, I found a book by Steven Michael Selzer.  His book, By George! Mr. Washington’s Guide to Civility Today, is a compilation of 110 Rules of Civility attributed to our first President and includes interesting commentary by Selzer on each Rule.

Some additional research on the Rules led me to Foundations Magazine where I learned that the Rules were based on the works of French Jesuits dating back to the late 1500s. Historians believe that Washington was asked to repeatedly copy the Rules as a penmanship exercise.  To see a complete list of the Rules visit www.foundationmag.com/civility.

As a result of his penmanship lessons, George Washington learned and practiced the Rules in his personal and political life.  As President, Washington led the newly formed country by example – encouraging his countrymen to treat each other with respect and in turn to respect themselves.  As American author and Washington’s biographer, Parson Weems wrote, “it was no wonder every body honoured him who honoured every body.”[1]

While the Rules sound stilted and stuffy for today’s casual and relaxed lifestyle – aspiring – and skilled — presenters can learn a valuable lesson from our country’s first President. One of the key differences between a skilled presenter and someone who gives a mediocre presentation is Attitude.  An effective presenter builds bridges to his audience and relays information in an interesting and timely manner.   As soon as you begin to focus on the needs of your audience and take the spotlight off of you – your presentation skills improve dramatically.   Presentation anxiety is also reduced greatly when you focus less on you and more on your listeners.

Content, delivery, and performance are critical elements of a successful presentation.  But don’t overlook the importance of being courteous and respectful of your listeners.

Some presenter civilities we tend to overlook include:

  • Knowing what message your audience wants to hear vs. needs to hear.
  • Framing your message in an interesting and understandable format.
  • Refraining from using humor as an icebreaker, if you have difficulty delivering the “punch line.”
  • Providing a direct response to a difficult question – and knowing when to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”
  • Letting a fellow panelist complete his thought before offering a different opinion.
  • Honoring the colleague who isn’t present, instead of making any disparaging remarks.
  • Remembering your non-verbal cues so that your gestures and movements reinforce the words you are saying.

By George! Be an effective presenter and take a lesson from our country’s first presentation skills coach –

“Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.”  [2]

As a presenter, don’t overlook the importance of your Attitude and the respect you show to your audience and colleagues.





[1] Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996) pp. 130-131.

[2] By George! Mr. Washington’s Guide to Civility Today (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2000) pp. 7.

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