There’s a lot of good advice out there about public speaking. Much of it is geared toward aiding the speaker. I want to throw some advice into the mix that’s helpful to the speaker and the audience: Keep your sentences short and crisp!
Speakers do best when they prepare a talk in bullet points rather than prose.
Preparing by writing a long prosaic document is problematic for a couple of reasons. For starters, speakers tend to get attached to the words, phrases and sentences they’ve composed. This is dangerous! It means the speaker is likely to feel compelled to read at the podium – which is bad for obvious reasons – or to memorize, which runs the risk of producing robotic delivery. Being conversational and staying connected with your audience, even if your presentation is imperfect, are still preferred.
On the other side of the podium, audiences need pace and rhythm and patter.
For audiences, long, wordy sentences become a maze for the ears, something to get lost in. Preparing for a speech or presentation by writing a lengthy, thorough, fully accurate script for yourself produces something that readers, not listeners, would be willing and able to digest. Listeners need things to keep moving along at a clip. They need the speaker to start and finish a thought quickly in order to hang in there and actually get it. Speakers, don’t forget: you’re the subject matter expert, you’re steeped in your stuff, but it’s the audience’s first time hearing your material.
Move from script to bullet points.
You can always begin your preparation for a presentation by writing out a full-text script. It can help you establish order, organization, and some of your key phrases. But then you would be wise to use that script only as a practice tool. As soon as you can, switch over to bullet points and then rehearse your talk from those. But watch yourself – keep a lid on those long-winded, run-on, multi-clause sentences. Set a standard and a pace for yourself that requires you to make your sentences short, crisp, distinct units.
Nothing informs the future of business communication more than the need for brevity in meetings and presentations.
In fewer than 500 words, let’s look at the case for brevity and then at how to achieve it. Feel free to read this as a call to action – for yourself, your team and/or your organization!
The Case for Brevity
Clearly, brevity in presentations is a trend. Of the most popular formats, TedTalks, which typically share deep insights and are capped at 18 minutes, are the longest. There are also presentation events like Pechakucha – 20 slides at 20 seconds per slide – which have become almost a club sport in some cities.
In online training, the rage is microlearning – nuggets of material delivered in only 90 seconds or two minutes, consuming very little of the user’s time and attention but delivering something of value.
Audiences are demanding more of these brief formats. It’s not just that attention spans are shrinking – according to research, they’ve always been limited – it’s that the combination of a device and a WiFi connection is a formidable competitor.
Finally, let’s face it, we all crave brevity because we’re tired of wasting time in unnecessarily lengthy meetings and presentations.
How to Achieve Brevity
Brevity isn’t simply about shortening the time by talking and moving through your material faster, it’s about homing in on what’s meaningful about your content and getting to the point sooner, with less mess. It’s about delivering the meat without a lot of side dishes obscuring it. Brevity is efficiency in communication.
So, what does it take to be brief?
You need to plan, prioritize and package your material.
First, life and attention spans are short. Serve dessert first. In your opening, deliver your call to action or the ultimate takeaway of your presentation. Don’t wait until the end.
Second, go modular. Prepare your presentation not as a narrative but in chunks that are linked by transitions. Break down the chunks into big fish and little fish.
Your big fish are your main points, and you state those first. If your presentation is informative, big fish statements will sound like a summary that captures the importance of a section of material. If your presentation is persuasive, your big fish statements will sound like a statement conveying value or benefit for your section(s) of material.
Your little fish are the background information and detail – evidence, if you will – that support your big fish. Little fish are subordinate to big fish and come second.
Delivering a presentation that is front-loaded with information (little fish) can be overwhelming and confusing to your audience. Packaging your information inside of a main point (big fish) and delivering that first helps to set context and foster greater understanding and retention. Information, or too much information, is the enemy of brevity. Be selective and prioritize information based on your audience’s appetite and interests.
Communication is the currency of success, and brevity is the future of individual and organizational effectiveness.
Lately, I have worked with several clients who need to share the floor or take the stage with a colleague. Each speaker rehearsed and knew their section of the presentation but, as I observed and coached them, there’s a lot more to achieving a smooth, seamless co-presenting performance than just knowing your part.
Here are 3 important agreements you and your co-presenter should discuss and make in advance:
Avoid the awkwardness of not knowing where to put yourself or what to do when it’s not your turn. When your partner is speaking, you, in effect, become a member of the audience. You turn your attention to the speaker versus staring straight at the audience while you wait. You’ll want to choreograph yourselves so that each of you, when not speaking, takes a position that defers attention to the speaker and doesn’t interfere with the screen (if using visuals). Rehearse this in the presentation space itself or block it out in a space that’s comparable.
Transitioning from one speaker to the next requires forethought and finesse. Discuss and know ahead how you will pass the baton – and practice it – as if in a relay race. Please be more interesting, engaging and collegial than merely saying, “… and now Ashley will cover the budget.” Script in some banter or repartee, or make an astute comment to summarize the link between your and your co-presenter’s material. Or, if the presentation involves a consistent back and forth every few minutes or every few slides, then make sure Speaker A’s final sentence lines up with Speaker B’s opening sentence for each transition. Avoid the duplication of effort (and tedium!) of Speaker B feeling the need to say, “… so, as Speaker A just talked about …”
Interjecting is a relief to some, undermining to others. One of the most important agreements to discuss is whether each of you prefers for your co-presenter to interject comments or questions … or not. If you forget a chunk of your material, do you want your co-presenter to chime in? Would that be helpful or would it throw you off? Are you okay fielding spontaneous comments and questions from your co-presenter to help relieve nervousness and/or to make the presentation seem more casual and collaborative? Or would that make you lose your train of thought? When I work with a co-presenting team, I always think I know who will have which preference … and I am often wrong! You never know, so discuss and agree on this in advance.
There are so many benefits to co-presenting – the change in speakers is stimulating to the audience, presenters get to share the floor and Q&A with someone who has complementary expertise, and it can be more fun for the speakers and audience alike, to name just a few. Nevertheless, because it involves two (or more) people, there’s more material, more logistics and more dynamics to consider. Discussing and agreeing on the three points above is a great way to get ahead of the game.
Bottom line: Audiences are attending one presentation, not two, so treat it that way in your planning and delivery.
Stories – or anecdotes, examples, case studies – are the absolute best way to illustrate a point, even in a business presentation.
When crafted well, they illustrate and support your messages better than anything else. Stories make an emotional connection to your audience that sticks with them long after you finish talking.
Here are 3 rules of thumb that apply to using stories in your communications:
1. STORIES NEED TO DIRECTLY SUPPORT A POINT. In other words, you may have a favorite story that you love to tell, and that’s great, but it must be constructed in a such a way that it works its way to a “punch line” that reinforces the message point you are trying to support. You can’t assume the audience will make that connection on their own, you have to spell it out and tie it together for them.
2. PREPARATION IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Rather than simply reminding yourself to tell a certain story during your presentation, you need to map out the story to avoid getting lost in the details while telling it (every story has more details than you have time to share!). I have watched too many speakers derail a perfectly good 15-minute presentation by telling a story that went on and on until – before they knew it – an additional 10 minutes of air time had been consumed.
3. SIMPLE IS MORE EFFECTIVE THAN COMPLICATED. This is true of most communications but certainly true of stories – despite the temptation to “spin a yarn” for your audience. Unless you’re a comedian or a professional storyteller, you’ll want to keep your stories simple.
Keeping them simple means paring down and prioritizing the detail. Think about composing your stories in this 3-3-3 format:
3 sentences describing the situation;
3 sentences revealing the dramatic tension (e.g. something unexpected, complications, competing factors); and
3 sentences outlining the resolution, which should help you tie back – in that punch line kind of a way – to the point you were illustrating.
And finally, be sure to cue your audience when you’re beginning and ending a story. For those in the audience who might not be paying close attention, you have the opportunity to reignite interest with your own appropriate versions of “Once upon a time” and “The end” – those timeless story cues that signal the open and close of something special.
When you think about it, no one succeeds alone; every single one of us needs to communicate in order to get things done, achieve goals, and ultimately succeed. We exchange words and ideas more often than we exchange money.
Good communication skills are therefore critical to organizational effectiveness. Yet very few organizations embrace excellence in communication as a value or a performance imperative.
This is my personal crusade. Excellence in communication doesn’t just happen, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured by organizations.
While the direct ROI of excellence in communication may not be easily measurable, it would be hard to argue that strong communication skills don’t yield better results whether used in selling, negotiating, client and customer service, employee relations, you name it.
Both anecdotally and through research, I have become almost painfully aware that there are three elements that make a pretty compelling case for looking more closely at how communication impacts your organization.
1. Performance Issue. Over the past couple of years, I have heard from clients that communication skills consistently emerge as the #1 area of need in performance reviews. In fact, it’s become pretty standard for me, that whenever I meet an HR person, I now ask what tops their list of performance needs, and communications skills are always at or near the top.
2. Career Maker/Breaker. I’ve also observed that communication skills are seen as something that can make or break careers – even by organizations that don’t explicitly embrace good communication skills as a performance imperative.
Anecdotally, I’ve often been hired to coach high-level executives who are either long-winded, short-tempered or not inspiring enough. These are people in the C-Suite who might be flailing a little bit or need a boost; they may be technically competent but communication-challenged. Or I’ve worked with executives who have C-Suite potential but their ability to communicate clearly and influence with confidence is just not there yet.
There’s also research that shows how recruiters and employers view and value communication skills, which impacts people’s careers:
According to a 2014 survey of 565 global employers by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which administers the business school entrance test, corporate recruiters ranked communication skills ahead of teamwork, technical knowledge and leadership when assessing MBA graduates for mid-level jobs. They rated communication skills ahead of managerial ability by a two-to-one margin.
Also in 2014, in an online survey of 845 North American business executives, respondents identified leadership and effective communication as the two most important management competencies – as well as the two most in need of improvement!
3. Complaint. We can’t close the case for putting communication skills on the corporate values list until we look at one of the biggest complaints in the business world – and one of the biggest impacts on organizational effectiveness – which is long, boring, tedious meetings and presentations.
It is estimated that there are 25 million meetings in the U.S. per day, 30 million PowerPoint presentations per day, and that more than $37 billion per year is spent on unproductive meetings. Yikes!
C-Suite executives are estimated to spend 85% of their time with other people – largely in meetings. Upper management spends 50% of their time in meetings. And middle management spends 35% of their time in meetings.
Why do I pick on meetings and presentations? Because they are the most common and most pure vehicles for business communication. They’re supposed to be productive, but we know otherwise.
Communicating is not something people just do. When performance and success are on the line, it needs to be thoughtful and deliberate.
You all do a lot of communicating, so embrace it and get it right. Your organization’s effectiveness and success depend on it!
I wish I’d had this training 20 years ago. It would have changed my career. I will never do a presentation the same.
I attended one of Jim’s first meetings since his training last week. I couldn’t believe this is the same person! Everyone on the call noticed, especially his greatest critic, our lead subject matter expert. I am truly astounded and so very, very pleased. This is going to be career changing for him.
Thank you so very much for developing a session that really met our specific business challenges. If the session is only effective for one person (but I know for a fact others loved it, and heard someone call it “life changing”), it will have been worth the investment.
Thank you for an effective, inspiring workshop. It exceeded my expectations (which were high, as you came well-recommended). I feel like this is essential training for leaders and professionals.
Beth provided wonderful, impactful examples of being a gracious, empathetic, confident speaker and facilitator.