Q: What’s up with long, tedious presentations?

A: Time’s up.

Be brief, people! Break away from the pack mentality of proving your worth with your word count and slide count, or the arbitrary convention of filling your allotted time. Leave your audiences wanting more!

No matter how much time you think you have, plan on less (I promise, no one will complain if you finish talking earlier than expected). When conference planners invite you to speak for an hour, don’t. They only do that because it’s easier to book eight speakers per day than 16. No audience can really hang on for an hour; in fact, we know that adults can only digest material for a maximum of 20 minutes. Even when the last 15 minutes are reserved for Q&A, those first 45 minutes are likely too long unless you are able to break up the time with Q&A throughout, videos, group discussions and exercises, or appealing/entertaining visuals.

Adult audiences also need a stimulus change to stay engaged. Without it, they zone out periodically. I recently led a group of female executives who met monthly to practice making different types of speeches and presentations, and they all admitted to zoning out at least once during each other’s talks, which, by the way, were capped at three minutes!

Audience attention is sharpest at the beginning and the end of a speech or presentation, so that makes openings and closings vitally important. In the middle, where the meat is, is where the audience zones out. The point is that it matters how you organize your material and guide your audience. And if it’s absolutely necessary to fill an hour-long time slot, be aware of about a 15-20 minute attention span limit. Break up the talk into sections, and keep each of those as brief as possible. Switch things up at 15-20 minute intervals as a way to restart the attention span clock: turn on the PowerPoint, turn it off, solicit Q&A at the end of each section, draw or write on a white board, show a video. Choreograph the time with your audience’s experience and attention spans in mind.

It’s all about them, so make some judgment calls about what will best suit your audience, including the length and structure of your presentation.

(Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World)

Beth Levine

Beth Levine

Communications Coach at SmartMouth Communications
SmartMouth Founder and Principal Beth Noymer Levine is a Communications Coach who is emerging as one of the country’s leading voices on how to prepare and deliver speeches and presentations that actually work for both the audience and the speaker.
Beth Levine

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