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)
Why do speakers go over their allotted time? If there was ever a presentation buzzkill, it’s the speaker who keeps on going … and going … and going.
You know you get aggravated with the long-winded speaker when you’re sitting in the audience, but what happens when it’s you standing at the podium? Are you aware of time? Do you know what 5 minutes of talking feels like? Do you know what 20 minutes feels like? You should. You need to learn to tell, or keep, time.
In the speech prep arena, I’m going to put it out there that minding your time trumps all your excessive fretting over content. Yup, I’m saying that content alone will not leave a good impression with your audience. You need more than that. Great content needs the added ingredients of audience connection (more on that another time!) and time sensitivity.
We talk about people who are “brief and to the point” with awe and admiration, so let’s work on being one of those … Practice delivering your material. Know how much time it takes. Know what 5 or 20 minutes of talking feels like. Prioritize in order to make any necessary cuts. And when you’re at the mic, don’t go off on a tangent just because you have the floor and you thought of something super cool to share. Keep to the time limit; your audience will be grateful, and you will have succeeded in leaving a good impression … with or without perfect content!
Tick tock, people, tick tock.
I went to a storytelling event a week ago Friday night. It was cast as lovingly competitive, meaning the audience gave huge amounts of support and encouragement to each volunteer storyteller – whose names were pulled out of a bowl – but there were teams of judges and (friendly, gentle) scoring.
The event was sold out and not until about halfway through did I realize that a lot of people in that packed room had come prepared with a story and put their names in the bowl hoping to be selected. And there I found myself, purely a spectator, in a room of would-be storytellers, which made me ponder whether I would be willing to do this sometime – after all, I coach people on storytelling (albeit usually for business audiences) – and, if not, why, which is an entirely different topic!
Apart from being wildly impressed and deeply touched by the 10 people who were willing to “put themselves out there,” I was struck by two things about prepared presentations, which I want to share as both are extremely informative lessons.
First, writing out a presentation, memorizing and then delivering it does not sound natural; it sounds like you wrote it out, memorized and then delivered it.
There are certain words or phrases – e.g. “irrespective of” or “after careful consideration” – that work great when you write them and a reader reads them but honestly, they sound stilted when you say them (unless, of course, you’re in a courtroom or some other formal setting).
Writing out your thoughts to prepare a story or presentation is great, but you’ll need to fine-tune your draft by speaking the words out loud to make sure you sound like you’re talking – and, in the case of storytelling, like you’re talking off the cuff, as if you’re sharing with friends.
It’s not that memorization itself is bad or wrong, it’s that you need to memorize the right words, words that fit the occasion and sound natural. In the case of storytelling, those words should sound more chatty than dissertation-like.
Second, you can kill the impression an audience has of your perfectly great presentation by running over your allotted time.
So at this event, I loved that the timekeeper used a harmonica to alert both the storyteller and audience that the allotted 5 minutes was up … and then 5 minutes 30 seconds … and finally, 6 minutes. At 5 minutes and 5 minutes 30 seconds, the harmonica merely chimed in to give a friendly nudge; at 6 minutes, the harmonica played until the storyteller wrapped it up.
One young woman was telling a pretty interesting and suspenseful story when the harmonica hummed the first signal. I wondered how close she was to the end, and I was eager to hear what the moral was going to be. When the harmonica hummed the second time, I actually started to feel anxious for her, I still wondered if she was close to her conclusion, and I still was pulling for her. At 6 minutes, with the harmonica playing background music to her increasingly speedy delivery, I forgot all about the interesting, suspenseful story, I forgot about my empathy for her and the telepathic encouragement I was sending her, and instead, I found myself (perhaps a bit too harshly) thinking she just bombed. Ouch!
Going over time is buzzkill. Audiences just don’t tolerate it very well. In your preparation, you’d be wise to leave a cushion for yourself and plan to take less time than you’re allotted. No one has ever complained about a speaker who finishes early!
Know your audience. You’ve heard this bit of presentation advice before, right?
At SmartMouth, we talk a lot about #audience-centricity. It’s a pretty simple concept: focus on your audience and consider things from their perspective. It’s our more specific version of know your audience.
But we probably don’t talk enough about how to know your audience and what to do if they’re a diverse group and want/need different things.
Let’s explore how to know your audience – especially when you don’t actually know them – from these 4 different angles:
1. First, ask, look and listen (our version of stop, drop and roll, if you will). Ask whoever is coordinating the meeting or event about the audience; find out what they know about the audience’s expectations, wants and needs. Do some research on your audience’s industry or organization so you know their issues and priorities (this is where Google really earns its stripes!). Then use what you learned – in other words, be sure to assimilate the intelligence you gather into your presentation.
2. Second, there are some audiences who come into the room with glaringly different interests, some audiences with a single common interest, and some that fall in between. You’re all set with the ones who have a common interest, no worries there. But when you know ahead of time that members of your audience are coming into the room with varying levels of receptiveness or knowledge about your topic – e.g. some hostile/some friendly or some well-versed/some newbies – then you’ve got a challenge on your hands. This is where #transparency will give you a boost!
By telling you to be transparent, I’m recommending that you call it out. Let the audience know you know (that there’s a challenging dynamic in the room) so they don’t have to worry whether you know or, worse, think you’re disconnected. For example, you might open with: “I’m looking forward to talking today about XYZ Initiative. I know this is a project that brings strong supporters and equally strong detractors into the room. My hope is that after my update, we can have a productive, constructive dialogue, honor each other’s opinions, and leave the room feeling like things are on track and everyone’s concerns will be taken into consideration.”
Or: “I’m looking forward to talking today about XYZ Initiative. I know this is a project that some of you are up to speed on and some of you are hearing about for the first time. I will do my best to strike a balance while I present this update. As I go through the material, I’m going to ask for patience from those of you already high on the learning curve, and I’m going to invite questions from those of you who are new to this. By the end, I’m hoping we can have a robust, productive dialogue about the project.”
3. Third, engage them, ask them questions. Dip into the audience for input. If your audience is of a manageable size and you haven’t had an opportunity, for whatever reason, to “ask, look and listen” before entering the room, ask, look and listen when you’re in the room. For example, even when I know my audience, I will often introduce my topic and then solicit the audience’s “goals” around the topic – i.e. questions, concerns, issues on their minds related to the topic. This gives me more specific insight into what’s in it for them and where I might want to adapt or adjust my presentation. The added benefit is that they feel heard, recognized and hopefully, by the end, satisfied.
4. Fourth, there are certain general things that almost every audience wants whether you know them or not. They want you to keep to the allotted time or (let’s face it, even better) to finish early. They want a presenter who is prepared versus one who is noticeably disjointed and delivering on the fly (your audience doesn’t want to be your sounding board, they want to be the real deal). They want to be noticed and included; they want you to acknowledge them, engage with them, be present with them.
In the end, it really comes down to moving yourself toward being audience-centric versus egocentric. Yes, you have an agenda and cool stuff to share. But your audience also has an agenda. And since success is in the eyes of the beholder – your audience – you’ll want to be sure to skew your presentation toward satisfying their agenda. If you’re able to do that, I’m going to bet you end up satisfying your own too.
Feel free to comment on this or reach out with a question, I’m always happy to discuss further or to help!
Recently I listened to NPR’s Doug Fabrizio of “Radio West” as he interviewed British linguist David Crystal about his new book, “The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works.” It was a fascinating and validating piece on what it takes and means to be a persuasive and impactful speaker. He and I agree on many important points.
For starters, Crystal has an interesting theory that really everyone is eloquent. And I would have to agree there is a lot of truth to this. All of us have had impassioned personal conversations and convincing one-to-one conversations. However, we often assume this is not a skill transferable to the podium and to a larger audience. The larger an audience gets, the more nerve-wracking it feels to the speaker, but the reality is that the fundamental skills you use to be eloquent or persuasive when speaking one-to-one are the same for a larger audience.
Crystal notes that preparation and rehearsal are keys to eloquence. Very few people can step up on a stage unprepared and then be eloquent. Preparation not only helps you be more fluent, but it also boosts your confidence. Yet a lot of speakers are so full of dread that they avoid preparation (denial!) and then at the last minute wing it. In the end, though, this makes everything worse. It affects the speaker’s ability to genuinely project confidence as well as the ability to be truly connected to the audience – as the speaker will be more focused on trying to remember what he or she was supposed to say next. The only cautionary warning about preparation is that there is a fine line between being prepared and being over-prepared. Audiences recognize and dislike speakers who feel forced or fake. You have to prepare just enough to be fluent with your material and be natural.
Another good point that David Crystal brings up, and one that I always tell my clients, is that the most annoying thing for an audience is when a speaker does not keep to time. That is an instant speech killer. If you are scheduled to talk for 20 minutes, talk for 20 minutes, not 30 minutes and not even for 22. The longer your speech is, even if the time expectations have been set for the audience, the greater the chance you have of losing your audience. With long speeches or presentations, you have to build in moments that bring the attention of your audience back and make sure to add pauses and little breaks so the audience has time to process what you are saying. But no matter what, to go over your allotted time is just about the most audience-unfriendly thing you can do.
In the same vein, it is very easy to overload an audience even in a short speech or presentation. Often, speakers become excited about their material and offer too much or speak too quickly and thus the audience does not have time to understand or comprehend what they are saying. Even in the best of speeches, the audience won’t remember everything, but as David Crystal says, “in a good speech you remember fragments, in a bad speech you remember nothing.”
David Crystal must have been reading my mind, because we agree on another important fact: people can comprehend three points, but after that comprehension takes a nosedive. It is usually best to divide a speech into no more than three important points or messages if you want to be impactful. Otherwise, if you decide you cannot pare it down to, let’s say, less than six points, you are likely to end up with an audience that remembers nothing.