Big Fish Little FishYou know the saying “life is short, eat dessert first,” right? Well, in my view, the communication equivalent is “attention spans are short, deliver the point first.”

Presentations are too often long and tedious – a phenomenon that has given rise to short presentation formats like TED Talks, Pechakucha, and Takahashi. Audiences cannot get enough of these nano-presentations.

But how do you get there? How do you deliver “really important stuff” in short order like that? The answer is: Regardless of whether you have 6, 18 or 60 minutes, you deliver the main point first. Yep, serve dessert first.

Attention spans are and always have been short. What makes grabbing and holding attention more difficult these days is that we face more competition for attention. Handheld devices haven’t necessarily shortened people’s attention spans, like you might think, but they have provided audience members with what is literally a handy diversion.

In order to grab and hold onto your audience’s attention, you must prioritize – in two ways:

1. First, prioritize by bringing only the most relevant and compelling material to the presentation; you cannot bring everything you know about your topic.

2. Second, prioritize by flipping typical chronology and delivering your conclusion before you present your evidence (serve dessert first). You can do this for the presentation overall, as well as for each section of your presentation.

Let’s deconstruct how we typically communicate: When we want to make a point we usually present all our evidence and then finish with a conclusion, our main point. What if we were to flip the order and reconstruct? How about if you were to present your main point – or conclusion – first and then back it up with your evidence? This way, you grab your audience’s attention and give them context for understanding where all the information fits and why it’s significant so they’ll continue to pay attention.

If we were to deconstruct even further and dig into the two elements we’ve been talking about – conclusion and evidence – we arrive at what I call the separation of messages and information. For this explanation, I often use fish as a metaphor and retention-boosting imagery – big fish and little fish. Messages are your conclusions; they convey value or significance. I like to call messages your “big fish.” Information is your evidence; it’s all the background, details, facts and data that support your big fish. I call information your “little fish.”

The culprit behind the tediousness of most presentations is the little fish. Too often there are too many of them and they are delivered first. This, of course, forces the audience to wait to find out why the little fish are even important and then causes your audience to distract themselves.

Do yourself and your audience a big favor: Do the work ahead of time to separate out your big fish from your little fish and then lead with your big fish (serve dessert first). Your big fish will grab your audience’s attention and not only will it give them a reason to hang in there with you but it also will give them something they can remember.

Beth Levine