One of the best ways to surprise and delight an audience is to leave them wanting more. After all, nobody ever left a room saying, “I wish that speech had been longer!” So your first priority is to trim the fat and keep your presentation focused.
The Incredible Shrinking Speech Slot
In the age of the 18-minute TED Talk, it’s become more important than ever to keep your presentation short. Few audiences these days expect or want you to hold the floor for an hour, or even 40 minutes.
Communications coach Carmine Gallo cites brain research suggesting that “cognitive backlog” occurs when too much information is piled on. That’s why he and many other experts recommend a 20-minute cap on presentations.
There are exceptions, of course, such as training sessions or major keynotes. But if you’re planning a new business presentation or pitching an idea to management, it’s best to err on the short side.
So what can you do to pare down your content to the essentials? Here are a few tips.
1. Understand That No Speech is an Island
One of the biggest mistakes speakers make is that they feel they have to pack every idea into their speech. But if you think of the presentation as just one piece of a larger conversation, you’ll take a lot of pressure off yourself.
Keep in mind that you can supplement your content before, during, and after the event with handouts, workbooks, visuals, leave-behinds, white papers, emails, links to web pages and videos, and many other things.
So your job is to figure out what exactly needs to be conveyed here that can’t be communicated just as well (or better) in any of those other ways.
2. Ask Yourself: Why Here? Why Now?
Think about what makes a speech special:
- People can watch you live, in person, and in three dimensions.
- You can more easily convey warmth, emotion, and passion.
- Audience interaction is more fluid and natural.
- You can harness and feed off the energy in the room.
- You can better gauge your audience’s response, making adjustments as you go.
All of that is vastly different from what you can accomplish in a memo, an online chat, or even a Skype session or Google Hangout.
So the question is, how can you put all those advantages to work for you? You can start by focusing less on information and more on inspiration. Less on lecture and more on conversation.
3. Don’t Settle for Sharing Information
A classic approach is to ask yourself what you want your audience to know, feel and do.
Unfortunately, most presentations emphasize just the “know” part of the formula. That’s the easy stuff—the information, the data.
Merely passing along information is the very least you can accomplish with a speech. If that’s all you’re doing, you might as well just send the audience a memo.
You’ve got these people in a room together—don’t squander that opportunity. Make your presentation about something more.
4. Appeal to Emotion
Countless studies have shown that you can throw all the facts you want at people, but you’re not going to change their minds unless you win their hearts.
Do you want them to feel:
Focusing on emotion helps you avoid the dreaded data dump and it provides the trigger that gets your audience to the next phase: the doing.
5. Drive Them to Act
Action is what it’s all about. Do you want them to:
- Hire your firm?
- Buy your product?
- Implement your idea?
- Approve your project or budget?
- Join your cause?
- Seek more information?
Whatever action you want them to take, make it clear, and let that serve as a filter for the information you choose to include and omit from your speech.
6. Stick to Your Point
Make the desired action your objective. And if you’re in the unfortunate position of writing by committee, or passing the draft around for approval, put the objective at the top of the document. That way, people at every stage of the review process are reminded of the speech’s purpose .
This helps reduce mission creep—the tendency for a presentation to expand and go off course because everyone has an idea for one more essential piece of information that absolutely, positively must be included.
If that starts to happen, point to the objective and remind people that the speech is not the one and only opportunity to get the message across.
7. Focus on Three Things
Steve Jobs was famous for focusing his presentation on just three points. It’s the way our brains work. We can grasp only a handful of ideas at a time—about three to five.
Plus, of course, if you’ve only got 20 minutes, you’re not going to have much time for more than three.
So take a look at your content and think about the three most important things for your audience to know. Make your speech about those three things and throw out the rest.
Leave Them Wanting More
With a short presentation especially, your goal should be to call your audience’s attention to an issue or problem, suggest a solution, hit a few key points, and get them intrigued enough to want to know more.
Remember, if you try to say everything, you’ll end up communicating nothing.
A version of this post originally ran in PR Tactics.