Monday, June 7, 2010

Thoughts for the thorough: When you leave nothing out

The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out.

Voltaire said that, and he's been dead since 1778. Since then, information has exploded in terms of quantity--and some speakers seem intent on capturing all of it on just the one slide or within the confines of one speech.  "I'm being thorough!" I hear them plead. "My peers will think less of me if I miss a critical fact--or any fact."

It may be that you're unsure of how to summarize, reluctant to choose because you might be wrong or just plain convinced that your audience needs to know everything you know.  But no matter how you approach the task of planning your content, the over-comprehensive approach is a surefire way to drown your listeners rather than refresh them, when all they wanted was to get a drink from the fountain of knowledge that is you.  Put another way, when you choose to avoid being selective about your content, you risk letting audience members walk away with no facts if they're overwhelmed with your encyclopedic approach.  Far from impressing, this tactic may depress your listeners if they can't keep up with the open floodgates.

If you slow down and think about it, you'll never have enough time or slide space to cover everything you know--and no one will sit still for that long. Going faster, cramming more onto a slide and saying things like, "I'm sure you all understand this" are not substitutes for clarity.

So what to do?  Using a content-planning approach takes extra time up front, but pays off in ensuring that you can cover a lot of ground in an understandable way. That's why I encourage you to develop a message and work to make it memorable for you and your audience--a three-point message is just an outline, a content planning tool that helps you identify themes under which you can summarize similar points rather than list them indvidually.  Audiences have been responding well to presentations that revolve around three points for centuries--they're the core of oral storytelling traditions, reflected in the fairy tales and tall tales that are handed down even today.  Planning a message lets you get quickly to the major "headlines" among your points, to answer those "so what?" and "what's in it for me?" questions that are going through your audience's minds.

And what of the facts you leave out?  Let your audience bring them up in questions, so you can reaffirm them and expand your remarks--or so you can be invited back to talk about the things that didn't fit in today's focused presentation. Leave them wanting more, rather than less.

Related posts:  Speakers: 7 reasons I want you to talk less

Making the audience part of your keynote