Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Speakers, you *can* say more in less time than you think. Really.

I train lots of data-driven presenters who resist brevity. They worry that they'll leave too much information on the speaker's version of the cutting room floor. "I'll have to rush," they think, or "Five minutes just can't be enough. I'll never be able to say everything I need in that time." This holds true no matter what the time allotted may be--it's always too short. If told they must fit into a short time, you know where the detail goes: On their slides.

But you need not rush, nor dump all your data in to a visual. Before going to those extremes, try saying what you want to say in a well-organized way--and recording it to see how long it really takes. In a recent workshop, I was delighted with the before-and-after videos one participant accomplished. In his first try, he rambled, pausing to look at his notes, stammering a bit with ums and uhs, losing his place. It felt endless--to him and to the rest of us.

We did a do-over, focusing on a crisp three-point message he developed during the workshop. He used alliteration to tie the three points together, sharing them in an overview statement, then going through each point with detail describing it, and winding up with a short conclusion. His fellow workshop participants thought this was the shorter of the two, and the more effective.

The time difference? Statement one took 27 seconds. Statement two--the crisper, better one--took 55 seconds. Neither one could be described as long. But statement two packed a punch and held the audience's interest, despite being twice as long--and still brief.  This group of scientists and engineers discovered, firsthand, just how much you can pack into a minute. (Need a real-life example? Biologist E.O. Wilson delivered a defense of biodiversity--thoroughly--in 45 seconds on live radio.)

It drove home the point that speakers rarely understand how long it takes to deliver their messages, unless they've practiced and timed themselves throughout the practice. Your "too little time" might work just fine for the audience--and for your content. Here are some tactics to make the most of your time (and keep it short):
  • Prioritize. What needs to be in your presentation? What can wait till the Q-and-A, or go into a handout or weblink? If you've got lots to say, I recommend you save some for the Q-and-A. What will make you look smart, and reach people when they're curious and warmed up to your topic? What's interesting but not urgent? Save it for question time, and make sure to end your formal preso early so you leave the audience wanting more. If you've saved up some key facts and figures, you'll be ready for questions and able to deliver--and that's a satisfying (and less nerve-racking) experience for both speaker and listener.
  • Organize your presentation content with a structured message. Using a well-developed message or plan for your content means you'll be making the most of every second. Read all my posts on developing messages for your speaking to get a solid overview.
  • Figure out what a gesture, prop or visual can convey, without adding to your words. Showing something without feeling like you have to over-describe it can add heft to your presentation without necessarily making it longer.
  • Observe and time your delivery. If you tend to speed up to fit in more facts, you're not helping yourself make your points. Take the time to learn the research on speaker speed. The takeaway: Your audience can hear more slowly than you can speak.  Learn how to hit the brakes and slow down if you've picked up the bad habit of being a speedy speaker.
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