One of the participant’s presentations was overloaded with facts supporting the messages he was trying to communicate – overloaded to the point that it was hard to follow.
Afterwards, I asked him why so much info? His explanation: “I felt like the speech should be about eight minutes long, so I padded it with extra information.”
In my response to the participant, I cited the famous example of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. He spoke for a mere two minutes, yet his speech is recognized as one of the greatest in American history – its words literally etched into the stone wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
You likely don’t remember this from your high school history classes, but Lincoln was actually the second speaker at Gettysburg that day. Edward Everett, a prominent politician and educator of the time, spoke for two hours before Lincoln – yet hardly anyone (other than history majors and Civil War buffs) knows his name, much less remembers what he said.
The day after the Gettysburg dedication ceremony, Everett wrote to Lincoln, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Focus on what's important
Here’s how I deal with the length of my presentations:
- First and foremost, I focus my preparation on making sure the presentation accomplishes the objectives – the audience’s and mine – not on the time it will take me to deliver it.
- I organize the presentation into five segments:
- The main point I want to make – what I want the audience to be thinking when they leave the room – delivered in a way that is as interesting as I can make it.
- The three main messages that will lead the audience to that main point – including what they need to know about the topic, how I want them to feel about it, and anything I want them to do as a result of what they know and feel.
- A restatement of the main point I began with – again, delivered as memorably as I am able.
- Then I practice, practice, practice until I can deliver the presentation with total confidence and I have a good feel for the time it will take. If it takes longer than my allotted time to speak, I trim it. If it’s short, I expand it.
Finally, I go back and identify the places in the presentation where I’ve included something interesting (emphasis on interesting!) such as a personal story, an example, a question to the audience, or something similar. These elements not only help engage the audience and add variety to a presentation, they’re pieces that I can expand or shrink if necessary to adjust the overall length of my speech on the fly.
One word of caution
If you’ve have been given a time limit, never exceed it for any reason. Audiences are much happier if you cut it a little short (giving them extra, unplanned time to do what they need to do) than if you run over and steal their precious minutes.
And remember this: no one grumbles about the length of a really engaging and effective presentation. But they’ll complain about the length of a boring, sloppily organized and poorly delivered presentation every time – even if it’s only two minutes long!
So what do you think? Does the length of a presentation matter? How do you manage time when you're preparing, delivering?