Hope springs eternal whenever anyone steps to the front of the room. And then hope dies. The speaker is a mere mortal. He wants to tell us everything he knows about the process for installing hydraulic pumps in nuclear submarines. We wait for our release, like Muscovites wait for spring. Here are 10 suggestions for keeping it short, which will cause everyone to think you're a star.
- Edit. Speaking to an audience is like feeding applesauce to a 2-year-old. The more you give her, the more that ends up on the floor. Include in your text and on your slides only as much information as is needed to support your point. A speech or presentation is complete when there is nothing left to cut.
- Structure. The DNA of all speeches and presentations is this: Given A, and since B, therefore C. For example, given that Homer Simpson is a man, and since most men love beer, therefore it is likely that Homer Simpson loves beer. All speeches and presentations can be boiled down in this way: Given, Since, Therefore.
- Keep it simple. Abraham Lincoln was our only poet president. The Gettysburg Address, considered by many the best speech in American history, is 272 words long. It tells the story of the past, the present, and the future of our country. Past, present, future is another simple way to build a tidy talk.
- Keep it short. When asked what makes a great presentation, Ted Sorenson, President Kennedy's speechwriter, said, "Brevity, levity, and charity." Notice what he put first. People clap at the end of a presentation because it's over. Science says between 18 and 20 minutes is optimal.
- Use metaphors, not explanations. George Shultz used metaphor to make it clear what the phrase "too big to fail" means. He reminded us that when one old-fashioned Christmas light went out, all the others did too. But now we have strings of lights on which one light can fail, while the others can stay lit, because each light can stand on its own. For a lay audience, that's shorter and sweeter than a technical explanation.
- Don't dump. Beware the temptation to show off. When you only rarely have a chance to present to your boss's boss, be careful. Don't dump data. Make a few points supported by data.
- Try the problem/solution model. Define the problem that your information solves. It's a structure that creates drama and holds attention. Most business presentations are problem solving devices--tools made of words.
- Use verbs. Remove all adverbs from your text. Use the right verb instead. Remove all "reallys" and "verys." Remove all "ers," "uhs," "ums," and "ahs" from your speech. Remove all, "like, you knows," "so, uhms," and "I means..." They garble your message and slow you down.
- Plan. Few of us can speak extemporaneously and be brief. We end up wandering in our thoughts to make our point. Know what you want to say. Write it down and practice it. And when you're in front of your audience, compose your sentences in your mind before you speak them. It's a paradox. When you slow down to compose a sentence in your head, your presentation goes faster.
- Be more than brief. Be interesting. A famous preacher was invited to preach before Queen Victoria. He was warned Her Majesty preferred her sermons short. When the preacher was done, she said, "Sir, you were brief." He said, "Ah, Ma'am, I like never to be tedious." She said, "You were also tedious."
Surprise! We can be boring in 10 seconds flat. Brevity does not guarantee success, but it's a reasonable precaution that will serve you well.