Here’s an all-too common scenario: Three presenters are scheduled to speak at a seminar, for 15 minutes each. The first two presenters go way over their allotted time, despite the timekeeper’s hand signals, in order hit upon every point they intended to make. The third presenter then comes up to bat, acutely aware that his or her time has been cut short. (S)he blows through his/her slides or notes, lamenting the lack of time, skipping the less-important or already-covered sections in order to focus in on only a few key messages.
Recently, I was the third presenter. I didn’t have PowerPoint slides, but had a long list of hand-written notes I intended to cover. The meeting started a bit late, and the two presenters before me went 5-10 minutes over their allotted time, so that by my turn, I was starting five minutes after I was originally supposed to end my talk. Even though I was allowed to take my full ten minutes, I knew that every minute I spoke would take a minute away from the discussion part of the meeting (undoubtedly the most valuable part). So I had to speak quickly.
As I glanced down at my notes, my brain automatically crossed off about half of the talking points on the page. That one’s not as important. That one’s self-evident. That one can be covered during the discussion. Instead I focused on the most salient and most interesting points, and expressed my desire to continue the conversation.
So the question is – if many of my points could be casually cut from the presentation, why did I include them in the first place? I think most presenters will agree that they try to squeeze too much content into any given talk, even knowing that the audience will only retain a few major points.
This experience gave me an idea for a way to streamline future presentations. The strategy is simple: pretend that you are the third presenter. Prepare a fifteen minute presentation as normal, but then pretend that you’re only allowed, say, seven minutes to talk. Practice out loud, using a countdown timer, to make sure that the time pressure is on. What messages and slides do you keep? What do you cut? Hopefully you will emerge with clearer picture of where the strength of your presentation lies. Go back and edit your presentation, focusing on the essential messages that you want the audience to retain. Plan for a clean, concise talk that goes under your allotted time.
…and next time you give a presentation as part of a panel, ask to go first! 😉