Seven Tips for Short Talks

Regina Zaliznyak asked me to put together a presentation to help IBM’s Extreme Blue interns give better 4-minute pitches to project sponsors, managers, and other interested people. After thinking about the topic a bit, I realized that I wanted to figure out and share tips on how to make really short presentations.

Short presentations scare people. “One hour? No problem. Five minutes? Oh no! What should I put in? What should I leave out? What if I make a mistake?”

Seven Tips for Short Talks

1. Start at the end. Don’t start with slides, or even an outline. Ask yourself: what do I want people to do, feel, or remember? Work backwards from there. What do you need to show people so that they can take the next step? What do you need to share in order to get them to that point?

Let’s talk about Extreme Blue. What are your goals for the project pitch presentation? You want to convince a manager to use your project, maybe even invest in it. You might want to show people that you’d be a great hire. What are your goals?

Figure out your conclusion. Then put it up front. Don’t build suspense. Say what you want to say in the first thirty seconds, use the rest of your talk to support your point, and emphasize it at the end.

2. Simplify. Be ruthless. Get rid of whatever doesn’t support your point. Save the details for handouts, posters, backup slides, web pages, or Q&A. Four minutes is not enough time for a lecture, but plenty of time for a commercial. Your job is to make people curious so that they want to find out more.

Keep your message simple, too. Translate numbers and jargon into things people can understand. Too much text on the slides means that people will be reading instead of listening to you. Try a few words, images, or no slides at all. That way, people can focus on you.

3. Share a story if you can. One of the best ways to make things human-scale is to tell a story. Yes, your project might change the software industry and create billions of dollars in profit. But your presentation will be more powerful if you can show—really show—how you can make one person’s life better. You could talk about inefficiencies in the food distribution industry, or you could talk about how one apple goes from the farm to your plate. Use a story to make things real, then help people imagine how things could be even better.

4. Start from scratch.

We have interesting quirks, like the anchoring bias. Let’s say I wanted to sell you this <item>. If I told you it’s worth about $90, we’d probably end up at a higher price than if I told you I got it for about $30. That initial information shapes our decision.

So don’t start from a boring presentation. Start from scratch, and add things only if they fit. In fact, don’t start with slides at all. Figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it before you make the slides to support your points. That way, you’re not limited by the software.

Don’t be afraid of starting from scratch multiple times. Put your drafts away and start again. Try a fresh perspective. Change things up.

(Thanks to Cate Huston for sharing this tip!)

5. Schedule. Planning a short presentation is harder than planning a long one.

You have to decide: what goes in? what stays out?

Give yourself plenty of time to work on it. Don’t wait until a week before your presentation.

Always ask yourself: Why is this worth it? Who can benefit from this? How can I show them?

The good thing is that there are plenty of opportunities to learn and practice, if you look around.

6. Seek inspiration. Next time you watch an ad, think: How does it grab your attention and make you want to do something? Next time you watch a movie or a TV show, learn from how it tells a story. Next time you have a conversation, think about words and flow.

Practising isn’t just about running through your slides and your scripts. Try parts of your talk in your next conversation with your six-year-old niece. Talk to your friends. Sketch your slides during breaks. Dream about your talk, even.

Don’t reveal anything confidential, of course. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to learn, and you’ll find plenty.

7. Stay flexible. Four minutes flies by. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be anxious. You’ll forget things. That’s okay. I’ve given dozens of presentations. I still get nervous. I still get anxious. I still forget some of the things I want to share.

Stay flexible. If your slides don’t show, if your animation flops, if your demo fails, don’t panic. You don’t even need to apologize. Certainly don’t apologize for your apology. Keep calm and carry on. If you focused on a simple message (perhaps in a memorable story), you can share that no matter what.

This is also where keeping your talk simple helps. If you have very little text or you have simple diagrams on your slides, you can talk for as long or as short as you want. On the other hand, if you have lots of text or complicated diagrams, people feel short-changed if you flip through them too quickly. Keep things simple and flexible.

And have fun!

Resources

Watch short presentations to get a sense of how much you can fit into one. Pay attention to what you like and don’t like. Bad presentations can be just as informative as good ones.

Here are some sites worth checking out:

  • Ignite Talks – 20 slides, auto-advancing after 15 seconds each = 5-minute presentation. And you thought your pitch was tough!
  • TED.com – good source of inspiration for talks
  • Presentation Zen and Slideology – slide and presentation design tips
  • http://www.joelenriquez.com Joel Enriquez

    Thanks Sacha for sharing these amazing tips :)

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    You’re welcome. I’m looking forward to learning from your experiences and other people, too!

  • http://koshurbatt.wordpress.com/ Shri Ram

    Sacha,
    Working in an Agile SD environment, I’ve given plenty of presentations, through standups, demos, and launches, but the main driver has always been trying to consistently deliver a single message through the talk. Your ‘start at the end’ philosophy makes so much more sense, that I’ve been forced into retrospect about the way I initiate dialogue – which in my view is the whole point of a presentation. Really interesting pointers, all.
    Cheers!
    Shri Ram.

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