Crafting Five-Minute talks

I was sitting at lunch across from a talented presenter himself when he asked the question, “Are you coming to the meetup tonight?”

The question made tons of sense because while I'm working in Washington DC for part of this week, my family is actually out here on vacation – a school field trip of sorts where my wife is doing even more amazing things educationally by bringing our kids to both New York City and Washington DC for a 12 day educational adventure.

So my nights and weekends are fully filled with family time. But my wife and I had already carved out time for me to make the meetup, so I replied affirmatively.

I somewhat expected the next question, but never presumed. “Would you like to give a little talk?”

Again, I knew he was a talented presenter himself, so he knew what he was really asking.

“On your vacation, are you up for pulling together some material for a quick 5 minute talk, which I know will take more than 5 minutes?”

And I knew my answer. Because it's always the same. Anytime I can get a few minutes to challenge or inspire people to act, I take it. So I said sure, and we quickly landed on a topic – the topic of speaking publicly.

Crafting 5 minute talks are hard

I'm telling you this, just in case you didn't already know it.

Being focused is harder than spouting off a bunch of thoughts and words, hoping something sticks.

It's why I write longer posts and Seth Godin writes shorter ones.

He's smarter and better. And more focused.

But like I said, any time I get a chance to educate, inspire, challenge or cause someone to act, I'm going to take my shot – even if I fail miserably. And with 5 minute talks, there's always a real chance I might.

But I thought I would walk you thru a rough idea of my process, in case it helps you on your next lightning talk.

Step One: Have a single goal

Some people will tell you to have a main point. One main point. I agree. Almost.

I always have one main goal. And a goal is slightly different than a point.

I might have two points. But both further the single goal. Like in tonight's 5 minute talk.

I had two main points.

My first was this:

Don't freak out about public speaking because most people will forget what you say within an hour

My second was this:

Don't worry about being wrong or right. You have a story. It's your own. Share it. It will be helpful.

But as you can tell, both were supporting a single goal:

You shouldn't be afraid to speak at this meetup.

Step Two: Have a strategy

My strategy was to make two points, the two above, to bring the main point home that everyone, every single person in the room, regardless of their experience or expertise, had their own story and that no one could tell them that their story was wrong.

I decided that I would hit the two big fears (“I might blow it” and “Someone might call me out/say I'm wrong”) and reject them.

But to do that, I needed a way to connect those two points. I needed a strategy. My favorite tool of choice, when it comes to public speaking, is to leverage the things we know now about our brains (neuroscience research).

That doesn't have to be yours. But for me, it let's me create a single narrative that connects these two main points. Which is really the key to step three.

Step Three: Pick a story to start

I started my talk with the creation of the FMRI machine and how it worked.

But I've started other talks with a story of getting my eyebrow waxed.

I've started a talk about a horrible experience with a client who only paid me $100.

I've started a talk with a story about a camping trip where we slept in the car because we got to the campsite too late.

The point is, find the story (yours or someone else's) that will begin the narrative journey that you're taking your audience on.

Step Four: Connect the dots

For five minute talks you can't tell long stories. You can't tell many stories. But you can create a single cohesive narrative.

And that's the fourth step.

You need to start at the start (your story), think about the end (the goal / call to action), and the strategy that you plan to use to move between the two (my two main points).

Then connect the dots to make it fluid. If it's not fluid, start again.

Step Five: Practice the intro several times

I tell people all the time: I've been speaking in public for 28 years and I still get nervous 45 minutes before a talk starts. That's why I prepare the first 60 seconds. A lot. Because by the time I'm done with those 60 seconds, I'm calm again.

But there's another reason to practice the opening of your talk. With 5 minute talks, you don't have time to mess around.

It needs to be tight. Focused.

Seth Godin. Not Chris Lema.

So practice getting that first story down to it's core.

I ask myself, over and over, several questions.

  • What's my goal and how does this help me get there?
  • What can I cut out?
  • How quickly can I get into the main narrative?

This takes practice but it's worth learning. The initial minute or two is critical to capture someone's attention. Normally if I do it right, people are focused, eyes up at me, and listening with interest.

Not because I'm special, but because they want to hear the story. Their brains are begging not to miss a single detail.

This is why I don't waste that time with a description of myself.

The Last Thing to Know

The very last thing to know about crafting 5 minute talks is simply this.

You will only do as well as you practice. Practice is everything.

I didn't have a lot of time to practice tonight. But for a 5 minute talk, I could practice the intro in my head several times. I must have prepped it 5 or 6 times. And I walked the key structure in my head two or three times – while on the road to a dinner, or in the few minutes before the meetup started.

Practice is everything.

If you embrace this reality, and use these steps, I think you'll find it easier the next time you're crafting a five minute talk.