A Question for Public Speakers (or anyone who gives a presentation)

public speakerSometimes an entire post can revolve around a single concept — a single idea that burrows itself into your brain and doesn't let go. I have been pondering this idea for weeks and today is the day I couldn't write about anything else until I got this post out there.

But before I ask you this simple question, I want to make sure we're on the same page.

  • We've all attended presentations.
  • We've all attended conferences.
  • We've watched the schedules fall apart.
  • We've seen speakers go long.

We've all had the same experience, right? As attendees, at least, right?

Can I tell you about an experience I had?

There were several teams – every one of us competing for funding. Every team would go up, present for 30 minutes, and then sit down. The three judges would determine the best business model and award them funding — up to a million bucks.

My team consisted of five folks — each of whom would present a part of our pitch. And I would be presenting the last leg of the presentation — meaning that the time allotted to me would be whatever was left after my four teammates had done their parts.

Of the five of us, I was the most comfortable presenting in public. I had also spent a few years pitching VCs for funding and had startup experience. So the night before, I asked our team to practice their presentations.

To say it didn't go well would be an understatement — as people were tired and just kept saying, “I'll do it when it's time to do it live.”

So there we were — on the day of the pitch — and my teammates started. The first person stood up there and chatted away — taking up over 50% of our total allotted time. Then three more folks went up. And by the time it was my turn, I had 2 minutes to present 5-7 minutes of material.

So here's my question for public speakers

In reading that story, you might think — Chris must have been furious. But I wasn't. Oh, trust me, I wasn't happy. But I was ready for that to happen. Because I knew that without practice, there would be no way that people would be great on their timing.

But I was prepped. I expected it to happen. And that's why I feel like this one question, this single concept is critical to public presenters.

Here it is: Do you have 2 minute, 5 minute, 10 minute, 20 minute, and 30 minute versions of your 45 minute talk?

It's a crazy idea, isn't it? The idea that we would work so hard on a 45 minute presentation and yet be prepped for having a lot less time to deliver our message?

But if your point is to communicate a truth, to educate, to challenge, or to illustrate a main point, and you can only do it in 45 minutes, might there be a bigger problem?

I've been to conferences where as I'm being introduced, the person clipping on my microphone tells me something like, “I know you were supposed to have 35 minutes, but we're running late. Can you try to keep it to 25 minutes?” and when I do, they are often seriously surprised.

But I know this is a reality, and I know you do too. We live in a world where others take too long to say a few things, while we have to condense all that we want to say in a few minutes. But it's a habit that has served me well.

We won!

In the end, I gave my 7 minute summary of my last part of the pitch in 2 minutes. It wasn't as elaborate as I wanted it to be. But it hit the major points. And most importantly, we didn't go over our time.

And the result was that we won the competition. Not because of me. Nope. We won because that first person, the one who went way over, won people over (though I doubt it was on purpose). But I know that if we'd gone over limit, it could have derailed the overall feeling people had about our presentation.

So in the end, being prepared to make use of whatever time was given to me was helpful. And I bet it would help you too!

So prepare your message in different timed versions that lets you stay flexible.