How long should it take you to make three points to an audience that is more or less acquainted with your subject matter? Three minutes? Fifteen minutes? How about 45 minutes, or maybe 60 minutes?
I’m thinking of a particular talk that I listened to, once. The speaker told us that he would be giving us three basic points to think about, then dived into his subject with as much zest as a small boy eating his first chocolate bar. He gave us background and foreground, and buttressed his argument with various quotes and evidence of all sorts. After going over his time limit by about 20 minutes, he eventually sat down. The moderator, of course, lauded his efforts properly with appropriate figurative pats on the back.
I was curious, however, as to how many people actually understood what had been said, so I discreetly asked some people what the speakers three main points had been. Interestingly, half of the people I asked apparently didn’t remember a single point. The other half remembered one, but only in a general way. Incidentally, I couldn’t remember all three of them myself, since they had become so buried in the speaker’s brilliant verbosity, that they had vanished from my memory.
I am forced to conclude that the speaker’s preparation time had been mostly wasted, as had the time the audience spent listening to him.
So how do we avoid this? The following points mostly apply equally to writing and public speaking, though they may need to be applied differently. But for the sake of clarity, I will refer to speaking.
Create an Outline
Creating an outline should be close to the beginning of your preparation. You may want to jot down a bunch of ideas first, but then sort them into a sensible sequence. Choose three or four main ideas, then use the rest of your points as sub points. If they don’t fit, drop them. Most people won’t remember more than three or four main ideas from a presentation.
Creating an outline forces you to be systematic in your presentation. It also forces you to evaluate each point to see if it even belongs in your outline.
You should consider handing out copies of your outline if it is important that people remember what you said. Not everyone takes good notes.
The oft repeated advice to public speakers is: Stand up, speak up, then shut up. In other words, avoid the bunny trails, the clichés, and the unnecessary clutter – if it doesn’t further the purpose of your presentation, don’t say it. Unnecessary clutter only drowns out your message.
Going overtime is rude, counterproductive, and unnecessary. If your talk is scheduled to close down at 2:45, you will start to lose the attention of your audience at about 2:46. By 2:50 people will be squirming. By 3:00 they will need to go to the bathroom. By 3:15 they will be utterly antagonistic to anything you have said all afternoon.
One way to avoid going overtime is to schedule yourself. If you have three points to give and a half hour to give them in, each point can be ten minutes long. Jot down the approximate beginning and ending time for every point in your notes, and check your time at the end of every point. This will keep you from talking for twenty minutes on the first point and then only having five minutes available for each of your next two points. Remember to schedule time for closing remarks and your final summarization.
Your choice of vocabulary counts as part of being concise. Rudolph Flesch said that you should always chose the simplest word that will say what you want to communicate. That’s a bit hard on the ego, because vocabulary is one way of proving to your crowd that you are an expert. But in reality, your purpose for being there is to communicate those three points, not to promote your ego. So either use simple words, or define your words with simple and concise words. If it takes more than a sentence or so to define a word, find a way to avoid using it, unless you know for sure that your audience will understand it.
Who are you talking to? First graders? University graduates? It will make a difference!
If your subject is assigned, hopefully it is relevant. But if you are coming up with your own subject, be sure that is of either general interest, or general use, to your audience. There is little use in speaking to an operations crowd about theoretical subjects or abstract ones, even if the subject is your pet one. If you don’t have the expertise or personal interest in subjects relevant to your audience, refuse the assignment.
Questions are a good way to get your audience thinking, or to get their attention. Just make sure that your questions relate to the subject at hand. I asked a group one time how many of them were taking my class because they had to. Every hand went up. It was a depressing start to what could have been a good time.
It is a good idea to introduce every main point with a question, if possible. The question can be rhetorical, or if the setting is informal, you can go for an actual answer from the audience. Just be sure not to lose control of your presentation, if you ask for audience input. Questions are a great way to keep everyone with you and thinking.
Use Visual Aids
Visual aids are one good way to gain and maintain an audience’s attention. People will remember points they both see and hear for much longer than points that they just hear. One of the simplest ways of doing this for a small crowd is to use a white board or chalk board and write down every main point as you introduce it. Leave them on the board until the end of your talk so that they have a chance to soak in.
White boards have become pretty old fashioned however, and you should become acquainted with power point presentations and their use. This allows you to use charts and diagrams, illustrations, and bullet points to get your points across. The days of ad lib presentations are pretty well over, and people expect you as a speaker to do your homework if they are to listen to you.
Can you tell me in one sentence, or short paragraph, what are trying to tell me in your speech or essay? That is what you want me to learn, and what I should carry away from your presentation. If you can’t tell me what that is, I probably won’t figure it out either. In fact, it’s a good idea to introduce your presentation, and end it, with a brief summary of what you are saying. Give the three main points you are trying to make, at the beginning, and at the end, as well as emphasizing them during your presentation.
After all, what is the use of spending half an hour telling a group something they won’t remember?