For Presentations, Half As Long Is Twice As Good

Most business presentations stink. Period. They are bloated PowerPoint-laden ramblings that ignore audiences' key concerns and fail to tell a simple story. Here are 5 ways to make your presentations the happy exceptions.

Here’s a New Year’s resolution that’s a lot easier than losing 10 pounds—and with the tough marketplace we face in 2013, it will make your business more competitive.

Are you a team manager or a sales director responsible for delivering weekly presentations to your teams? Do you lead conference calls with hundreds of employees listening in? Are you the CEO? If so, resolve to limit your presentations to no longer than 15 minutes—including Q&A. It’s not hard. And in today’s world of YouTube attention spans and tough decisions, your listeners will thank you.

Most business presentations stink. Period. They are bloated PowerPoint-laden ramblings that ignore audiences' key concerns and fail to tell a simple story. But in working with hundreds of executives in all industries over the last 15 years, I have identified a few keys to making your presentations the happy exceptions.

Half as long is twice as good.
There was a time when audiences loved long speeches. Massachusetts politician Edward Everett spoke for two hours at Gettysburg at a time when he was considered one of the nation’s greatest orators. Lincoln’s two-minute "address" was jarringly short for the time. In those days, long was fine. After all, no one was itching to return to the office to answer emails.

Today’s attention spans are shorter. The average YouTube video is just over 4 minutes (PSY’s "Gangnam Style" is 4 minutes 13 seconds and has nearly a billion hits). And does anyone really listen to those windy political convention speeches?

About the only place where audiences of any kind sit in one place for more than an hour is the movie theater. And, the only place where today’s business audience willingly sits for long presentations is for a keynote address of a major speaker at a conference or for the company’s CEO delivering an annual meeting speech. Even then, how many of the audience members are actually paying attention, and not checking their smartphones for email, or chattering amongst themselves quietly in the background? Probably more than the conference speaker or CEO would wish, I am sure.

With that in mind, I constantly tell clients to "cut it in half." In our programs, we make our clients create presentations advocating for a business change. Almost all of them can be done in seven to 10 minutes. And that’s before taking questions. That’s just right for today’s time-challenged listeners and hectic work schedules.

Grab the audience like Spielberg.
We could all take a lesson in how to quickly grab the audience’s attention from Steven Spielberg. His masterpiece Jaws opens with a girl getting eaten by a shark. No background on the town of Amity—just a girl swimming in the surf and becoming dinner. The rest of the film is about resolving the problem of the man-eating shark.

Your presentations should start the same way. Don’t open with a bunch of background on how you did your research and what were your assumptions. No one cares! And if they do, they can ask during the Q&A.

Instead, cut right to the "shark," the key challenge that faces your listeners and your business. "We’re charged with increasing revenues by $10 million in six months. I’m going to talk about how we’re going to do it." That’ll grab their attention without wasting time.

Make the body of your presentation pass the $300,000 challenge.
Let’s say you’re about to give a presentation to 20 people. Before the presentation I offer you $300,000 cash and say "You can have the money under one condition. After your presentation, I will approach three people from the audience and ask them to repeat to me your key messages. If all three can do it, you win the money."

If those are the conditions, you will limit your presentation to a few key messages. You’ll keep the messages short. And you’ll repeat them many times.

Any good presentation should leave the audience with a few memorable messages. And it’s not hard to do. Just ask yourself, "What are the three things that my audience must remember?"

I was working with a health insurance executive as he was preparing a presentation on the value of managed care. When I asked him to list the three things his audience must remember, he didn’t hesitate. The plan would:

  • Save money
  • Improve the quality of health care
  • Allow for greater coverage for underserved populations.
Focusing on three points is a simple, highly effective approach. Regardless of how complex the topic, it always needs to be boiled down to three exact points, or your material becomes irrelevant to your audience.

Leave lots of time for Q&A.
Q&A is duct tape for presentations. It fixes almost everything.

Presentation boring? Cut it in half and leave the extra time for Q&A. Greater interactivity improves every presentation. Having trouble persuading? Take more questions. If you answer them well, you’ll convince the skeptics. Worried that you’re leaving too much out? Q&A lets the listeners decide.

Q&A puts you in touch with the audience’s needs. I once helped the head of a supply chain for a large retailer. He was stumped as to how to simplify his complicated topic for 3,000 store managers.

I suggested "Take the three questions that managers ask you the most. Put them on a slide. Then answer them one at a time."

The three questions were:

1."How are you working to improve our in-stock position?"
2."How can you be more responsive to the stores?"
3."How can you communicate with us more effectively?"

It was one of his best presentations ever.

Minimize your slides.
Steve Jobs said: "People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint."

Jobs wasn’t alone in his feelings. I worked with the presenters at a sales meeting where the sales VP banned slides, forcing all speakers to get creative in the way that they illustrated their messages.

Most presentations need no more than five to 10 slides. Certainly if you have a 40- to 50-slide PowerPoint Death Star, you need to do some soul searching.

That soul searching should take the form of figuring out how to focus your message on your audience’s key issues, tell your story quickly by focusing on a few key points and take questions. Lots of questions!

Bottom line: Keep your presentations to 15 minutes—including Q&A. It’s a New Year’s resolution that will help your business and one your audience will be glad you kept.

Find more business resolutions in the Fast Company newsletter.

—Joey Asher is president of Speechworks, a selling and communication skills coaching company in Atlanta. His fourth communication skills book is "15 Minutes Including Q&A: A Plan to Save the World From Lousy Presentations."

[Image: Flickr user Nic McPhee]

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  • krzystoff

    this is true for almost all cases -- there is a growing popularity for alternatives to Microsoft Powerpoint, for example has a dynamic, non-linear, flexible and far more engaging presentations than anything you could ever do with Powerpoint -- it also helps the presenter to focus on the key points rather than getting mired in the text which is one key reason behind Powerpoints' failings.  of course, these are merely tools and any one of them can be abused in the wrong hands. 
    most of us have been schooled at College/University to the skills of giving presentations to a group -- in that environment it is customary to present a large amount of material, for up to a full hour on a single topic with very little mixed media.  in professional environments it's hard to break those habits, but this article (though long) highlights some simple goals to making things work better, that are extremely effective once you give them a go.

    a similar movement is Pecha Kucha, which began in Japan and is spreading globally, where presentations in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (six minutes and 40 seconds in total).  the audience remain focused, refreshed and recall a lot of what is presented.  with a small break are ready for another topic or presenter.  once you try it you should find it is quite liberating.

  • Maria Marsala

    Shortening PPT for a talk, is a very good thing.  I will only say that I used 10 less slides than usual and the talk was still good.  I'll look to reduce them more for the next presenation.

    One thing I have also seen is that an hour webinar is now 45-minutes!

  • J Horvath

    I still believe you tailor your message/presentation/comments to the audience.  Usually, shorter is better and being more concise never fails; however, having more than 15 minutes will work (and is needed) in some settings. 

  • Isaac St Chan

    While I agree with most of the points in the article, I think you recognize that there are different types of presentations and the best is to fit the way you present to the context. I think you also need to see how good presenters make use of powerpoint. 

    For me, I use slides not to show the message on the screen, I use them for two reasons. One, if the presentation is technical, it helps people keep track of what was said and how it relates to the next part of the discussion. Two, if the presentation is ideological, it binds certain images to the message that accentuates the core theme and enhance memory. Think of it like a TV ad, and that's what I am essentially making my slides look like. If people understand that, I think the presentations we see will be much much better than the average presentation we see today. 

  • Miriam

    Once saw a PPT presentation on branding of 80+slides in 15 min: very powerful, almost like a movie but more personal than a video because the presenter was there in the room & he left lots of space for Q&A. It's horses for courses - and personal styles.

  • Elie Geagea

    I have been in sales for around 10 years now, I can remember the times I used PPT to do my job, to be honest, it's not more than 4 times, but when I did, it was not more than 5 slides, if your msg can't be delivered with 5 slides, then you need to rethink your msg, please note that  I am talking about Business presentations and not technical presentations.

    Great article, and a must follow advice.

  • wesleypaul11

    If you can give your presentation CLEARLY in two minutes, you will succeed.

  • Chad Cook

    Slides disappear so quickly nobody looks at them anyway, and none can be remembered after one minute after they are gone.
    If engagement, understanding and connection are your goals for presenting, don;t use any slides and use the three point strategy on a flipchart or poster board.
    Ask questions and allow others to ask questions for engagement, involvement and understanding.
    Nothing new here, just difficult to implement.
    Slides have numbed the minds of viewers/listeners and scrubbed clean the brain power of presenters.

  • Mrrao46

    Examples given are historical as well as contemporary ( Gangam style ) Worth reading and imp implement.

  • David Warawa - PROSALESGUY

    As a speaker, here's your test. The moment someone pulls out a smart phone in the middle of your presentation, they are making a statement. After 1 person does this, others will quickly follow.

  • Powrsk8r

     If the conditions have been set to allow smartphone use during a presentation, the presentation itself may be dead in the water irrespective of how good or bad it is.

  • Scott Berkun

    These days often people use their phones or laptopts to post to twitter, facebook or even take notes. Using a smart phone or a laptop is not necessarily a sign you're doing something wrong anymore.  Of course it can mean they've checked out, but it can also mean they're spreading the word about what you're saying. 

  • David Warawa - PROSALESGUY

    Great point Scott. Thanks for making it. Frankly, I've done posted to Twitter during great presentations before. I guess we all have to be reminded of changes in behavior.

  • Georges PEQUITO

    Excellent & short, Joey!. I push even a bit further: No more than 1 minute!
    It does not matter how many slides one uses. Just content.

  • Billium

    This is very sound advice for the sales pitch or proposal presentation but sometimes one is asked to provide an informed audience with detailed, complex or even paradoxical information and also requested to present for 30 minutes and take Q&A for 30. 5-10 slides won't cut the mustard. Infographics, charts, visuals have an important role to play so the rules offered in this article are not hard and fast.  The only golden rule is "know your audience" and the reason they're there to listen to you.