Presenting in front of a crowd usually gives me the shakes. I compensate by talking quickly through slides stuffed with facts. I rarely rehearse. Instead, I'll usually keep a few main points in my head and improvise the rest of a 15- to 20–minute talk.
In my experience, my approach to public speaking was never great to begin with. In addition, while longer, formal talks are important, I still wanted to make an impact out of much briefer chances to say a few words.
That's why Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis founded Ignite Talks in 2006, after being barred from participating in another speaking community. Ignite is based around what it calls the "short story talk," a format designed to make the most of really strict time constraints: five minutes max, with up to 20 slides that auto advance every 15 seconds. Every sentence counts.
In the 10 years since its founding, Ignite has hosted over 300 speaking events worldwide, at venues as diverse as schools in Africa to the White House. This year I was invited to participate in Ignite's first-ever event at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, as part of an eclectic lineup of 40 speakers.
When I accepted Ignite's invitation to speak, I knew I would have to invest the time to properly prepare a "short story" talk. "Figure out what the essence of your message is," Forrest insists. "And deliver it fast." Here's how I learned to do that.
"If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter," the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote in 1657. What he found is still true today: Concision usually takes more upfront work and strategic thinking than long-windedness.
But the benefits of keeping it short are often long lasting. "Ignite helped me create Startup Metrics for Pirates in 2007," Dave McClure tells me. "I put together all the disparate pieces of my startup advice in one coherent philosophy." McClure's five-minute talks are peppered with profanity, and emojis grace his slides. But he founded the renowned incubator 500 Startups in 2010 based partly on his Ignite talk, which distilled McClure's philosophy to its essence.
Ondi Timoner, the only two-time recipient of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for documentaries, mentions that "speaking at TedxKC and my Masterclass allowed me to reflect on my journey behind a camera. However, Ignite's five-minute limit forced me to identify the most vital stepping stones in the narrative of my work."
For me, honing the story of my company True&Co was a chance to practice imaginative consumer-ready messaging in front of a live audience. One of the messages I worked into my Ignite talk later evolved into a key page of a new print catalog we released nationwide.
These are a few of the key lessons I've learned about giving powerful talks in just five minutes.
1. Focus on the problem you're solving. Speakers often make the mistake of promoting a company or a product, which puts audiences off. Most listeners don’t sign up for a commercial, but they are interested in the problem you encountered, why you thought it was important, and how you solved it in a novel way. Present the puzzle and your solution, and you won't sound promotional.
2. Speak to the audience, not yourself. "Speaking clubs taught me that public speaking is more than words strung together. It is an opportunity to take my audience on a journey with me," notes Elaine Lee, a former volunteer city governor for Toastmasters (and, in full disclosure, my cousin). She has a point: Facts may be intriguing, but only stories are truly engaging. The latest data that you tried so hard to remember often doesn’t register—the overall emotional arc of your narrative is what’s really memorable.
3. Start simple, with just a couple words per slide. Outline your talk and build your deck with only the barest amount of text on each slide—pare it down to just one or two words apiece. Then record yourself, and force yourself to listen to your talk. Iterate and repeat. Only then should you spend the time finding the perfectly evocative, just-so phrasing.
4. No notes, no memorizing. Improvising can make it more difficult to get your key message across, but it's pretty much always better than reciting a speech from your notes. You'll lose the connection with your audience and come across as rote and inauthentic if you do. When you practice, focus on remembering how you flow from one point to the next, not word to word or sentence to sentence.
5. Humor is great—if it's natural. You don't have to be funny. There's nothing more painful than forced humor. But I've found that a shortened format makes it more natural, because you don't really have time to wind up to a punchline. "People are more likely to laugh during short talks, because you are doing something that is unnatural," Forrest says. "Everybody knows . . . and appreciates it."
6. If you mess up, carry on. You are the only one who knows what you were about to say, or that your last slide was wrong. If you don’t give it away, no one will ever know.
7. Practice with like-minded folks. Remember that "speaking club" audiences are the most supportive in the world—whether it's Ignite or any other group you hunt down so you can practice your own speaking chops, you'll find a community of people who've deliberately sought out to do the same. Chances are you'll be able to learn from one another much better than you could had you just practiced in front of a mirror or video recorder for hours by yourself.
Michelle Lam is the founder of the innovative, data-driven bra retailer True&Co. Lam was previously an investor at Boston Consulting Group and Microsoft Corporate Strategy and was Bain Capital Ventures’s first female principal.