Let me talk for 18 minutes

I enjoy talking – standing up in front of an audience and making a presentation. I am very lucky in having a job that affords me many opportunities to do just this. I am told that I am good at it. There is often a connection between what people enjoy and what they are good at, in my experience. I still feel that I have more to learn in order to get better.

In fact, I have two other, somewhat connected activities that particularly bring me enjoyment: reading and learning stuff …

meMost presentations that I attend consist of a person, who drones on for too long and does not sound very interested in their topic. To make it worse, the only adjunct to their talking is a slide deck, which consists of endless bullet lists, which add nothing to what is said and not infrequently contradict it. I really try to do better than this.

Over the years, I have learned a few “tricks of the trade” that I am happy to share. Here are some of the things that I try to include in a presentation, whenever the opportunity arises:

  • Use pictures. When I can find something suitable, I always replace wordy slides with an image. This might be a diagram or chart or could be a simple graphic; best of all is a photograph. Anything is fair game, as long as it relevant, of course.
  • Interact. It is always necessary to engage with an audience and one way to accelerate that is to get some interaction. I often ask questions or simply ask for a show of hands. It does not matter whether I use the answer – the engagement has begun.
  • Evoke emotions. Many years ago I realized that there was a link between ones emotional state and the ability to lay down memories. In short, if you are feeling a strong emotion, you are more likely to remember what you see, hear or experience. I endeavor to exploit this by trying to evoke emotions in my audience. I think that fear and anger are best avoided; humor and surprise are much better. Sometimes this can be done with words and/or pictures, but I also use props. Examples include bursting balloons, playing with a musical greetings card and giving away stuff.
  • Tell stories. Everyone loves to hear a story, so this may be an ideal way to engage an audience, while delivering an idea. The more personal and topical the story, the better. Words like “I” and “we” are good. Phrases like “When I was traveling to this conference …” are also strong. Of course, a good story can help with the evocation of emotions too.

I am always trying to build on these ideas and refine them, but I am on the lookout for others too. I have read many books on presentation techniques too. When I say “read”, I actually mean “started”, as many are far from engaging. Recently I found a notable exception. At my wife’s suggestion, I read Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo. I had also heard the author on the radio and observed that the book was topping rankings of business books. This was a book that I did read all the way through.

The author of the book analyzed a great many TED talks to try to find out which ones were most successful [the viewings/downloads give that away], but, more importantly, why they were successful. I enjoyed reading the book, but I can say that I did not learn a great many new things. That was OK, because what I did get was reinforcement that what I have been doing is all in the correct direction. Hopefully, this will encourage me to do better.

The key thing that I did learn, however, was about the optimal duration for a presentation. Commonly at conferences I have a slot which is 30, 45, 60 or even 90 minutes. I would generally feel somewhat constrained by having just 30 minutes, but can obviously cope, when necessary. 45-60 minutes seems a much better time period. However, having read this book, I am having a rethink. The TED rules are that the duration of a talk may never be more than 18 minutes. It seems that neurological research supports this as being an optimal time period for maintaining concentration and assimilating ideas. The way that time is used is important too and the book covers this in detail. All in all, I think that I might be asking for shorter slots in future …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2015/03/19/let-me-talk-for-18-minutes/