Kiss long presentations goodbye

When it comes to great presentations, shorter equals better. Some of the greatest speeches in history have been under 20 minutes in length:

  • John Kennedy inspired a nation in 15 minutes with his famous ‘moon speech’ in 1962
  • One of the most popular commencement addresses of our time, was delivered by Steve Jobs in 15 minutes at Stanford University
  • Martin Luther King shared his dream of racial equality in just 17 minutes

Research shows that people can only focus intently for 5 minutes before their attention begins to decline, and after 15 minutes this dramatically decreases even further (Ralph A. Burns, 1985). This was before the invention of social media which has purportedly decreased our attention span from 12 seconds at the turn of the millennium to 8.25 seconds in 2015. It’s the reason behind why TED Talks are restricted to just 18 minutes, as TED curator Chris Anderson explains:

“It [18 minutes] is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention.The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.”

But it’s not just about cramming as much information as possible into a shorter presentation, too much information can lead to fatigue so our audience actually forgets what we have told them. Leading communication researcher Dr Paul King of Texas Christian University  says, that cognitive processing—thinking, speaking, and listening—are physically demanding activities. If you pile on too much information, you create “anxiety”—cognitive backlog—and your audience will actually turn on you!”

So how do you communicate your message without overloading your audience or losing their attention? These three rules can help:

10-20-30 Principle

When planning your presentation, venture capitalist Guy Kawaski advises the 10-20-30 Rule of PowerPoint. This states that presentations “should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.”

The Rule of Three

Your audience will struggle to retain more than three or four pieces of information in their short-term memory. If you want to cover more key points, try to focus them around three themes to ensure a focused presentation.

The Glance Test

Apply the “glance test” to your slides – can your audience comprehend the content of your slide within 3 seconds? If not, they will spend more time reading your slide than listening to your message.

Whichever rule you follow, just remember to Keep It Short and Simple (KISS).

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