WorkWise: Public speaking? Know just how long you should talk

December 26, 2013 

You’ve been invited to speak. You’re one-of-a-kind in your industry; so content isn’t a problem. How long should you take to say it? Should you negotiate a different length than the organization requests?

It might depend, but not for Carmine Gallo, who, in “Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds,” advises keeping all talks to 18 minutes (St. Martin’s, forthcoming, March, $24.99). This recommendation comes from an established conference organization that charges attendees thousands of dollars and online participants for membership fees of $995 to $2,500.

Gallo writes that the 18-minute limit has a biological basis: “It leaves your audience with some brainpower and glucose remaining to think about your presentation, share your ideas and act on them.” He also writes that, unlike a talk that goes on and on, you as a presenter are being courageous in limiting yourself to that small period of time. He suggests making three points only, because that number is compatible with a person’s memory.

But the real secret to the success of this magic number, he explains, is that the content is more creative: “... what isn’t there makes what is there even stronger!”

A speaker domestically and internationally, Joy Montgomery, owner of Structural Integrity in Pleasanton, Calif., recommends gearing your talk to your audience. “You have to say the right things to the right people,” she comments. “Be very focused about what your audience wants to hear, not what you want to talk about.” She also maintains that different venues may require different lengths. For example, you’ll compress for a YouTube video, which shouldn’t exceed three minutes. Montgomery recently judged written presentations from start-ups in the clean technology accelerator Cleantech Open in Palo Alto, Calif.

Targeting virtual settings, Premier Global Services Inc., an audio and web-conferencing products provider headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., obtained feedback from 1,400 respondents among its client companies. Their suggestions led to four lengths, five minutes to an hour, depending upon the purpose, according to Sara Pilling, vice president of strategic communication.

Who are the respondents? “A detailed demographic breakdown was not available for this survey,” Pilling reports. For this reason, it’s difficult to know what to make of the reported 60 percent of participants who want online presentations to be 30 minutes or less. Still, there’s one thing we do know. She mentions that people are multi-tasking and very much in need of being engaged.

Montgomery remarks about a 45-minute webinar, “I’d be paralyzed. They’re very difficult. You’re distracted by pressing matters all around you. You can listen faster than we can talk; so when a person is droning on and on, you leave mentally and come back, having missed a little. All of these little things pop in. The slower presenters speak, the more time you have to check out (mentally). If they’re talking about things that aren’t on point, you drift away even more.”

As a presenter, you may have more options about length than you think. Pilling comments, “You’re in the driver’s seat. Negotiate the time you need. You have the game plan together and are ready to execute.”

Before you race to be a maverick, however, when your presentation fills a specific time-slot, be judicious about suggesting a change. Consider why others are asking for a defined length. Montgomery imagines a speaker proposing an 18-minute slot being told, “Book a room and get an audience and you’re only going to talk 18 minutes?”

That might warrant a compelling negotiation about content quality versus quantity, and human biology. Just don’t lose that engagement.

Mildred L. Culp of WorkWise® welcomes your questions at culp@workwise.net.

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