I have a problem: When I give talks, they’re way too short, and I have no idea how to make them longer. I have a *lot* of experience and a *ton* of knowledge to share – but (perhaps from being a lawyer, or maybe the style and personality that begat the profession) I am *very* good at saying what I have to say briefly and to the point (and in a way people can understand) – give me an hour to speak, and I’ll have 55 minutes left over. Short, succinct, and to the point. That’s how I like *everything* – documents, speeches, explanations.
Sooo… what that means is that I’m *very* bad at padding talks to fill in time. Now, generally when I am speaking, my audiences appreciate short-to-the-point speeches. But sponsors and hosts do not. I typically make up for it by padding in lots of Q&A time, and taking lots of questions, and I’m very good at extemporaneously riffing off a question – and fortunately my areas of expertise make for lots of questions. So how do I make presentations that fill the available time slot, whether it be 45 minutes, 90 minutes, or even a half-day?
It’s interesting to get this query as a professional public speaker because I have long since learned that I can unconsciously expand or contract my presentations to any amount of time. Whether it’s a short podcast or a half-day workshop, however long I’m allocated, I can always stop my presentation just a few minutes before the alloted time is over.
My secret? I view giving a presentation as being a storyteller, rather than presenting the facts of a topic. If it were facts people sought, they could find them online or through a book: what differentiates world-class speakers from everyone else behind the podium is the ability to engage with anecdotes, shared experiences, and informal case studies. In a word, stories.
Think of someone like Tony Robbins or Tom Peters. Watch a presentation they give. You’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not “here are four ways you can be more efficient”, but “Years ago, I struggled with learning how to use my time better. I ended up not sleeping at all in my desperate attempt to fit in everything I needed to get done. Until I crashed into a tree one night and ended up in hospital for two weeks, at which point I realized that I *had* to learn how to prioritize my life or I’d lose it completely.”
Wow. Much more compelling, more engaging, and, yes, more convincing for the audience too. If you can find some local storytelling competitions (often sponsored by alternative schools and local bookstores) there are actually professional storytellers who travel around and are just wonderful to hear. Whether it’s about a unicorn and a bear or about corporations following the latest changes to SEC regulations, I think the basic approach is the same: entertain, tell a story, give people real experiences that they can relate to and identify with, and you’ll have lots of content.
This also implies, by the way, that you should not be reading your slides or presentation notes. Very important point!! Learn your key topics, learn how to glance at your notes to get a reminder of what you wanted to mention, and then make sure you’re talking to the audience, not the podium or screen.
Just as importantly, learn how to slow down your speaking. That might seem the antithesis of good presentation style, but too many people get nervous on stage and fly through their presentation as if it’s a race and the first one to the finish wins. There’s nothing more useful than dramatic pauses, however, where, for example, if you ask a theoretical question, wait ten seconds before you answer it.
You really have your work cut out for you, though, because lawyers are typically taught to present their case clearly, cleanly and succinctly. No stories, no drama, just the facts and you’re done. And yet, if you think about the “famous” lawyers, they were all great storytellers. Those are the TV clichés that nonetheless hold true: lawyers who win cases in a court of law are those that can evoke an emotional response from the judge or jury, not those that have the best command of the facts themselves.
I imagine that if you took one of your typical “five minute presentations” and sllowwweedd down, relaxed, and had some fun with the material, injecting some stories, an anecdote, even used a prop or two (try brandishing a newspaper and talking about stories in that very issue that are relevant) you’d be at thirty minutes before you knew it. Then add some additional material, a case study or two, and make sure your presentation is in the following rough order:
- What I’m going to tell you
- The main points of your presentation
- How they fit together
- What I just told you
- Take away points
- Where to go for more information
you’ll find that you’ve just hit 55 or 60 minutes.
Sites like YouTube are a blessing too, because you can find lots of speakers to study and emulate in your own presentations (along with a staggering amount of drivel, but that’s another story). While we’re at it, videotape yourself giving the presentation and then watch it to see what you’re doing right and wrong.
(that’s of limited value, though, because I know that I have a very different presentation style to a camera than I do to a live audience with the energy of the group and subtle feedback of whether people get what I’m talking about, are engaged, etc. Nonetheless, it can be a useful training and self-analysis tool).
There are also lots of great resources for learning how to be a better speaker, from professional organizations like the National Speaker’s Association and the more informal Toastmasters to various books and other publications at sites like Amazon.com. But more than anything else, I think the key is to study good speakers, to experiment with your talks (a good reason to give presentations to small community groups), and to mostly just relax and have fun on stage. If you’re having fun and truly knowledgeable about your topic, it’ll come through and you’ll be an effective and highly rated speaker.