The 20 minute presentation – they are not as easy as they seem

by | Sep 12, 2014 | Conferences, Intranets

All the presentations at the Findwise Findability Day and many at Intranet Now were just 20 minutes in length. There seems to be a trend towards shorter presentations so that more speakers can be squeezed into a day rather than have delegates take two days away from their office desk. In theory that’s a good approach but my experience at a number of recent conferences is that many presenters fail to understand the implicit rules of the game and end up either saying nothing of value or so much that the value becomes invisible. In writing this blog post I checked out how many presentations I have given over the last six years (the rest are archived off line) and was surprised to find that it was over 300, though quite a number of these have been internal presentations to clients. Over the course of a career behind the podium I have developed an internal clock that enables me to time a 40 minute presentation without looking at my watch, and that is mainly because I’ve worked out how much information I can deliver in a single PowerPoint slide.

In the preface to the 1852 edition of Christmas Stories Charles Dickens observed that he found it much more difficult to write a short story than a novel, and that he had to go about writing a short story in a very different way. I know how he feels. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has a very large collection of presentations from which slides can be extricated and reassembled. In the case of my Findability Day presentation I started from scratch and every slide was created from a blank format. With a 40 minute presentation I can usually end with perhaps two or three ‘messages’ and I have the option to speed through or slow down at points where I feel the audience needs less or more information. A 20 minute presentation has to be very carefully timed and needs to work towards a single theme. Listening to 20 minute pitches over a number of events this year it is clear to me, and I suspect the audience, that the presentation has been redacted from a much longer one with the result that there is no coherent structure. There is a very helpful post on how to develop a 20 minute presentation by Carmine Gallo on the Forbes website.

However the responsibility is not just on the side of the presenter. The conference organiser knows (or should know!) what the audience is expecting. It is essential that the organiser actively works with each presenter to review their content in line with the overall objectives of the event. That takes time but the audience deserves this level of attention. Of course that also means that the presenter cannot leave it to the last minute to compile their slide deck. To my mind two of the presenters at the Findability event had failed to take a user-centric view and you could sense the immediate increase in heads-down on handsets, not to Tweet but to catch up with emails. The problem nowadays is that as a presenter you do not know what use is being made of mobile devices until later on the day when you see no tweets with your name and the event hash-tag.

One final thought. There will be fewer questions after a good 20 minute presentation because a) it will be mono-thematic and b) there is a sense that a question will throw the entire agenda into confusion. So I would suggest to organisers that there are gaps for a general Q&A with perhaps a group of speakers so that themes that have emerged can be discussed in more detail in an open session. I’d also suggest having a speaker’s corner where after each session a group of speakers could meet up with delegates who might want to have a one-on-one discussion rather than ask a question in an open session.

Martin White