What Mark Twain and TED Can Tell Us about Making Good Presentations

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Mark Twain once wrote, “No sinner was ever saved after the first 20 minutes of the sermon.” (It’s probably not coincidental that TED talks last a maximum of 18 minutes.) I recently attended a conference where many of the speakers apparently hadn’t heard of either Mark Twain or TED. I started to notice a pattern that distinguishes the better speakers from those who seem to lose their audience.

Since you probably need to address small or large groups of people from time to time, I thought this list of traits shared by effective speakers might be helpful.

They told us why they believed their topic was important for us to hear about. When somebody says “This is why I think this is important”, it gives me a framework. I don’t have to agree with them on the importance of their topic, but it does allow me to focus differently than if they’re just presenting fact after fact, concept after concept, and making me find ways to connect the dots back to my own work.

They stayed within the scheduled time. In this instance, they were asked to limit their talks to 25 minutes. There’s something comforting about knowing when a speech is going to end. Some speakers, although they knew their time was up, made a joke about it and said, “I’ve only got a couple more slides.” And then they carried on for a few more minutes. I could feel my energy dissipate as they continued, and I noticed that my respect for them started to diminish a little, since they seemed not to have much respect for the unfortunate speakers who were going to follow them.

They were organized. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But, sadly, it’s not always the case. One speaker spent a few minutes talking about the ways in which he wasn’t prepared. I don’t know if that was supposed to endear him to us, but it let me know that I was in for a bumpy ride. It was as if this person took it for granted that any words that came out of his mouth (in whatever order) would be like manna from heaven to us.

They were prepared to talk. It’s one thing to know your content, it’s another to prepare a crisp short presentation. That takes practice. I recall hearing the motivational speaker Zig Ziglar say that he always practiced his speeches just before he went on stage. I suspect, that Ziglar had some standard speeches, or at least segments of speeches, that he had done hundreds of times before. But he still practiced.

According to Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like TED, the best TED speakers practice and practice and practice before their 18 minutes in the spotlight. Shortly after Beyond the Wall of Resistance came out in 1996, I was invited to give a 60-minute presentation at a human resources conference. Afterwards, a guy came up and gave me some feedback. He said he thought I probably had some good ideas, but he couldn’t tell, since I talked about way too many things in that brief period of time. Since it may have been the only time I would ever see these people, I wanted them to learn everything I knew about resistance to change. That was a mistake. And I’d like to think that I learned my lesson.

They paid attention to audience reactions. The better speakers were able to gauge how the audience was doing. Were they tired? Were they confused? Was he or she taking too long on a single point and losing their full attention? They could slightly moderate their delivery in response. The less successful speakers seemed almost oblivious to their audience. They had things they were going to say, and when they were had said them, they sat down.

They used slides judiciously. One speaker showed photos of the village where she was working. I realized that these simple smartphone photos allowed me to gain an appreciation for these people and her work in ways that words could no convey. In contrast, some speakers filled their slides with lots of content. Gallo suggests that words on a slide create cognitive dissonance for the audience. In other words, we cannot reliably multitask between reading and listening. And, even if some of your audience defies science and can listen, read, juggle, and text at the same time, why take that chance?

I hope this was helpful. By the way since reading Talk like TED, I’ve been looking at my presentations, and asking myself, is it possible to teach or to explain something in 18 minutes or less? I’ve been amazed at how much more focused my presentations have become as a result.

– Rick Maurer