Years ago I was invited to give a two-day course on business writing to a group of HR professionals at a Los Angeles-area community college. By this point in my life, I had given plenty of public talks — so I had no excuse for the idiotic blunder I made.
For the first evening of the course, I was scheduled to speak for three hours. I prepared all sorts of exercises and interactive tools.
To bring to life my counterintuitive case for using smaller words in business writing, for example, I drafted a memo that was so loaded with legalese and business-speak that it was difficult to understand. Then I worked through it with the class, line by line, swapping out the 10-dollar words and creating a clearer, more-concise second draft.
The students were highly engaged. I was having a great time. And that first evening went extremely well. For two hours. Then I ran out of content.
With a full hour to go.
Speaking publicly? Don’t forget the basics.
What I forgot to do here was develop a timeline for my talk, to get a sense of how long each exercise and lesson would take — and therefore make sure I wasn’t standing there like an idiot, out of topics but with 60 minutes to go.
And here’s where I offer my first bit of practical advice for you, taken from the book Persuasive Presentations for Business by Robert W. Bly.
1. Make sure you know how long you’ll be speaking — and prepare your talk for that length.
A good public speaker typically talks at about 120 words per minute.
Too much faster and you’ll stumble over your words; plus your audience will likely miss some of what you’re saying. Too much slower and you’re likely to bore your audience.
So, at 120 words per minute, a typical 20-minute talk represents about 2,400 words, or about 10 double-spaced pages on paper.
If you’re asked to present for 15 minutes to your department or give a 1-hour training session to new-hires, for example, it’s a good idea to write down your talk to get a sense of how long it will take.
Here are some more minutes-to-pages guidelines from the Persuasive Presentations book:
- 20 minutes = 2,400 words = 10 double-spaced pages
- 30 minutes = 3,600 words = 15 double-spaced pages
- 45 minutes = 5,400 words = 22 double-spaced pages
- 60 minutes = 7,200 words = 29 double-spaced pages
- 90 minutes = 10,800 words = 43 double-spaced pages
Even if you don’t plan to read your talk word-for-word from a piece of paper — which you shouldn’t! — it’s a good idea to write it down as though you were writing the full transcript. This has the dual advantage of giving you a very good idea of how long you’ll actually be up there speaking, and it gives you much more time to spend with and hone your talk beforehand.
2. Don’t depend on your technology.
Let’s say you’re giving a talk to a group of colleagues, and you’re using a PowerPoint presentation. Now let’s say the computer fails. Or the PowerPoint file freezes. Or the projector bulb dies. Or you’re displaying a website in the presentation and the room’s Internet connection drops.
Would you be prepared to recover immediately, redirect your audience’s attention from the presentation to you, and keep right on speaking and making your points?
What if you’re speaking to a larger group, and your microphone fails?
Technology can be a valuable boost to a presentation, but it can’t be the presentation itself. That job is yours and yours alone.
So, if you want to use PowerPoint to support your talk at the meeting, great. Just make sure you know your presentation well enough that if the screen went black in mid-talk, you could pick things up immediately with just your words.
Or, as an alternative, prepare hardcopies of the presentation to hand out in case the electronic version fails. Keep in mind, though, that this is a last resort and that it’s generally not a good idea to hand out hardcopies of your presentation materials (speech transcript, detailed outline, PowerPoint slides), because your audience will likely be looking down at the printed documents throughout your talk, rather than at you.
Same goes for a microphone. If you want to use one — or if the venue organizer demands it — fine. But get there ahead of time, grab a colleague and ask them to sit in the back of the room, and then talk without the microphone to gauge at what level you’d need to speak so everyone can hear you if the mic failed.
3. Start your talk by announcing its mission.
Perhaps the most difficult and awkward minute in any public talk is the first minute. Followed by the second. Then the third. If the speaker hasn’t run from the room in shame by that point, chances are it’ll be a decent talk.
But if you’re not an experienced public speaker, you might not have any idea how to get first through those first few minutes, let alone how to make them engaging.
So most people start by thanking everyone they can think of. That’s okay, if it’s customary in your organization. But otherwise, it’s better just to jump in with something interesting.
One suggestion: Start with a very concise mission statement for the talk you’re about to give. One easy way to do that is to start with the phrase, “What I’d like to do here is…”
“What I’d like to do here is tell you a few interesting anecdotes that nicely sum up how our new office policies are having a good effect.”
“What I’d like to do here is recap the disappointing experience we had at last week’s recruiting fair… and explain how I think we can do better next time.”
Make those words — “What I’d like to do here is…” — the very first phrase you say as you stand up in the conference room, settle behind the podium, or otherwise launch into your talk. It’s a great way to signal to the audience that you know how to deliver information concisely and you won’t waste their time. It also immediately orients everyone in the room about what you’ll be talking about.