When I speak to in-house lawyers, they tell me that one of the most common types of presentation they need to give is a very brief talk, on a very complex topic, to a demanding (or distracted) audience.

These types of talk are not easy and many speakers fail to make their desired impact. This article aims to give you a practical technique to tackle this type of situation.

Let me refer to a quote by former US President Woodrow Wilson:

“If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

Some people mistakenly assume that preparing for a short speech is simple, or even unnecessary. I have encountered professionals who are due to appear before the company directors saying something like ‘there is no point in preparing too much – I only have a ten minute slot.’

Other people adopt the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ approach to presenting. They throw everything they can possibly think of on the subject towards the audience. Sometimes this is because not enough thought has gone into the presentation; sometimes it is because they can later claim to have ticked all the boxes and protect their own position.

While I am sure even President Wilson did not adhere strictly to the timings in his quote above, he makes a critical point that is often overlooked. Getting your message right in a short presentation is fiendishly difficult work. Why is this? You need to think hard about the topic. You need to make clear decisions about which material is rejected. You need to exclude a lot of good material. To do any of that, you must have a deep understanding of your subject and invest dedicated time in the exercise.

The three step approach

I want to share a three-step approach I often used as a litigator and later as an MSP, where I often had to give several short speeches on a daily basis. This will help you to pick out systematically the most important points and remove the weaker ones.

Step 1

Make a full list of all the points that you could conceivably make on the topic. Be sure to capture everything carefully.

Step 2

Go through the list line by line and use your gut reaction to each point. Is it actually a good point to make to your intended audience? If so, give it a tick. If not, put a red line through it and it is excluded.

Step 3

Review the list of ‘good points’ left on a line by line basis. Again, using your gut reaction put it into one of three categories – gold, silver and bronze. All the gold points go into the presentation. Whether the silver and bronze points are included depend upon how many points are there relative to the actual speaking time you have.

All three steps can be done quickly and efficiently so (unlike President Wilson) you do not need to spend a week on it. By all means put the ‘kitchen sink’ into the accompanying written report but make sure the presentation itself is specific and relevant.

Try this technique the next time you have to give a presentation. By getting rid of weaker material and being highly focussed on your core points you can make a real impact in a short talk.

Gavin Brown is a Director at Speak With Impact where he teaches people how to prepare and deliver presentations. He is a former solicitor and politician – find out more at www.speakwithimpact.com

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