7 Ways to Cut the Fat from Your Speech or Presentation

January 31, 2014

One of the best ways to surprise and delight a speech audience is to leave them wanting more. After all, nobody ever left a room saying, “I wish that speech had been longer!”

Whether you’re putting together your own presentation or writing a speech for someone else to deliver, your first priority is to fight bloat and keep it focused.

The incredible shrinking speech slot

In the age of the 18-minute TED Talk, it’s become more important than ever to keep your presentation short. Few audiences these days expect or want you to hold the floor for an hour, or even for 40 minutes.

Communications coach Carmine Gallo cites brain research suggesting that “cognitive backlog” occurs when you pile on too much information. That’s why he and many other experts recommend a 20-minute cap on presentations.

There are exceptions, of course, such as training sessions or major keynotes. But if you’re planning a new business presentation or pitching an idea to management, then it’s best to err on the short side.

So what can you do to pare down your content to the essentials? Here are a few tips:

1. Understand that a speech isn’t an island.

One of the biggest mistakes that speechwriters and speakers make is that they feel they have to pack every idea into their speech. But if you think of the presentation as just one piece of a larger conversation, then you’ll take a lot of pressure off yourself.

Keep in mind that you can supplement your content before, during and after the event with handouts, workbooks, visuals, white papers, emails, links to websites and videos, and many other things.

2. Ask yourself: Why here? Why now?

Think about what makes a speech special:

  • People can watch you live, in person and in 3-D.
  • You can more easily convey warmth, emotion and passion.
  • Audience interaction is more fluid and natural.
  • You can harness and feed off the energy in the room.
  • You can gauge your audience’s response, making adjustments as you go.

All of that is vastly different from what you can accomplish in a memo, an online chat, or even a Skype session or Google Hangout.

So the question is, how can you put all those advantages to work for you? You can start by focusing less on information and more on inspiration — less on lecture and more on conversation.

3. Don’t settle for sharing information.

A classic approach is to ask what you want your audience to know, feel and do.

Unfortunately, most presentations emphasize just the “know” part of the formula. That’s the easy stuff — the information and the data.

Merely passing along information is the least you can accomplish with a speech. If that’s all you’re doing, then you might as well just send a memo to the audience.

You’ve got these people in a room together — don’t squander that opportunity. Make your presentation about something more.

4. Appeal to emotion.

Countless studies have shown that you can throw all the facts you want at people, but you’re not going to change their minds unless you win their hearts.
Do you want them to feel:

  • Inspired?
  • Reassured?
  • Challenged?
  • Admonished?

Focusing on emotion helps you avoid the dreaded data dump and it provides the trigger that gets your audience to the next phase, which is the doing.

5. Drive them to act.

Action is what it’s all about. Do you want them to:

  • Hire your firm?
  • Buy your product?
  • Implement your idea?
  • Approve your project or budget?
  • Join your cause?
  • Seek more information?

Clarify whatever action you want them to take, and let that serve as a filter for the information you choose to include or omit from your speech.

6. Stick to your point.

Make the desired action your objective. Put it at the top of your draft so that at every stage of review, you remind people of the speech’s purpose.

This helps reduce mission creep — the tendency for a presentation to expand and go off course because everyone has an idea for one more essential piece of information that must be included.

If that starts to happen, then point to the objective and remind people that the speech is not the only opportunity to get the message across.

7. Focus on three things.

Steve Jobs was famous for focusing his presentation on just three points. It’s the way our brains work. We can grasp only a handful of ideas at a time — about three to five.

Plus, if you’ve only got 20 minutes, then you’re not going to have much time for more than three.

So take a look at your content and think about the three most important things for your audience to know. Make your speech about those three things and throw out the rest.

How to leave them wanting more

Especially with a short presentation, your goal should be to call your audience’s attention to an issue or problem, suggest a solution, hit a few key points and intrigue them enough to want to know more.

Remember, if you try to say everything, then you won’t end up communicating anything.


Rob Biesenbach

Rob Biesenbach works with leaders who want to persuade, sell and compel — anytime, anywhere, and in front of any audience. He’s helped hundreds of CEOs and other executives plan and deliver their most important presentations. He’s also an in-demand speaker and trainer, an award-winning consultant, a bestselling author and a Second City-trained actor.


Gary C. Loncki says:

Great article, Rob. I taught public speaking for several years and love the way you framed key elements for improving the art. The vaudevillian maxim is still true: Always leave'm askin' for more. Best.

Feb. 10, 2014

Rob Biesenbach says:

Thank you, Gary! It's so hard to be objective about your own work, so figuring out what to leave out is very tough indeed!

Feb. 10, 2014

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