Conference Speeches Are Not Always TED Talks

September 16, 2012

There was chatter on Twitter recently about conference speaking. Julius Solaris (Founder of the Event Manager Blog) said "Seems that most advice on giving speeches is focused on short time slots.  What about longer 1 hour + slots?"

Great question.

Over the past few years there has been a lot of focus on the short presentation. The explosive success of TED and TEDx talks (in person and online) has mistakenly lead many to believe that "short is better".  Many event planners profess they want to "be like TED" and thus are going to limit their event's speaking times to 18 minutes and having more speakers.  The problem with this is that more presentations does NOT mean the speakers will be any good. A byproduct could be more talks that are blah (or suck).

As a professional speaker I believe a shorter talk is harder to prepare.  There is less room for stories (which is interesting with all the discussion in the events world about "alternative learning styles"... as stories are one way people learn and retain information). Additionally, since most conference talks are not delivered by "professional speakers" it can take the speakers a while to get in their comfort zone. This means that most of their talk will be spent trying to get in the groove. I have heard that TED speakers will invest upwards of 45-60 hours of preparation time for their talk. Most business presentations I have seen do not come close to that level of the speaker's pre-planning attention.

Since the shorter TED format is trendy, I believe this is why so many articles are dedicated to giving the shorter talk.  But the long format presentation (one hour, ninety minutes, or more) is not dead.  There will always be a place for conferences, trade shows, conventions, seminars, and other gatherings to utilize presentations that go beyond 20 minutes.  Both keynotes and workshops cannot get deep without more time on the schedule.

When thinking about a long format talk (as the organizer or the speaker) here are three things you should remember:

1.  Content is NOT king. Yes, I know, I know ... everyone says "content is king" - BUT if we only wanted your content you could email the audience a White Paper. There needs to be some level of experience speaking, style, and ability to inspire an audience. Some call this "Presentation Skills".

Occasionally organizers will tell me they are not interested in "motivational speakers", but all speakers should be motivational.  What is the opposite of "motivation"? Un-motivating? Demoralizing? or "Sucks The Energy Out Of The Room". Without some call to action and purpose a speaker can get lost in the data-dump.

If we say "content is king" we are implying that everything else does not matter.  Speaking is not a kingdom. It is a democracy (and the constituency votes with their attention, their feet, and what they say in social media). There should be no king. Think of it more like the city council:  Content is Mayor, but there is more to it than just one "king". You need content, stories, style, experience, purpose, preparation, engagement, and a relevant topic.

2.  Just because someone is smart or has done something cool - it does NOT mean they belong on stage.  Too often the opening keynote or high-profile breakout sessions are built around a celebrity or industry icon. While some of these people are good speakers, not all of them have the experience level to carry a longer format presentation. An hour or more with a blah speaker can be painful.

A person's career resume is not proof that they have the ability to give a speech. We live in a polite world where unless someone is awful we often tell them after their talk "nice speech", which leads many executives to believe they are much better than they are on the platform.

It can take as many as 300 professional level presentations before people get the level of experience that will allow them to shine on stage.  While some pick it up faster, it is similar to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour theory. There are no shortcuts in becoming great at any skill.

Never forget: The speakers set the tone for the whole meeting!!!

3.  Get the audience involved.  There was a time when a speaker was automatically seen as the expert and the audience was eager to hang on each word. The presentation was expected to be Moses coming off the mountain and handing down the tablets. Today people expect a conversation.  This may or may not mean "interactive" (which is also a trendy topic for presentations).  Conversational is about talking with the audience, not to the audience.

Audiences have a short attention span and if there are not shifts in the presentation along the way ... they will be lost.  If you expect them to sit on banquet room chairs and listen to a speech for 90 minutes without any engagement, then you will find an audience full of people counting ceiling tiles or reading Facebook posts. Telling people to put phones away is wrong (and they wont do it anyway). If the speaker cannot hold the audiences attention then people should go surf the net instead of have their time wasted.

There are many ways to engage an audience, but it must not be forced into a traditional talk. Dropping an exercise into your old presentation to check the "interactive" box will not have an impact. You must purposefully be drawing the audience into the conversation.

Along the way the style has changed ... and no longer is a presentation about a teacher educating novice students, but instead it is peer to peer chats where people can take the info out into the hallways and keep talking with each other about the topics that punch their brains. The problem is that most speakers (and some audience members) did not get the memo.

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