A vital decision when presenting a short talk or story

A colleague-friend years ago scolded me for how I was preparing for a short talk (to be roughly five minutes of stage time). I recall being very concerned that five minutes with the audience ‘just wouldn’t be enough time to make a credible effort…’

During these informal rehearsals, the intro would start with biographical remarks about myself, then progressed to the more relevant meat.

My observing friend looked at me with vivid critical sass after one of the rehearsals and said:

Your audience could care less about you.  They care about the experience you can create for them. They care about your teachable, relevant meaning that can help them.  So stop flaunting your ego with the bio stuff. Stop thinking five minutes is insufficient. Stop abusing your audience’s time and organize your thoughts in 15 to 30 second chunks, and get on with it!

Yikes.

I still recall the humbling crash my ego took from her words that day.  It was a hard realization to experience — that my love for speechmaking had (unintentionally) morphed into a sense of entitlement with time on stage:

Five minutes?! That’s not enough time to sneeze let alone for an audience to pick up on my depth of meaning…

That was my fumbling, fightin’, ego at the time; I shrink at the snobby condescension in my head back then.  But years later (and many short speeches and storytelling since) a fascination grips me as a presenter, storyteller, and devotee of the really short speech format.

It’s a fascination driven by one question:

How can any type of speaker, no matter their level of presentation or storytelling experience, create resonance with their audience in a five minute (or less) speech?

Even seemingly harmless content decisions in short-form stories or presentations can unintentionally distance an audience — vs bring them into your intended meaning.

This one content decision at the start creates stronger resonance: When making really short talks, all content decisions must ideally bridge this experiential distance or ‘separateness gap’ to make a more resonant impact — quickly, from the start. How to do this? Prevent that separateness from ever developing from the beginning.

Solution: Provide listeners with a specific, relevant scene in the first 15 seconds of your talk.

This decision will better convert your audience from a mental observation mode – to a more interactive & mentally more resonant participation mode.

Imagine Ms. Sara Sample Speaker as a hypothetical.

She’s about to give a five minute talk about holiday cuisine.  Her audience before she even takes the stage is in a mental observation mode consciously or not. Sure they know they are here in their seats about to watch Ms. Sara Sample. But their senses and train of thought are very much in observational on-the-outside-of-any-journey-of-meaning mode.

Keep in mind, as this Sarah takes the stage, she ultimately wants to get the audience to mentally journey with her, to mentally be involved in her content’s sense of progression. She wants listeners to be in full-on cognitive participation…not just observers merely consuming the sound of her voice and detached from specific meaning.

So she takes the stage and says:

“I love holiday flavors more than anything.  And each October, I remember as a kid how pumpkin pie would rule our house long before Halloween night arrived.  Dad even polished our special pie trays at the start of fall, and well before buying any Halloween candy for the trick-o-treaters.”

Our speaker Sarah, with this immediate scenic content decision at her beginning, has mentally transported the audience from observation mode — to a scenic experience which their imaginations can experientially identify with i.e. pumpkin pie and Dad fussing about. The simple scene progresses the audience to along with the speaker (again in the first 15 seconds).  Speaker and audience alike have now shared in live-time this family’s experiential delight for pumpkin and holiday anticipation.

This first 15 seconds of scenic storytelling (simple, non-complex!) easily starts off her short talk with topical relevance and unifies herself with audience expectation.

Ok, so why care?!

Why shouldn’t Ms. Sara Sample’s short talk begin instead with something like…: “I’m Sarah, a chef for 10 years and head of catering at Chicago’s Ritz Carlton. Before that I ran catering for special events, weddings, and holidays at different hotels in Miami Beach and New England. So today, I want to talk about holiday food with you all.”

That’s a passable way to start.

But this type of opener greets Sarah’s audience with a topical distance.

Or another way to describe the concern is this: Sarah is creating for her audience a sense of separateness by giving her mini bio at the start. As in, it’s highly likely that no one else in her audience can relate to being a seasoned chef at fancy hotels. Also her listeners hear her bio as being repetitive, since they’ve (highly likely) already seen it on the event agenda; the conference’s promo; and in a zillion twitter conversations before the date of Sarah’s stage moment even arrived.

But what does the audience have in common with Sarah-the-hypothetical speaker? Her talk’s topic aka holiday cuisine. That’s what they came for…not an oral re-enactment of her resume.

Other samples of scenic decisions at the very start of short talks:

Drew Dudley’s short talk: Everyday Leadership

“How many of you are completely comfortable calling yourself a leader? See I’ve asked that question across the country and I always find there’s a huge number of people in the audience that don’t raise their hand.”

The scenic moment:  The audience moves from their observer ‘seat’ to being apart of audiences across the country who have grappled with the speaker’s question.

Susan B. Anthony’s speech before court: On Women’s Right to Vote

“Friends and fellow citizens, I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, ….without having a lawful right to vote.”

The scenic moment:  The audience moves from their observer ‘seat’ to being involved with the speaker’s current legal threat with the right to vote as common ground between speaker and audience.

I so love the structure and possibilities in short-form presentation! Hope you enjoy and find this useful (comments welcome all the time). More thoughts to come about crafting short-form stories and presentation.

Photo attribution …a short fall by Eury licensed under Creative Commons

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