20 minutes. Two weeks. That’s what I had to develop this recently and the time I had to do it in. Except it wasn’t just any presentation, it was the opening keynote of StartupFestival Montreal. And it was going to be custom to them.
Lest you be horrified at my procrastination, my prep for this actually began closer to six months before that, but when it came down to what I was actually going to say and show, I had only left myself two weeks to get it into shape (the cobbler’s kids have no shoes, after all).
And more often than not, I’m going to bet you have even less time than that to prepare a presentation you have to give.
So how do you prepare a great presentation when time is short?
1. Focus less on what you’re going to say and more on what you think. This distinction between “what shall I say?” and “what do I think?” is from a 1902 (!) book on public speaking by J. Berg Esenwein, and I love it. I love it because you may not always remember what you’re trying to say, but you’ll always be able to talk about what you think. That’s why step one in short-term prep is to figure out, quickly, what you think about the topic you’ve chosen.
For StartupFestival, I had long ago told them I’d talk about “Getting the Green Light” for ideas, but to prep for this particular talk, I kept thinking about how startups (and most companies, frankly), lead with themselves as The Right Answer… The problem is, those same companies usually forget to include the audience’s question, or questions, in the equation. I decided I wanted the audience to leave not just questioning their current approach but also with some tools to start building their audience’s case for their idea.
All of that is pretty consistent with other things I talk about, so my thinking wasn’t necessarily new here, even if the talk was. That saves me — and you! — a lot of time when you have little time to prepare. Stick with what you have strong opinions on, and the words will come.
2. Draft the case for your idea. For all the reasons I wanted to talk to the startups and founders about not leading with The Right Answer, I couldn’t do that with this group, either (or… ever). So, I needed to follow my own thinking and make sure I had the case for my idea. To do that, I decided on:
- My desired outcomes
- My idea’s audience
- My “message type”
Then I worked on the rest of the case:
- The audience GOAL (the question they’re asking now)
- The PROBLEM of perspective that I would ultimately help them solve
- The TRUTH that would make the problem impossible to ignore
- The high-level CHANGE I wanted them to make
- The ACTIONS I could realistically teach/show them
I captured it all in the Red Thread® Checklist I’ve been working on (you can see the one for this talk here, and a blank one for you to use on your own presentations here), and then was ready to start building the talk itself.
3. Start scripting what you’ll say… and how. There are a couple of ways you can go with this next step. Usually, once I have the Red Thread of my talks, I start building slides. Since I design and build my own slides, that prep often serves as accidental rehearsal — I’m going over the order of the slides, what I’m going to say, and what needs to be on them so often that I internalize the flow of the talk.
In this case, though, I had a hard, tight time limit. It’s VERY true that short talks are harder than longer ones, so in this case I decided that I wanted to make sure I hit a word count first. I’ve found that 135 words per minute is the magic number for me and the amount I tend to add in when I speak. I was given a 20-minute slot, but with intros, inevitable delays, and the possibility of needing to run shorter, I planned for 15. That meant my “script” (more on that in a sec) had to come in at no more than 2,025 words.
Instead of writing a prose and paragraph script, though, I write “scriptlets,” which is what happens when a script and bullets have a baby. It’s what I would likely say, in the language I would use, but I don’t let myself write in paragraphs. I do that because it’s VERY hard to break up a paragraph once you’ve written it, but very easy to delete a bullet. Writing this way is also accidental rehearsal, as it makes me plan where I would break up sentences conversationally and where I would naturally want to take longer pauses (“beats”).
There were two other things I did before I actually started writing, though: I figured out a “meta-metaphor” that would capture my core idea conceptually and found a specific, audience-appropriate example to use. The time was too short to faff around with anything more than that.
Given the short time frame, it was critical that I could get pretty sophisticated ideas across quickly. Nothing’s better than a metaphor for that, since you can borrow from what people already know about something to apply to this new situation. In this case, my meta-metaphor was the game Jeopardy!, and how hard it would be to play if you only had the answers (and not the categories, which were my stand-in for a startup’s case for their idea). The other thing that can carry a lot of weight in short time frame is a specific example, so you can “show” and not just “tell.” So, I chose the Red Thread I worked on with one of my startup clients that’s in a similar phase as the audience.
With those two anchors and my Red Thread in mind, I started writing. If you’re interested, you can see my working document here, which is what I used for scratch work before I filled out my checklist officially, and where I started writing the scriptlets underneath. You’ll see in the table part of that document how I worked through several different options for Goals, Problems, and Truths (and you’ll note that the final Truth isn’t in that table at all. It came as I was filling out the checklist). The draft script starts on page 7 and goes through page 12. On page 12, you’ll see a horizontal line with what looks like more script underneath. It is — that’s me capturing other versions of what I wrote, or what I started to cut out once I hit the word count.
Once I got a working flow on that document, I switched over to a scriptlets-only one where I could get it even tighter.
4. Build slides that smooth the way. First off, slides aren’t necessary when you build a talk this way, I promise. If you build the case — the story — first, you don’t need them. But I like having slides for several reasons:
- (1) Building them helps me internalize the talk.
- (2) People expect them. While alone that’s not a reason to build them, I like to have them so that any pictures of me on stage also include my main messages. That’s particularly useful in social media-savvy crowd.
- (3) I’ll admit: with a new talk, they help keep me on track.
With this particular talk, there was a fourth reason: since I was going to be breaking down examples of pitch openings (and giving them a handout with the pitches on them wasn’t an option), having the words on screen for them to see would help my audience more than just hearing me say the words alone
That said, my slides are VERY spare, as you can see if you click that link. There’s a lot of them, sure, but I move quickly through them. I also use builds, particularly on the heavy-text slides, so that people don’t get overwhelmed. The first slides I build are my Red Thread ones (in this case, they’re the green ones with white writing in the grey box). And then I start to fill in between. You may notice two other things I do with my slides.
First, I treat similar-level ideas in a similar way. The Red Thread statements are all treated the same way (the green ones I just told you about), lesser concepts have a light grey background, slides that represent what the audience is thinking or doing have a white background, etc. That changes slightly from deck to deck. For example, in my Red Thread talks, the Red Thread Statements are all on red slides, lesser concepts are on white, transitions on dark grey, etc. But the reason I do it is to help the audience’s brains subtly categorize information. “This is important,” “This is teaching,” etc.
The second thing I do is repeat imagery, for much the same reason I create slide types. Given the title of the talk, the light bulb plays a big role, so I use it “lit” (for both red and green lights), “unlit” (on dark grey), and as the destination on the “gap” slides. I also bring back the Jeopardy! imagery several times.
The repetition helps the audience connect ideas through the talk, and works with how people learn. I even repeat styles across my decks so that my decks all look like my decks, even if they are different from each other. (The biggest hallmarks of my decks are the use of the same primary font, color blocking within the same palette, and using engraved images in place of what otherwise would be crappy clip art. I extend that look and feel to my website, too, so that it all feels connected.)
As I build the slides, I add into the presenter notes the scriptlets I drafted, and continue to edit, refine, and reorder the talk as I build.
5. Rehearse until you’re ready. I’ll admit that this is where slides help me, even if I don’t end up using them. The slides end up as flash cards, of sorts. Since there’s not a lot of words on them I have to *know* why that slide is up and what I’m going say while it is.
But here’s the trick: I rehearse without the presenter notes pretty much as soon as I have a working deck. I saw Sarah Silverman on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” once, and she talked about doing something similar with her standup routines. Many standup comics painstakingly script their bits, revising and revising on paper until they’re perfect (Jerry Seinfeld is famous for this). Sarah explained, though, that she writes her script out once… and then throws it away. She writes it to get *A* version of it started, and then starts delivering it out loud to get it to where she wants it.
That’s what I do, too. I have the scriptlets, and the presenter notes, but as soon as I don’t want to (that’s not a typo!) I remove the crutch of those notes. That’s the ONLY way I can be sure it’s totally in my head, is to force myself to recognize where I’m forgetting something, or where transition isn’t smooth. Those are the places where I’ll go back and either add or rearrange something in the deck so that I can get through it without a hitch.
The key is to make sure I follow my mantra: “Don’t memorize. Internalize.” I want to make sure I’m consistent with my delivery idea-to-idea, but not necessarily word-for-word. After time, the words often do end up being the same, but not because I decided ahead of time that’s what they should be, but because that’s what ends up working best out loud. Sometimes I’ll record a voiceover with the slides, which helps me (a) make sure the talk fits in the time allotted and (b) can be a nice little extra giveaway for people who come to the talk.
Regardless, I run through it and through it, and eventually start running through it without the slides, too, (even if I’m planning to use them). I also see if I can run through it backward through the slides. This makes sure I really know it, and also makes sure that I can sail through any tech difficulties that arise.
Once I know I can give it with or without the slides, it’s ready to go.
So what does the timing on this actually look like? Well, as I said, I’d been thinking about this for about six months. But within the two weeks, it looked like this:
- 14 – 12 days out: Draft the case / fill out the checklist. While this spanned two days, the total time was probably 1-2 hours.
- 12 – 6 days out: Draft scriptlets. This was a total of about 5-6 hours. Figuring out the case first saves you time here, because the scripting ends up being about how to get from one Red Thread Statement to another, not figuring out what to think in the first place.
- 6 – 4 days out: Build slides. This was a SOLID 10 hours of work. maybe 12. The slides take time (because I’m picky and I want the images to really work with what I’m saying), but that’s also why they’re so helpful for me. I usually build the slides earlier than this, but the July 4 vacation week happened, so… yeah.
- 4 – 0 days out: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. I probably spent ~30-45 minutes a day on this. That’s two to three run-throughs every day. At least double that on the day before and the morning of. As I said, I do this without notes and without slides before I’m ready to so that I force myself to actually recall the flow of the talk.
All together, that’s about (six months and) 24 hours of time for a 15-minute talk, built from “scratch.” That’s about as efficiently as I can do it and still feel like I really gave it as much attention as it deserved and needed, which I definitely did for this one. The talk felt smooth and easy, and I felt super comfortable giving it.
You may or may not want to try this at home. 😉How do you prepare a great presentation when time is short? Follow these 5 steps. Click To Tweet
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