How can I keep a long talk interesting?
January 9, 2008 7:58 PM   Subscribe

I've been invited to speak at an event - for an entire hour. How can I keep the audience awake?

I have a ton of flexibility on what exactly it is I talk about (although it will have to relate at least tangentially to The Music Industry) but I need to make it work in a 45 to 60 minute format.

My usual schtick is to do a "big" presentation fast - a kind of blitzkrieg of patter that leaves the audience chewing it over after I'm done. The obvious approach is to expand the scope of the talk even further, but then again, even TED knows to keep the greatest thinkers of our time to a 20 minute limit. Also, there are other challenges - like, it's harder for the audience to remember and grok an hour of talk than 15 minutes worth, and while pace might make a presentation exciting in shortform, over an hour it would probably get overwhelming and hypnotic.

It feels like it will affect the entire process (how I prepare, remember, and rehearse; how I deal with an possible bad vibe early on knowing I have 55 minutes to go rather than 10, and so on) so any help is welcome - what's worked for you, good examples of sustained one-person stage presence I could study, and so on.

Subquestion: I don't *particularly* have a central thesis (unlike, say, this talk on corruption) but I could develop one. Do you think it's a must have in terms of bringing structure and momentum to it?
posted by so_necessary to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Do the blitzkrieg, then open the floor up for questions. B giving them a lot of info very quickly, you'll virtually guarantee that there will be questions and opportunities to expand on some of your points. You'll also get instant feedback that way, so you can go into more depth only on the parts that they want to hear more about.

The more you can make it feel like a discussion, the more it's likely to be rewarding, IMO. The caveat is, this works best in smaller groups, but can be good with larger audiences if you're prepared.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:03 PM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: (FYI - and I still think your suggestion is a good one! - audience size is being ballparked as 100)
posted by so_necessary at 8:08 PM on January 9, 2008

I think it all depends who your audience is. Are you talking music to a bunch of music geeks? Or are you presenting the vagaries of the modern music industry to a group who may not know about the evil that lurks therein?

Reason being, music geeks are monumentally opinionated, whereas an uninformed audience might throw you some predictable questions that you can head off in your talk.
posted by brain cloud at 8:15 PM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: Tending strongly towards "informed", I'm afraid...
posted by so_necessary at 8:26 PM on January 9, 2008

I'm a college professor, which means I have your problem twice a week, every week, all semester long. The best trick I know is not to talk for an hour. Break it up. After twenty minutes, play a song. Or ask a question and tell the audience to think about it quietly for a minute while you drink your coffee or just sit in a chair. Or make them vote on something -- that's a good way to get a sense of the crowd. Anything to give them a break from the sound of your voice and help them return their attention to your lecture when it starts up again.

It works for me -- of course, I have the good luck to be teaching math, which is inherently interesting, but I imagine this kind of business can liven up a lecture on the music industry just as well.
posted by escabeche at 8:28 PM on January 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

Plan on speaking for an hour and a half. It is far better to have too much to say and not get through it all than to have people sitting around twiddling their thumbs for half an hour if they don't have relevant or pressing questions.

Break the talk up into two parts - cover generalities and your main points first, then go back over some specific case studies to illustrate your points. If you don't get through these all, they're supplemental as take-home material, but you've still made your points. Structure the talk so that if it wanders off, you can still cover everything you need to in the time you have.
posted by Caviar at 8:29 PM on January 9, 2008

I think the best approach here is the same as always, which is to signpost what you are going to say very clearly, and then spend x minutes on each point and then sum up...

You want several points so that you can really give 3 x 20 minute presentations, rather than 1 x 60 minutes boring, long-winded ramble!
posted by ranglin at 8:33 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Stories, stories, stories! Conceive of your entire talk as a story, with a beginning, middle, end, conflict, characters, moral, etc. How you do this depends on the audience and the reason why you're speaking, but a narrative has elements built in that will keep the audience's attention.

Maybe you could talk about how you got where you are, or the five most important lessons you've learned from your career, or speak about one work situation as a metaphor for the entire industry, life, etc. Or if you rub shoulders with celebrities, I'm sure you have lots of stories involving them. Even if you don't have/want a big message, you can just talk about your experiences and give the audience a taste of what it's like to do whatever you do.

And within this big story, you can tell smaller anecdotes (which can be tailored to take up lots of time or little time). I think the best unguided talks are where if feels more like you're sitting around a fire or at the bar or in your living room listening to a rich story. The goal isn't to just pile a bunch of stories on top of each other and then call it a night, but to create a cohesive experience for the audience. Think about this: what do you want them talking about in the car ride home?

Have fun!
posted by lockestockbarrel at 8:35 PM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you're funny, jokes. If you're not, don' try them.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:42 PM on January 9, 2008

It is far better to have too much to say and not get through it all than to have people sitting around twiddling their thumbs for half an hour if they don't have relevant or pressing questions.

Just a note to say this has not been my experience at all. I'd much rather add a few more stories about whatever if it looks like there's time leftover than have to stop in the middle and look like I prepared badly. I give big talks like this to librarans pretty often and my general rule of thumb is get started, explain whatever I'm talking about, fill in with some stories illustrating this thing, and then if there's time talk about concrete "things to do" at the end of it. People walk out saying "oh, I think I could do {something I mentioned}" and hopefully not just "wow, she tells some good jokes" (though that is also true). You can ask people if they have questions with, say, ten minutes left and if they don't have one more little bit to share or something to tell them. I have a few clips from YouTube videos that I think people will like, on the off chance that I wrap up early, which doesn't happen too often.

My talks are usually problem- or technology-based so there's always another story about how Twitter saved someone's puppy from an attacking alligator and people never tire of those. You'll also want to leave some room depending on what the audience is like and when your talk is. After lunch late in the day people are usually happy to get out a few minutes early. Earlier in the day they're looking for things that will get them jazzed to sit around the rest of the day. If you're good on your feet you'll be okay leaving room. So, something like this gets me easily through an hour.

- hi, thanks, what am I doing here, where did I come from (you may not need this)
- outline issue, toss out a few numbers early, frame the topic
- stories about how this stuff really works, usually engaging or interesting, and a few from my actual day to day job - lots of visuals (this is totally infinitely expandable)
- and so what does this have to do with you? why this is the easiest thing you will ever do
- so let's do it! yay!

I mean I make it seem dorky here, but a lot of what my person goal is is to deputize people to feel that they can solve their own problems and not just think "wah computers are hard" so a lot of what I do is set up "hey I work with computers and you know, they're not that hard "and stick to that. If youhave a few central themes you can come back to them every 5-10 minutes

"you know, computers, they're not that hard!"
"and we got this up and running in fifteen minutes because COMPUTERS THEY'RE NOT THAT HARD"

Etc. I also encourage people to interrupt if they're not getting something, but that's risky if you think you might get weird hecklers. I generally think of hour long talks as like three fifteen minute talks strung together with five minutes for intro and outro. Also, if you're anyone that anyone has heard of, they'll spend five minutes introducing you anyhow. Good luck making it go great.
posted by jessamyn at 8:48 PM on January 9, 2008 [8 favorites]

Oh and one more small point. I don't know if you're travelling to this thing or not, but I've found that a really good way to make people's ears perk up is to have something to say that is relevant to where you are AND what you're talking about. I'm always surprised when I mention a local website in some example or other "THIS library is really doing a great job..." or something from the recent news about social software " that guy they caught meeting 14 year olds on facebooks in that town not far from here" and I just feel like it's basic courtesy to act like you're familiar with local news and politics but people always seem super happy to hear about their own local stuff, esp if you don't do it in some Spinal Tappish "HELLO CLEVELAND" way.
posted by jessamyn at 8:51 PM on January 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

(First, watch a Steve Jobs keynote or two).

What is the purpose of your talk? Are you trying to persuade? Entertain? Share information? That's important in order to prepare properly. Here's some random pointers. Apologies if any of it is already in your arsenal.

-No swaying or pacing. When you are standing still, you are standing still. When you are moving, you are walking to a determined point. Note, there is a difference between walking to different points of the stage to connect with the whole audience, vs. aimless pacing.

-Memorize your first and last sentences. Even if it's just introducing yourself, know exactly what you will say. It's too easy to start off searching for words, and get yourself into a hole right off the bat. If you are trying to make a number of points, memorize the led sentence to each point. By memorizing your last sentence to each point, you will know you are done. ("So, make sure your flambarster is securely attached to your snorksnozzle before you remove the snizzleglarp.") The you can segue to the next point. Memorizing the concluding sentence to the whole talk lets you finish strong, instead fading off as if you have run out of things to say.

-Variety of pacing, loudness, and body language. Make a conscious plan to add variety. Nothing makes a speech boring quicker than "droning." As appropriate to the content, some parts may be loud, some soft, even a whisper. Some segments may be spoken quickly, some slowly. For some parts, you may use no gesticulation, other parts, may use broad movement.

-Pausing and repeating. Resist the urge to think there can be no "dead air." If you say something worth thinking about, pause long enough for them to think about it before moving on. Don't be afraid of repeating important points as well. Steve Jobs gets parodied for this ("Two billion songs! Two billions songs!") but it can be quite effective.

-Use visual aids. Even if you aren't doing a PowerPoint slide show, you can use visual aids. A few small props, even pocket-sized ones, can add enough visual variety to keep people's interest. For example, if a speaker says "Let me show you something my grandfather gave me, and every time I see it I remember what he taught me." As he is reaching into his pocket, the audience is curious as to what the object is, thus the speaker has their attention. He brings out a pocket knife, and opens it, displaying it as he tells a story related to it and his his relationship with his grandfather. Nothing spectacular, but it adds more interest than not using it. You may also use an unusual or funny object that plays an important part in your topic. You could introduce it, but not explain it right away. "You'll see what this is about in a few minutes..." You can also illustrate some points by asking your audience to take a coin or dollar bill from their own pockets to examine in order to demonstrate a point. Use visual aids carefully; make sure they help illustrate a point better than words alone would, and they can be a great way to add interest.

-Ask questions of the audience. There are two uses for this. One is to give them something to think about, and arouse curiosity. It can be a good way to open your speech. "What would you do if someone stole your car?" or whatever is pertinent to your topic. The second way to use questions is to get actual feedback. This is better in the middle part of the speech. If you want to talk about your trip to Rome, you might ask where they have gone for their last vacation. In this case, it's usually better to make direct eye contact and point out specific people, one at a time. It also will open the door for some (hopefully) humorous banter. But keep it brief, and make sure the whole audience feels involved. You may have to repeat the answers so everyone can hear.

-Break your long speech, mentally, into several smaller speeches. You may see 45 to 60 minutes as intimidating, but think of it as 3 or 4 small speeches, about the same subject, and with a common goal.

-Don't be afraid of corn. Unless you are speaking to some incredibly sophisticated group, don't be afraid of a silly joke or pun. As mentioned above, if you just can't tell a joke, don't try. If you are a competent joke teller, don't rush the set up, and don't telegraph the punchline, People will usually respond well. It's better to aim a little low, with a joke that is easily understood, than to try and be too sophisticated and have people not get it. Even groans are better than crickets.

-90% of good presentation is good preparation. If you know your material, you will be confident. If you are confident, you will be relaxed. If you are relaxed, your audience will be relaxed, and be able to focus on your speech instead of your lack of confidence or fidgeting.

-Eye contact. Make eye contact with your audience. Don't bury yourself in your notes, or keep your gaze on the floor. Note that you don't have to actually make real eye contact, if it's too distracting. You can look at the tops of their heads. It will appear to each row that you are looking at the row behind. In a smaller group, this can be difficult, but be sure you are looking at them. Also, be aware to speak to both sides of the crowd. Most people have a preferred side. Looking up from your notes, you might automatically always look to the right. Be aware of this, and make sure everyone feels included.

-End strong. No matter what happens, no matter how you think it has gone, end strong with your memorized concluding sentence. A strong opening and closing will be remembered, and can make people forget about any iffy parts in the middle.

Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 9:00 PM on January 9, 2008 [8 favorites]

Move quickly through the presentation for 20 minutes. And then spend some time on a single topic, even if that topic is tangentially related. 60 (or 40) minutes of a breakneck pace is mentally exhausting for you and them.

I do think you need a core idea, or similar, to get through a full hour. However, I know from polishing other people's presentations, you can layout everything you want to say, and then come up with a central theme backwards from that and adjust accordingly.

I second lockestockbarrel on storytelling. Either historical cases, or metaphors, or a if A, then B, then C, even if you take it to a ridiculous slippery slope place.

For an hour long lecture (that doesn't have to solve anything in particular except get my main point across), I like to start with something that initially seems completely unrelated to the task at hand. I want to break through people's expectations so I can win them over and get them to actually listen (but then again, it's either advertising or branding, so I need to attack from the side if you will).

I'd talk about anything from an Aesop's fairy tale, the attempt by academics to remove the term "sub-culture" from the language for co-culture to be less offensive, how Alfred Hitchcock got turned down by Tippy Hedron so he tortured her through the making of THE BIRDS, etc. (I taught advertising, so all of these seemed silly).

And then, I reveal what I thought the connection to the task at hand was. Then I did a little straight lecture on the main topic. Then I'd talk about tips for making it relevant to what they were doing, sprinkled with references back to whatever weird story I started with in a tangential way. Then, I'd reveal an ad or an existing something that tied story a with story b in a way that demonstrated a stronger crossover - as if I wasn't totally insane and someone else had made the connection before I did.

I always encourage Q&A. But god, don't prepare 1.5 hours for a 1 hour lecture. If you're natural, prepare 40 minutes, tops, and give yourself room to react, breathe - and them time to breathe and absorb.

I've thrown in "And what have we learned so far?" slides at good stopping points (with visuals from both the '50s and Animaniacs' Wheel of Morality), Jeopardy!-like questions to recap the most important points (complete with thrown candy as rewards for the first one to answer), video clips that have something vaguely related to what I'm talking about, quotes from famous people or great literature that illustrate my point and fill in the blank type questions that I encourage everyone to chime in with. If I could get them to do a follow the bouncing ball singalong of a jingle carrying my main message, I would.

Getting people involved in some way – with questions, with humor, with references to people they've seen before or will see next -- keeps it interesting. With Q&A, i find the larger the room, the more it gets dominated by people who want to either kiss your ass or prove how smart they are by being snide dicks, so prepare yourself to take it in stride if either scenario comes up and prepare to cut someone off in a kind way.

With everything I do, I remember that I need to reward my audience at regular intervals for being there. That means entertaining and answering the real question in their heads, "And why should I give a damn?" on a regular basis.
posted by Gucky at 9:03 PM on January 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

I have examples! Watch some of these TED talks -- although each is only 18 minutes, they're great examples of "hey, just come by and talk for a while." I particularly like this one by Isabel Allende.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 9:54 PM on January 9, 2008

Really good advice from jessamyn and The Deej here. I'd also like to second lockestockbarrel's advice about stories. People love a good snappy story - it makes it much more real to them. Stories connect us with our audience.

And seconding The Deej's advice about not being afraid of corn. I do a lot of public speaking - workshops, conferences, speeches - and to all kinds of audiences with different levels of sophistication. I've found that with a silly joke or phrase, some will find it hilarious and laugh out loud, and the ones who find it silly will groan or roll their eyes but will be a bit more inclined to listen to you because people like it when you make yourself a little bit vulnerable like that. If you disarm them by showing them you don't take yourself too seriously, they like you better and that makes them more inclined to listen. When getting people to fill out their feedback forms, I make a stupid joke out of it: "If you don't know what to say I can help you. See this question? That's the only important bit. You just write Andraste is wonderful and she deserves a pay rise!" They groan and roll their eyes but they laugh as well and I get a better rate of forms returned.

There have also been times when I've had to make a silly joke because I've knocked over my water glass or suddenly realised that I've been talking for half an hour to forty people and I've lost a shirt button and my bra is showing. In those cases, you already look a bit of an idiot, the best thing to do is roll with it and make a joke of it, and then let it go.
posted by andraste at 10:00 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Anything that involves the audience will make it memorable, and keep them involved. For 100 that can be tough, but, someone mentioned voting. Maybe have a brief, fun multiple choice questionaire on each seat - they do it, then vote. Do one of these after each 20 minute segment.

Also, you can have the q and a sessions after each segment rather than all at the end. If you do all of this, plus much of what's been suggested, you'll find an hour flying by!

Make them get up and stretch - sounds hokey but it actually works! And move around yourself while you're presenting, don't just stand in one place, which is boooooring!
posted by madstop1 at 12:36 AM on January 10, 2008

Seconding escabeche: Break it up. You're talking about music, so it would be quite natural to illustrate your points by playing some music, giving both you and the audience a break.
posted by languagehat at 6:49 AM on January 10, 2008

Excellent tips in this thread!

I also wanted to chime in with: "involve the audience." Don't let them sit there passively receiving. Some of the most wonderful presentations I've been to have begun with a reflection activity:

- "Take out pen and paper and number 1 through 4. Write down these questions (where the questions elicit some memory of, opinion about, or experience with your topic)." After allowing everyone a few minutes to write, come back and ask for a few shared responses, then put them in a larger context that relates to your point. For instance, I recently went to a session on fundraising where the presenter started by asking us some questions about our first memory of donating money or time. Everyone got some interesting perspective on that by remembering being 3 years old and putting a dime in a collection plate, or collecting for UNICEF on Halloween, or singing songs at the nursing home. The presenter got everybody to expand their definition of who is a 'donor.'

- "Here is a list of the top 5 factors that influence X decision. Rank them in order of your personal priorities. [Allow a minute or two]. Which do you think is most important? Which do you think people in Related Industry think is most important? Here's a recent study showing how they ranked it. Is there a disconnect? Reasons for that?"

-"Here is a common problem in the field. Here is a hypothetical case study. Team up with the person next to you and come up with three recommendations you would make if you were the consultants hired to solve the problem for the group in the case study. [Allow time. Collect a few responses.] Now, here's what was actually done when it happened to BigCorp."

You get the idea. Let's say your presentation has three major points. Come up with a tiny three-minute interactive like that for each major point. It's astounding how big a difference this makes - it keeps your audience on their toes, awake, and following along. It makes them feel like you're talking about them and their problems. And it gets them personally invested in listening to whatever you're going to say next.

That also reminds me that cognitive-science folks talk about a rule of three to five. For whatever reasons, people really like topics broken down into between three and five major chunks. We can all remember 3-5 things, and when taking a big topic, the first division is often into threes - beginning, middle, end. Planning, implementation, evaluation. Yesterday, today, tomorrow. So if you're going to bring in a lot of subtopics, think about how you can organize your content into 3-5 chunks.

Have fun! It's great that in this day when we can do CGI and OmniMax and all kinds of stuff, listening to another human being speak really, really well is still one of the most entertaining ways there is to spend time.
posted by Miko at 6:58 AM on January 10, 2008

Since there's some great, great advice in here, can you throw in more tags for the post?

The last time I gave an hour talk (which coincidentally was about music) what worked for me was having a few different ending media options available, based on where I figured the conversation was going. I only played a couple of them, but it was in response to questions and so it made it seem like the people asking the questions were in on it with me. Which was awesome.

One of the last things I think you need to worry about, with music being the topic, is taking too little time.
posted by cashman at 7:40 AM on January 10, 2008

I'm a conference organizer.

Your talk should have some structure to it. In your preparation, you should ask yourself, "people will leave my talk knowing __________? And feeling ________? And wondering __________?" And fill in the blank somewhat specifically.

The exception is if you've been brought in to present on a project that is yours, or otherwise do a case study. The question aboves still applies, but you are also storytelling, and you need to keep that in mind.

Some people can get away with structured unstructured-ness, can talk about "things I think are cool" or whatever. These people are few, but they are universally beloved presenters. Nolan Bushnell, John Maeda, Mike Hawley, these are people who can go all over the place and people are still into it.

Structure your presentation in reverse. If you must use slides, put your last slide first. Whatever those "lessons learned" were that you were going to put at the end? those are actually the most important part of your talk.

Some people leave a lot of time for questions, but if the audience isn't properly primed/ warmed-up, or it's the wrong audience, or there is no infrastructure for questions (audience microphones, help moderating who gets to talk), you are screwed. So start by involving the audience in small ways. Ask for a show of hands about something or other. Have people talk to their neighbor about a question, or have them answer something in their heads. Some speakers can even ask people to stand up, move around the room, switch seats and it works. But some do not have that sort of authority and they try and it is ugly. If you really want questions, put a plant in the audience to ask the first one which you have written. There tends to be a lot of inertia in the group dynamic.

I've also had good speakers ask for brutal honesty. Or I've created conferences where we gave them brutal honesty. We handed out red cards and if the speaker was boring, going off track, full of it, or otherwise not being worthwhile, people held up the red cards. We also had green cards for if it was rocking, full of great ideas, etc. You can say, "I want to hold your attention and provide you with worthwhile information, if at any time I am not doing those things, it is your job as an audience member to let me know. You can do that by raising your hand. "

Also, I notice a lot of comfortable, confident, interesting speakers start off their presentation with a picture, or small news tidbit, or video clip... that may be completely unrelated to their talk (it usually is, except the news tidbit). They put it on screen say "I just think this is beautiful/interesting/ thought-provoking" give it a minute and then say "of course that has nothing to do with my talk, I just wanted to share it."
posted by Mozzie at 12:32 PM on January 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do something new every 20 minutes. Activities, music, new visuals, Q&A, anything. Even if you're throwing fire, the average audient tunes out at the twenty minute mark until something new happens.

Lots of good ideas above, but I think this 20 minutes thing is crucial.

(I am a librarian/instructor at a college, and I also teach elementary school kids.)
posted by Riverine at 7:25 PM on January 10, 2008

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