Be Succinct: Public Speaking without the ClutterSarah Denholm
- Is your talk too ‘cluttered’ for your audience to act on? These structure tips will help.
A few years ago I was looking at houses to buy, and visited properties that were ‘open for inspection’. At one house, the outside looked very appealing, well cared for and with a great garden.
The real estate agent greeted me at the front door, saying “letting you know that tenants are still living here”. The front door swung open to reveal the most cluttered home that I have ever seen – there was stuff everywhere! Not mess, just an overwhelming amount of furniture… and ornaments… and fitness equipment… and books…and…
I never got to see the ‘bones’ of the house. And yes, I could have worked hard to picture the place without the clutter, but I didn’t want to use that much head space – so when I walked away, all I could remember was the mess.
It’s the same when we speak to a group. If we try to cram too much in, our audience will miss the ‘bones’, the spine of our message – and don’t think they’ll bother to search through the clutter to find it, no matter how brilliant and useful our core information. They will tune us out, and forget our message – and us – as they leave the room.
This also means very little chance you or your carefully honed message will go ‘viral’ (if that’s important), because anyone who didn’t hear your presentation and asks an audience member what it was about will get a vague, woolly response that’s not clear enough to be neatly passed on to others.
Why do we speak to a group in the first place?
Remember that unless you’re giving a talk that’s purely for entertainment value – a wedding speech, or account of your last trip to Vietnam – your goal is always for the audience to take action as a result of hearing you speak.
Why we give too much information
Here are some of the usual reasons why we give too much information when we speak to groups:
- The good: we’re enthusiastic and want to share as much as possible about our topic with the audience
- The bad: we’ve been told to fill up a certain time slot, and either haven’t taken the time to sort out our talk structure properly, or have been told to include all the information whether we like it or not
- The ugly: we’re afraid of not being seen as informed or competent enough, so we try to over-compensate with quantity over quality
Action Steps: solutions to your clutter
If you’re an “everything including the kitchen sink” speaker, start de-cluttering:
- Stick your core message up on a Post-it note where you can always see it as you structure your talk, and make sure that every point is totally related to it. You should be able to state your core message in one succinct, easily repeatable sentence.
- The same goes for each supporting point: state it in one clear, short sentence.
- Then clarify each point, showing your audience the reasoning behind it, with vivid examples edited for clarity.
- Make sure that you don’t have too many points. John Medina, director of the Brain Center at Seattle University and author of Brain Rules (a great, practical book about understanding how our brains work), never spends more than 10 minutes on each point, as he believes that’s the maximum amount of time we can usefully pay attention to a topic. So you can use this as a rule of thumb when you structure your talk.
Don’t throw everything at your audience, leaving them glazed over and eager to get out of the room: leave them wanting more!