Lightning Talk Mojo – I

Breathing readers of Creative Chaos know that I am facilitating Lightning TalksatSTAREast 2007 – astute ones realize that I am a genuine fan of the concept.

I would like to tell you why.

This year, I’ve been doing a good bit of back and forth with the lightning talk speakers – encouraging them to turn off powerpoint, and really talk to the audience.

One speaker wrote back that doing a whole five minute speech without powerpoint assistance would be hard.

And he’s right.

But that’s bad.

Powerpoint is a crutch.

Here’s the deep, dark secret of presentations:

Outside of the basic, introductory, everything-I-say-is-new type of talk, in a typical presentation, your audience will leave with just a few nuggets. Sometimes, you only have one nugget, and spend the entire hour beating the audience over the head with it.

Still, most of the time, the audience is listening for insight. The more insights you can sprinkle into your talk, the better.

So, let’s assume that a good nugget takes about five minutes to explain. That means it should be possible to do ten nuggets in a talk. Of course,different people need different things, so we’ll assume that for any given audience member, only have of the “nuggets” will connect.

Now let’s examine the typical 1-hour auto-content-generated slideware talk for a moment:

Start with time for ten nuggets

Intro – 10 minutes – Subtract two. Eight left.
Conclusion – 10 minute – Subtract two. Six left.
Q&A – 15 minutes – Subtract three. THREE NUGGETS LEFT.

Divide by two, because only half of the ideas will be relevant to any audience member.

That means for a one-hour talk, you get to make have about one-point-five actual insights that can change behavior.

That is a lot of sitting around, waiting for something to happen, and not much happening.

How can we do better?
The Intro/Body/Conclusion/QA style is, well, redundant. If you study Toastmasters, they openly admit this – the whole point is to tell ’em three times, so your single point comes across.

That might work when you are briefing the boss, but at a technical conference, why prove one point when you could prove ten? Even if half your stuff doesn’t apply, and the audience hates half that does apply, heck – you still get to make two and a half points an hour. 🙂

I see at least two problems with this:

First, learning to make a point succinctly in five minutes is hard.

Second, the very cognitive format of powerpoint, with it’s bullets and lists, tends to turn your stuff into marketing-ware. Trying to make one point with powerpoint in one slide (or two) is, well … hard.

My suggestions are –

1) Pschologists have discovered a method called “chunking” that people use to memorize extremely large pieces of material. Essentially, you take a big piece of data and split it into many small groups. For example, if you meet someone who has memorized PI to 1,000 digits, you will find that he probably hasn’t memorized a thousand numbers at all. Instead, he has memorized a hundred-odd “chunks”, where each chunk is five to ten numbers.

So is a one-hour talk a collection of ten “chunks”

2) Look into other communications options like handouts, discussion, or writing on an Easel. Read The Cognitive Value of PowerPoint by Tufte and The Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation by Norvig.

3) If you really want to use powerpoint, consider the “one big slide per point” approach. That means reading, listening, and watching people who use this technique effectively – Tim Lister is a good one to follow.

4) Get really good at making a single point, making it well, and moving on. A good way to do that is to give lightning talks at conferences

Have I sold you on lightning talks yet?
If yes, your next question is probably “ok, so how do I get really good at chunking my talk?

More to come.

Post-Script: Paul Graham has an article on similar themes about writing essays – you can find it here. Even if you don’t agree with the guy, you’ll enjoy the read, I promise.)

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