David Letterman’s Top Ten

On Sunday, President Obama awarded David Letterman, along with several other artists, among them Dustin Hoffman, the Kennedy Center Honors for influencing American culture through the arts.

In his nearly two decades as the host of the CBS “Late Night” show, Mr. Letterman has made his nightly reading of his “Top Ten” list a social ritual of American culture. While he uses his list for comic effect, you can use the same approach to create a structure for your presentations.

Authors Stephen R. Covey and Deepak Chopra used the numbering technique for the structure of their respective bestsellers, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. The popular Politico website regularly calls out the Top Five takeaways from the political events that they cover; how-to newspaper and magazine articles add sidebar boxes that summarize their main tips with a total number; and the help desk web page of product and service companies summarize their customer FAQs with a total number.

In the fast and furious business world where presentations are often hastily cobbled together with a disparate collection of begged, borrowed, or stolen slides and delivered by a presenter who is the only one in the room who can understand what on Earth one slide has to do with another, the numbering technique can be emergency CPR. Simply organizing the different elements into a clear order makes it easy for both the presenter and the audience to follow.

Eric Benhamou, the former Chairman of 3Com Corporation (acquired by HP in 2010), did so under rather trying circumstances.

Mr. Benhamou was invited to deliver a keynote speech at a dinner given by the California-Israel Chamber of Commerce, an organization as diverse as the more than 7000 miles that separate those two centers of business. The event, which was held on a mid-week night at Silicon Valley’s large San Jose Fairmount Hotel, began with a cocktail hour that ran for far more than an hour. When the ballroom doors finally opened, the several hundred guests rushed in to find seats at tables they had to share with strangers. After the usual rubber chicken meal, the Masters of Ceremonies presented awards to individuals who were familiar only to Californians, and some who were familiar only to Israelis. Each of the recipients then proceeded to give an acceptance speech that made Academy Award acceptance speeches seem abrupt by comparison. When Mr. Benhamou’s turn came, it was nearly nine o’clock.

How would you like to have to deliver a speech in those circumstances?

This blog post is an excerpt from my new book, just published by Pearson, Winning Strategies for Power Presentations; it is one of 75 lessons from the world’s best presenters, and available now from Amazon.