How Long Should a Presentation Last?

In the Wall Street Journal review of fellow Forbes blogger Carmine Gallo’s new book, The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman, writer Bill Heavey appropriates Shakespeare in the title of his review, calling it: “Is Brevity the Soul of Success?” The original quote is from Hamlet in which Polonius advises his son that “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Unfortunately, despite a constant shortening of attention spans driven by increasingly terse communication over social media, the brevity message has not gotten through to the presentation community. As evidence, at the beginning of every Suasive program, we ask participants how often they have attended a presentation, at the end of which they said to themselves, “I wish that person would go on longer.”

The smiles we get in response proves my point.

Using Bezos as a role model for brevity, Gallo analyzed twenty-four years of the Amazon founder’s shareholder letters and found that he had reduced his sentence length from an average of 18.8 words to 16 words.

As important as controlling the amount of content is in written text, it is even more important in presentations. Readers of text—whether in print or electronic form—can always go back to the text to clarify details, but audiences for presentations—who receive the content in real time—do not have that option. If they lose track, they will either interrupt the presenter or tune out; at which point the presenter also loses.

The lesson for you is to be concise. An excellent way to achieve concision is to speak your presentation aloud in practice. All too often, presenters practice by either thinking their way through the narrative or speaking about it, as in, “On this slide, I’ll talk about our strategy.” 

Neither of those forms addresses the real time of the presentation. Instead, speak it aloud in practice as if you are delivering it to a real audience. 

Time yourself. Then do it again. You will find that the second time will be more fluid—and more concise. You might even want to trim some of your content. Less is More.

Take the advice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of America’s, if not one of the world’s, most accomplished orators who put it succinctly, “Be sincere, be brief, and be seated.”

Or that of Guy Kawasaki, the master of well-turned phrases, who included  his own variation of FDR’s advice in his book Enchantment, “Make it short, simple and swallowable.”

 A close cousin of presentations that go on too long are presentations that go too deep, otherwise known as too much information. In the next post, you’ll read about why that happens and how to avoid it.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fire—available on Amazon and other retailers.