From Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds by Carmine Gallo. Copyright © 2014 by Carmine Gallo and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
Constraints are key to a creative presentation.
"How long should my presentation be?" The Goldilocks "just right" speech stays close to TED talks' 18-minute zone – not too short and not too long. It's just enough time to persuade your audience. If it's shorter, some audience members might not feel they received enough information. Any longer, however, and you risk losing your audience's attention.
I often use John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech as a guide to presentation length. Since Kennedy inspired the nation in a 15-minute inaugural speech, you should be able to pitch your product or idea in the same amount of time. Kennedy instructed speechwriter Ted Sorensen to keep it brief because "I don't want people to think I'm a windbag." The result was one of the shortest inaugural addresses in history. Kennedy realized that capturing the imagination of his audience required a strong delivery, carefully crafted sentences, and a reasonably short speech.
Kennedy's speech is an excellent example of a short, inspiring message. A more instructive example is a lesser-known speech Kennedy gave in September 1962 at Rice University where he outlined his vision to explore the moon. When Kennedy challenged America to "go to the moon" by the end of the decade, he inspired millions of Americans to make it happen. One of the most important speeches in American history at 17 minutes and 40 seconds, Kennedy's address would have made the ultimate TED talk.
"I have too much to say," some contend. "I can't possibly deliver all the information in 20 minutes." Try it anyway. Your most succinct presentation will have far more impact and creativity.
In The Laws of Subtraction, Matthew May explains the science behind it: Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints, he notes, and that by establishing a boundary or limit to your presentation, you provide a focus and a framework for creativity. Recent studies show that creativity does not require unrestrained freedom but rather it relies on limits and obstacles.
May believes that the law of subtraction improves nearly every aspect of our lives, not just presentation design and public speaking. What isn't there often trumps what is. "When you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something good usually happens," says May. TED talks have been viewed more than one billion times, proving that a "constrained" presentation is often more inspiring, creative, and engaging than longer, meandering presentations that are boring, confusing, and convoluted.
THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 18 MINUTES
A simple explanation of a complex topic gives the audience confidence in the speaker's mastery of the subject. Albert Einstein once said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Einstein would have been proud of David Christian, who, in March 2011, narrated the complete history of the universe for a TED audience and took all of 18 minutes to do it (17 minutes and 40 seconds, to be exact).
Christian teaches a world-history course that examines the entire history of the universe– from the Big Bang 13 billion years ago to today. The Big History course is offered in a series of 48 half-hour lectures. Christian's understanding of the subject helped him condense the content into just the right amount of time to grab the audience's attention and inspire them to take better care of our fragile planet.
E. F. Schumacher, economist and author of Small is Beautiful, once said, "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction." Courage is the key word. It takes courage to keep things simple. It takes courage to put one picture on a PowerPoint slide instead of filling it with tiny text that most people in the audience won't even be able to read. It takes courage to reduce the number of the slides in a presentation. It takes courage to speak for 18 minutes instead of rambling on for much longer. Leonardo da Vinci once said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Be sophisticated. Keep your presentations and pitches short and simple.
Carmine Gallo (@carminegallo) is the author of Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of The World's Top Minds. A Forbes columnist and bestselling author, Mr. Gallo is a communications coach for brands including Intel, SanDisk, Home Depot, Chevron and many others.