Presentation shortening


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In an effort to make more room for more talks in our schedule for this year's Berlin Buzzwords we've asked quite a few people to shorten their presentation from 40min down to 20min. The thought behind it is to not only give more people a chance to talk on their work but also have those shorter talks focused down to the absolute essential information for people to learn.

However I've seen people give awesome 45min presentations fail miserably when forced to cut down their talk - and have myself delivered a very weak presentation at a 5min Ignite presentation.

As a result I thought it might be a good idea to share some thoughts on how to go about shortening your talk and still deliver a convincing performance:

First of all, don't take your usual 40min talk and cut away slides. As obvious as it may seem that this will result in poor slides it's still all too tempting to take a working long presentation and just throw away some content to make it shorter in time. What really happens however is that people either cut out the meat - which leaves you with a shallow brief introduction and not much else left - or the meat is left in with not much around to help listeners understand what the talk is all about. Also speakers might be tempted to leave well working jokes in: Don't without thinking twice - there are things that do take long to prepare, if you cut away all preparation the fun is gone as well. Some people cut down demos to just briefly skip to the browser and than switch back to the slides - if you like the demo and think it's worthwhile: Take your time to demo and shorten elsewhere. Noone benefits from briefly seeing a browser window with not much like an application in there.

So how to go about when asked to cut down your slides? First of all: Think about what is the main message that you want to deliver. What is the core piece of knowledge people should know when leaving your talk. From there build up your story and provide all the necessary detail for the audience to understand your talk.

That does not necessarily mean throwing out all greek symbols because math is just to hard to explain briefly - if they are needed, leave them in, take the time for explanation and build up equations as you go.

Also it doesn't mean that you should cover the very basics only. Clearly label your talk as advanced whenever that is both appropriate and possible - build on your audience's knowledge without repeating all nitty gritty details. It can help to openly ask at the beginning simple yes/no questions and ask people to raise their hands to find out whether they are familiar with a certain technology or not. Knowing your attendees background can save you a lot of time when preparing a talk.

One final piece of advise: There's one book that once helped my a lot improve my own talks called Presentation Zen - if you don't know it yet, it certainly is well worth reading.

PS: Dear speakers, if you are reading this but have not yet fully read the speaker acceptance notification mail - please do so now - I promise it does contain information that is valuable for you to know in particular if your employer happens to sponsor your travel to the conference.