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TIME Too little? Too much? Just right?

By Michelle Ray, CSP

Cicero“Brevity is the best recommendation of speech, whether in a senator or an orator” ~ Cicero, circa 43 BC

Fast-forward from Cicero to the new millennium and the ever-increasing popularity of the 12- to 18-minute “TED Talks.” Add the shorter attention spans of audiences and you can understand why meeting planners are rethinking the formats and agendas for their conferences. Even if a speaker has the celebrity status of a “Cicero”, satisfying the objectives of a client and vying for the attention of attendees has become a formidable task.

More clients are asking for shorter presentations, but this doesn’t mean that 60- or 90-minute keynotes are passé. The key question for meeting planners should be, “What is the best way to build my agenda with as much value as possible?” Rather than focusing on time and “slots,” the best agenda is one that is designed with the goal firmly in mind.

A presenter’s biggest challenge is keeping people’s attention in an age where many attendees tune out within seconds. The question should be less about “What is the ideal length” and more about “How can I best provide the value my client needs in the time available?”

Every keynote is about delivering on the client’s objective. Some clients seek a content-specific keynote that will help address a particular challenge and provide solutions. Others hire a speaker for pure entertainment value or they bring in a celebrity, adventurer or athlete to share their unique story. Some may choose to book a keynote to inspire, shift the collective mindset and motivate their team.

Consider this recent request for my speaking services. “We’d really like you to come and address our staff. However, we only need you to speak for 30 minutes and would expect the same value that we just experienced.” These were the words of a prospective client who approached me as I walked off of the stage after my 75-minute closing keynote at an association event.

Although it wasn’t the first time I’d been asked about presenting a shorter speech, the request left me wondering not only about my ability to accomplish a specific outcome in less time, but also whether I, or my fellow speakers, are confining ourselves by thinking purely in terms of a “traditional” keynote timeframe?

So, what is the most appropriate speech length? To best answer this question, I set out on a mission to uncover the truth by asking a bureau, meeting planner, facilitator and several speakers to weigh in.

Terry Brock, HoF, speaker and syndicated columnist, spoke to me about his early career facilitating multi-day training sessions in the financial sector, becoming a keynote speaker and recently, TEDx presenter. “I found the TEDx experience exhilarating,” he said. “It was a different kind of speech for me and I cherished the opportunity to do something worthwhile that I haven’t done before.”

On the merits of longer or shorter keynotes, Terry suggested being open-minded around timeframes. “The issue isn’t about time. Rather, we, as speakers, need to focus on results. What is the meeting trying to accomplish? You cannot lose sight of the purpose, even if the speaker before you goes overtime, or the agenda must be adjusted on the fly. When a meeting planner asks if you can cut your thirty minutes down to fifteen, your answer as a professional must unequivocally be ‘yes, of course!’”

Mike Kerr, CSP, HoF, put it this way: “I think it’s often a matter of putting the cart before the horse when deciding on length. Some planners, for whatever reason, decide that a keynote is 60-minutes long, rather than considering how much time the speaker needs to effectively convey a message and have maximum impact. Maybe that is only 30 minutes in some cases or 90 or even 120 minutes in others!”

To Mike’s point, I once had a client ask me to speak for two hours, with no break. Their annual industry event was a sellout with 500 delegates. Departure from a format that had been in place for more than 20 years was non-negotiable. I was concerned about the session length from the perspective of the audience. I significantly increased my usual level of interaction, mixed media and humour. The event was highly successful.

A presenter’s biggest challenge is keeping people’s attention in an age where many attendees tune out within seconds, resorting to their mobile devices to check email or to text. While it is true that many also enjoy spreading the speaker’s message via social media, or take notes electronically, the immediate access to technology is also a distraction, meaning the speaker needs to be exceptional to instantly captivate attention and imagination and hold it for the duration of their presentation.

Marnie Ballane, director of business development at Speakers’ Spotlight, says her clients are asking for shorter keynote presentations, although the expectation of delivering high value within a 20- or 30-minute timeslot remains the same. “If the speaker is content-based, there is only so much people can retain, so it is all about simplifying the vast amount of material or you will lose people,” she said. “At the same time, there are some clients with the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mindset that hinders opportunities to be creative with their agenda. Some speakers I may recommend are better suited for a different time or segment on the conference program and that may call for a longer or shorter talk.”

Marnie also noted that the success of the TED model has contributed to the increased interest in shorter keynotes. There is no question that TED has impacted the industry by showcasing fascinating or, in some cases, previously unheard of talent and subject matter. For some speakers who have done both TED as well as the “regular” conference speech, the ability to adapt to the former has reinvigorated their overall approach to crafting the latter.

Deri Latimer, CSP, incoming national president of CAPS, is also a TEDx presenter. “Preparing for my TEDx talk was transformative. I believe I became a better keynote speaker, more flexible and laser-focused by having that experience,” Deri said. “If I am presenting for 20-minutes or 75-minutes, I will provide very high value with either option. You can create an opportunity for people to apply a strategy to their life in 20 minutes when it is well designed. And that’s the whole idea of TEDx,” she said. “It’s changing people’s views, as well as their behaviours. I don’t think you need more time to create more value.”

Bob Gray, HoF, says the length of a keynote speech boils down to perspective. Bob says people are already on their phones during a speaker’s introduction. “In the first twenty seconds, I have to grab them. Ultimately, my goal is to have audiences leave with something tangible – something they can work on, think or do to expedite change,” he says. “Can a speaker achieve this in eighteen minutes? The best TED talks leave you wanting more,” says Bob. “Keynote length, as well as interaction, are important, but we need to be flexible. We often have to mentally cut and paste when asked at the last minute to reduce the length of our keynote, yet still be ultra-sensitive to continuity and providing value.”

Lisa Kaplan, conference director at the Institute of Career Advancement Needs (ICAN), has managed their women’s leadership event for many years. When I asked for her thoughts on the most effective speeches, Lisa responded: “People need more stimulation. That’s why we are always switching things up.”

As for the one-hour keynote, Lisa said it is very rare for a person to speak for an hour and completely hold the audience’s attention. “The speaker has to be really good: well-crafted, humorous, artistic…very few people can do that exceptionally well,” she said. “Rarely do I want a keynote to be more than 40 minutes.” One exception was a renowned author who held the audience for a full hour and then filled his breakout immediately after for another hour. “No one wanted to leave,” Lisa said. “In some cases, we may have a 10- or 20-minute speaker, depending on what my need is. My last closer was 12 minutes and it was a perfect way to end our conference.”

David Gouthro, CSP, past-president of CAPS, summed it up this way: “In my mind, the question should be less about ‘What is the ideal length?’ and more about ‘How can I best provide the value my client needs in the time available?’” he said. “Needless to say, that requires a deep understanding of my client’s needs and knowing how much time I have in front of their audience. Then it becomes a matter of designing my presentation to provide that value.”

David said the meeting planner has to have the courage to dig deep into their clients’ expressed and unexpressed needs to help them design a meeting with a relentless focus on providing maximum value in every way possible. “This means sourcing the right speakers with the right process to do exactly that,” said David. “Simple, but not easy!”

Michelle RayMichelle Ray, CSP, is a leadership expert, author, business conference speaker and founder of the Lead Yourself First Institute. For more than 20 years, Michelle has helped her clients take charge of themselves, shift perspectives and discover their greatest potential in business and in life. •

Speaking of IMPACT Fall issue 2015

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