Great Photo of my friend, Paul Muller The other night, I attended a presentation with a group of friends.  I wasn’t sure what to  expect, but a friend had recommended we go see this person present, so I was game for it.  However, shortly into the presentation, the speaker’s story began to drone.  She hadn’t given  me much to understand where she was heading, or what the purpose of this long, autobiographical narrative was really all about.  I had no road map for why this was important, and my attention began looking for anything else to do.  I whispered to my friend Jayla Biore@Ideamarketect on Twitter, that in the days of 140 character attention, you had to give me the life story and purpose of this chat in 140 characters or less, and she responded brilliantly, saying it was 140 seconds or less.  I’ve been noodling on this concept for a few days now, and I think Jayla’s right- you have about 140 seconds, or just over two minutes, to convince people you’re worth their attention and focus.

Public speaking is one of the biggest fears people have, and it was one I had for a long time.  It took practice, finding my voice, and developing a style that worked for me, and now, I actually love speaking to audiences.  Getting over the fear wasn’t easy.  It involved listening and watching other presenters, whether it was in person or through podcasts and radio, to see what they were doing and why it made for compelling and successful content.  It involved coming up with and testing theories about finding story arcs, constructing narratives, and finding the things that make for compelling stories that people want to hear.  Participating in events like Ignite, Pecha Kucha and Battledecks (also known as Improv Powerpoint Karaoke), helps too.  All of these quick fire presentation events have formats that help you learn to speak and think on your feet, helping conquer those fears in a fun and friendly atmosphere.

By watching and learning, taking notes about presentation style as well as about content, while watching others present, I’ve learned so much.  I will readily admit to borrowing and mimicking aspects of presentation styles from others, refining them in such a way that they become my own.  For example, Seth Godin does a great job using his slides to illustrate his talk, not BE his talk.  Couple this with the fact that the brain can’t process two language-based inputs at the same time, and you realize that too many words on slides will have people reading your slides and ignoring what you are actually saying.  As a result, I try to design my talks with slides that illustrate my points, or support them, and provide me with visual prompts, rather than as note cards.

When I see other people present, I go into the experience with a set of expectations.  I am like a sociologist, listening to what is being said, but also looking at the presentation as a whole and seeing what works and what does not from an audience/personal engagement aspect of things.  I want to be engaged as an audience member, entertained a bit, and come away from the experience feeling like it was a good use fo my time, measured either by information shared or by being entertained or enriched by the time we’ve spent together, just like I would expect from any sort of theater performance.

This was reinforced again for me yesterday, when my husband came home from a presentation he had just done, and we started talking about how we present and how we work an audience.  He had used some of my slides for his presentation (while he’s a physician, they were discussing how they were using social media within their practice) and he was remarking at how interested people were in the topic.  He talked about watching comedians on TV, and how he had taken to walking more and moving when presenting, and how that movement seemed to work both for him and increase audience engagement as well.

The art of public speaking of any kind is essentially maintaining attention and telling a great story.  Even in unstructured conversations or interviews, like this fantastic one between Ira Glass and Marc Maron, the back and forth has to seem to have a purpose or something revelatory about it.  There has to be some sort of tension, some sort of build, and then delivery of information, or answering a question, like any good narrative story line.  But if it’s seems just like an opportunity to talk about yourself, like showing vacation pictures or slides in days of yore, people just don’t care, even if they care about you.  You have to make your story meaningful.  There has to be some take away.  You have to make yourself iconic, or an example, or somehow universal.  Once you have the structure of what the deeper meaning is, then you can fill in with autobiography, with stories and examples to illustrate the point.  But without that larger structure or narrative, people lose patience.  they aren’t sure where you are headed or where the payload will be.  And if you can’t give them that early on, you will lose them in that critical initial 140 seconds, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get them back.

Or you may just end up seeing them sneak out the back, heading to the bathroom, but never quite making it back into their seats.