Value Brevity

Presentations fail because of too much information, not too little. Don’t parade in front of the audience spewing every factoid you know on your topic. Only share the right information for that exact moment with that specific audience.

Whether your audience includes the most powerful or the most humble, each considers his time worthwhile, for it is an irretrievable slice of his life.

– Henry M. Boettinger

Abraham Lincoln constructed the Gettysburg Address with 278 words, and delivered it in just over two minutes. Though one of the shortest speeches in history, it is also considered to be one of the greatest.

The speech’s purpose was to dedicate the Gettysburg National Cemetery and eulogize the fallen. Though eulogists at that time traditionally took hours, Lincoln was so quick that the photographers were still setting up their equipment as he finished; hence we have no photos of him delivering the speech.

Most people aren’t even aware that Lincoln wasn’t the featured speaker that day. Edward Everett shared the platform and delivered a eulogy in the traditional style, spending two hours praising the virtues of the soldiers. The day after the speech, Lincoln received a note from Everett that complimented him for the “eloquent simplicity and appropriateness” of his remarks. Everett said, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Lincoln was allotted two hours but only spoke for two minutes. Being so brief compelled him to be very clear about his central ideas. But in spite of its brevity, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address still follows all the key elements of the presentation form. He covers what is with a review of America’s historical values, the current state of the war, and the reason for the gathering. He shocks his listeners by telling them that they cannot dedicate or consecrate the ground, even though that’s what their purpose was in coming there. Instead, he puts forth a call to action: that the audience resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain. He then describes the new bliss of a free nation.

One thing that will help you remain brief is to put your own constraint on the amount of time you present. Imposing a shorter timeframe requires you to be succinct. If they give you an hour, target a talk at forty minutes. Restriction of time forces clear structure and a filtering down process that leaves only imperative messages.

If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.

– Woodrow Wilson

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