How I Give Big Talks

Keynotes in the age of TED

December 1, 2014
Every time that I give a keynote address or some other big talk I get nervous.  During the talk I’m fine. I actually really like the speaking in front of an audience. It is the time leading up to the talk that is nerve wracking. 
Each time I give a big talk I’m amazed at how long it takes to prepare.  You’d think after doing so many of these things that I’d realize how time consuming it is to prepare for a big talk.  But each time I surprise myself.
In the last few years my method for giving big talks has changed.  I no longer prepare and deliver a standard 40 minute talk with slides.  Rather, I give two kinds of talks: a) The 20 minute talk with image slides and lots of discussion and Q&A.  b)  The 40 minute talk without any slides.
The 20 Minute Talk With Visual Slides:  
The 20 minute talk is clearly modeled after a TED talk.  I’ll use slides, but they will be image based slides.  Tons of hours will have gone into finding and preparing the images.  These talks are designed to leave two or three big ideas with the participants.  There will be lots of interaction with the audience in these 20 minutes, but it will be mostly me who is speaking.  The interaction may consist of call and response - or raised hands - but again in the first 20 minutes I’m working hard to get the big ideas across.  I’m using that 20 minutes to make an argument.  To convince the audience of some point.  If I’ve planned the talk well, and executed the 20 minutes with enough focus and energy, then most of the time I will provoke some sort of strong reaction amongst the audience.  This reaction may be violent disagreement, or perhaps tons of questions and further refinements of the ideas, but I know I’ve succeeded if there is an emotional as well as analytical response to the talk.  
This 20 minute talk is almost never about imparting information, data, or facts.  A talk is the wrong time to give lots of new information.  It is important to use evidence and data, but only to support the narrative.  In the 20 minute talk I hope to take the room on an idea journey.  Some people are great at telling stories.  I tend to do that less, and when I tell stories it is usually about how I got something wrong or screwed up something at my current or past jobs.   After the part of the talk where I do the talking is over I try to leave as much time as the organizers will allow for conversation, discussion and Q&A in the room.  
The 40 Minute Talk With No Slides:  
Have you given a talk without a deck?  The first few times I did this I was scared silly.  A PowerPoint, or Keynote, or Prezi, or whatever is a safety net.  The audience expects it.   The slides provide a visual focus and a way to keep the narrative going.  But I’m increasingly going without slides.    I practice a method of giving talks known as speaking as conversation.   The idea is to build a rapport and relationship with the audience.  In these types of talks I’ll ask lots of questions as I go.  I know exactly the answers that I’m looking for, and will use the answers (when I get them) to go from point to point.  The key in this method is to a) know your audience really well, and b) be very flexible.  These types of talks require lots of research on the audience.  (So does the first type of 20 minute talk, but in those I’m pushing a couple of big ideas, as opposed to pushing the connection and relationship).  I need to deeply understand what the audience is curious about, why they are attending the talk, and how what I know connects with their concerns.  The goal may be to make an argument, but the argument is made in conversation and debate as opposed to the more narrative (and visual) approach of the 20 minute talk.  
In this type of talk I don’t stand in the front of the room.  I’m giving my talk from everywhere in the room.  The first 10 or 15 minutes are still all mine.  I’m laying out the arguments and the big points.  But I’m doing so in a way that invites some give and take.  As the talk goes on the ratio of me talking to those in the room talking starts to shift.  We spend more time with the audience points and less time with my own responses.  This requires running around the room, going directly up to anyone in the audience making a point.  It is then necessary to build on that point, say some more things, and ask some more questions or solicit further refinement.  It may be necessary to “warm call” some folks, people in the audience that you have researched and know that they have some strongly held beliefs.   More than anything, it is necessary to hold the attention and focus of the room for the full 40 minutes.   After 40 minutes, which is really the limit that I have in holding a room, it is wise to shift to a more conventional Q&A format if the organizers want the full hour filled up.  In my experience, everyone appreciate shorter over longer - and 40 minutes total is usually enough for everyone.
The reasons that I have changed how I give big talks is that the information environment has changed.  Everyone has better options.  Terrific talks or articles or videos are always in our pockets (smart phones).  The bar for the quality and interactivity of talks has been seriously raised.  Any talk that is based on information that could have been sent out ahead of time as text or slides will not be a good talk.  It is necessary to make an emotional as well as intellectual connection with any audience.  A successful big talk requires more energy to pull off, and more time to prepare, than in any time in the past.   
How do you give your big talks?
How have your big talks changed over the years?


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