Shorter Talks And New Tricks

I had an interesting, fairly personal experience today and a resulting lesson that I wanted to share.

Earlier today I gave one of the opening keynotes at OSCON. It was 15 minutes long, and it was OK. While I didn’t consider it a bad talk, it wasn’t what I would consider my best work.

Immediately after the presentation I gave my second talk, which was 40 minutes long, and I was very happy with the results. A filled room of folks seemed to find the talk useful and there were plenty of questions. I did consider that some of my better work.

So in a nutshell, my 15 minute keynote felt OK and my 40 minute talk felt solid.

Something was bothering me much of the day about why this was.

My dissatisfaction was not with the execution of the keynote, I felt I was reasonably vibrant and articulate in the way I presented, but I was less happy with the content and the structure. It felt to me that not enough of the rubber hit the road.

I have been giving talks at conferences around the world for over twelve years. I have prided myself in striving to deliver useful content but wrapping it up in a loose and entertaining style, and providing plenty of anecdotes to identify with the audience. Twelve years in, I felt pretty confident that I had this presentation-business down pat. I felt like I had cut my teeth, paid my dues, and made all the mistakes I needed to make to get the art of delivering a solid presentation down.

I am an idiot.

As a bit of background, when I started preparing the content for my keynote, the content and the structure was something I really battled with. This was a different type of keynote; it was more along the lines of a lightning talk in terms of duration, but it had the gravitas of a keynote. It needed to be thought-provoking and set the stage for discussions elsewhere at OSCON. But I needed to do this in a short burst of time, and make it feel like an experience that people could identify with. I had my message; I believe that we are at the beginning of a renaissance in community management, but I found the shorter nature of the presentation and it’s position as a keynote really challenging, and more-so than I expected.

After delivering the keynote and in thinking about this and talking to some close friends, I came to some conclusions, and it is these conclusions that I wanted to share. If you are a presenter some of these thoughts might be useful in how you think about your own presentations too.

Firstly, my presentation style has always been story orientated; I build up a context, provide some tension in that context, and then deliver an outcome that strives to relieve the tension and provide insight. As such there is a certain amount of set up and context building that gets the audience up the curve, I then deliver the outcome and bring the audience back down over the curve and provide conclusions. This story-telling component takes time…valuable time in a short presentation.

Secondly, Steph Walli observed that there is a real skill in writing novels and a real but very different skill in writing short stories. I think this was really insightful. Short stories by definition need the story-telling to be more compact, and the finesse and skill is in delivering the same smooth set-up and transition of events, but with fewer keyframes thrown into the mix.

As such, my conclusion here is that I like to tell stories, and my presentations always comprise of telling stories, but my career so far has far been from the perspective of a novellist as opposed to a short-story writer. I believe this was illustrated today when my longer talk felt more natural and more me, yet the keynote felt personally more awkward, and less me. While I am confident in my skills in delivering a 30 or 40 minute presentation, I discovered today that delivering a shorter presentation that needs to have the same or greater level of gravitas requires a very different and distinctive set of skills, and I want to aquire them.

To be completely clear, none of this is at the fault of OSCON and O’Reilly, I have no issue with 15 minute keynotes, and they put on one heck of a great conference. Everyone has been so supportive and wonderful to me. I am delighted they gave me an opportunity to get up and speak and I feel even more grateful that my experience has now helped me to learn something new about myself, and a new area to focus, even after I had been down the presentation road so many times before and I thought I knew what I needed to know.

It turns out that this old dog still needs to learn some new tricks, and I am now switching gears to learn how to do this. Thoughts and advice all welcome! :-)

  • Mark I. Moore

    Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun.Terrific book on public speaking for people at any level of ability.

  • Malc Yates

    Hey Jono. 

    I hate doing 15 minutes too. It’s neither one nor the other.

    I think the problem is that you like to build the story, and carry the audience. This is all part of making a presentation an interesting, engaging and entertaining experience. 15 minutes is a really bad length. 5 is great – no-one expects anything other than fact fact fact. 45 minutes you know is a perfect length.15 minutes is the worst because you get tempted to add the stories, but that makes the content percentage much less. Even if you are trying to get the regular three points across, 15 minutes runs out far too soon and goes on too long.You’ll recover 😉

  • Nathan Haines

    Yeah, I do fine for 40-minute presentations but the 5-minute timed-slide UpSCaLE talk at SCaLE9X this year was a whole other kettle of fish.  Actually I think I did well but it was a lot harder to set up.  I did a freeform presentation from the slides at a local LUG a few weeks later and it was much more my style.

    Isn’t it great to still have places to grow in after so many years of expertise, though?  😀

  • Anonymous

    Hey Jono, I really appreciate you taking the time to share this. I had a similar experience when I did an ignite talk this past fall.  

  • Guest

    “I believe that we are at the beginning of a renaissance in community management”


    If you were not in the business of community management (and therefore lacking personal relevance bias), do you think you would feel the same way? If so .. why?

    Given that a renaissance is a comparitive notion, one of vigorous intellectual/artistic activity relative to its time context, what do you feel this renaissance is in contrast to? Where has the community management flagged, or how do you feel that community management practices are advancing now relative to what we have experience in the recent past?

    While it’s a nice statement to make, it’s the sort of statement that begs support, particularly support that can be delivered quickly and decisively because if it can’t .. then it’s probably not a “renaissance”. In other words, if you can’t make the case, even with sloppy story telling, in 15 minutes .. you may wish to reconsider the premise.

    And from what I’ve heard about the presentations you gave, it’s not the ability to story tell effectively in a tight time allotment. It’s things like deciding to question the fame and relevancy of a luminary when such observations are largely irrelevant to your thesis. Regardless of whether the observation was correct or not, it only casts an even more stark light on the contrast between the conclusion you are aiming for and what that luminary stands for while distracting the audience with a “what did he just say?!” moment. It’s pretty hard to pull that trick even if you have all 24 hours in the day to make it work.

  • Henrik Ingo

    Very good analysis, and shows your style as an artist: We always need to look for how to improve our skills.

    On the skills of telling a story: Some novelists, poets, I don’t know who, had a competition on how to tell the story in some set amount of words (might have been a haiku, I don’t remember). Winning entry in the contest:

    For sale: Shoes for baby girl. Unused.

    It takes skill, but you can do it in 15 seconds if you have to.

    (It’s been great seeing you again…)

  • Jan Moren

    Malc has it right: 15 minutes is an awkward time frame. I’ve done some talks (nothing like the amount I imagine you do) and it’s quite easy to prepare one hour, or thirty minutes, or five minutes. Fifteen minutes or one minute* on the other hand is very difficult.

    Fifteen minutes is neither fowl nor fish. It’s not nearly enough time to give background and context. You can’t go into any real detail. But it’s too long for just a synopsis or a teaser. Even adding just five minutes makes a lot of difference to the resulting quality of the talk.

    • one-minute poster introductions are unfortunately all the rage around here right now. They don’t work; I expect them to disappear again in a few years.
  • Gmartin

    Lifetime learning, right? As anoutsider I enjoyed both talks. Love the story. I use it. It connects with a lot of people. Prepare, practice and present. Jon Udell used his runs & bike rides to practice. And don’t over criticize yourself.

  • Jorge Castro

    Ignites are tough, regimented pacing is tough to master since you can’t “catch up at the end”. 

  • Obrowny06

    you should make a TED talk, they will teach you how to do that !! There method is very efficient for 15 to 20 minutes talks !

  • Steve Alexander

    Your post reminds me of this book:

    “15 Minutes Including Q&A: A Plan to Save the World From Lousy Presentations”

    It’s one of my favourite books.

  • Eddie Hicks99

    I’ve been innovating a bunch of town halls in the really cool virtual world ROBLOX

  • Anonymous

    Many thanks all for your kind comments and suggestions.

  • Alex Lourie

    A known writer once wrote a letter to his friend. The letter began with the following words: “I have no time to write you a short letter, so this will be a long one”.