On Talks of a Shorter Duration

I had the occasion to give two talks recently, both of a rather short duration. One was to last for about fifteen minutes, and the other for about seven minutes. Both were related to some academic work that I have been a part of, and I’m sad to report that in both cases I could have done much better.

My profession entails talking for long periods at a time, and I have no problems speaking off the cuff for an hour at a stretch, and even longer is in some sense preferable. I prefer to talk without having any notes or (where possible) a presentation. This allows me to speak about the topic at hand, but also go down rabbit holes of thought depending upon either how my own memory is jogged while I’m speaking, or in response to a question that a student might ask.

I have no clue if this is efficient or “best”, but it is the way I have enjoyed being taught, and it is the way I enjoy teaching.

But alas, this method (efficient or not), doesn’t serve me well when it comes to talks of a shorter duration.

It is not as if I did a very bad job – at least, I hope not. I know I got across most of the points that I wanted to, and was able to respond to all questions that were asked – but I also know that I could have done a much better job.

So where did I go wrong?

  1. I made the mistake of assuming that a shorter talk is like a longer talk, just, well, shorter. I’ve done my share of presentations back when I used to work in the corporate world, and I should have known better. A short talk is not like a classroom lecture at all!
  2. In what way is a shorter talk different? First, assume that you will need a minute to provide context, and at least two minutes per “core argument”. Add in a minute to sum up, and you’re already past your scheduled time if you have three key points to make.
  3. Which means two things. One, try to keep your core arguments down to two, at most three. Second, you will need an outline for a talk such as this, if not an actual script. My mistake was to not do the second of these things, and just try to go with the flow, and wait for inspiration to strike while speaking. Rookie mistake! I had an outline, but the mistake with my outline was that I had tried to cram in too much for both talks. For shorter talks, minimize your key points, no matter how painful this is.
  4. It’s not as if I don’t have an outline in my head when I begin a lecture in class, of course I do. It’s just that the outline is rather vague. That’s a deliberate choice, as a lecturer – vague because I can repurpose it on the fly on the basis of what questions I get, the feedback as I speak from the students, and whatever tangential connections I can make in response to both of these things. In a longer talk, I have the ability to course correct, reflect, back-up, or circle back to an earlier point. In a seven minute talk, no such luxuries are possible.
  5. My very first manager back when I was in the corporate world made me sit in an empty meeting room and deliver dry-runs of what was to be my first “big” presentation to the walls of that meeting room. I did that (I’m not exaggerating) five times, and felt like a fool for doing so. But hey, come the time of the presentation, I felt and was ready.
  6. And I forgot all about this! I should have done the same thing to prepare for both of these presentations, but neglected to. I can and should do better: lesson learnt.
  7. But hey, there’s a lesson in this if you’re a student prepping for interviews and group discussions. Dry runs really do help! Make on outline of the key points you absolutely need to make, and practice making these points. Have your bedroom’s wall interview you, if you cannot find a real, live “volunteer”. But trust me, it’ll help. It is certainly infinitely preferable to leaving the talk/interview and realizing that you ended up not saying a couple of things that you really wanted to.
  8. And finally, if you ever happen to see me talking loudly and excitedly to nobody, worry not. I probably have a short talk coming up 🙂

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