February 28, 2012


55 minutesTED Talks deliver valuable content in an engaging way in 18 minutes or less. This raises audience expectations for “normal” presentations too. Yet still presenters under-deliver.

TED Talks have a drawback.

There's no opportunity for a group discussion after the speaker. That's where magic can happen. Theatre seating isn't designed for interaction and TED audiences are too big. Besides, there’s a schedule to follow. There’s time for discussions during the generous breaks but that’s not the same.


As a presenter, let's say you have an hour for your session and a smaller audience where attendees can't easily hide. Let's also say they are attending voluntarily and can leave anytime.

Here's a proposed allocation of your time
  • presentation: 12-14 min
  • group discussion: 39-42 min
  • conclusion: 1-2 min
That's 55 minutes, which means you're done ahead of time. If there are delays in getting started, shrink the group discussion time to compensate and still finish early. If you’re given 30 minutes, you’ve still got time for your message and questions.

I've used this allocation as my primary format since 2011. It works well but is scary because the bulk of each session is unscripted. I watched Seth Godin field diverse questions for three hours the afternoon of The Linchpin Session. I was amazed at how quickly (and sensibly) he answered. I felt the magic in the room. You can’t get that with a fully scripted presentation.

Awkward Silence

If you don't get your audience engaged, they're prone to sit rather than participate. The solution isn't to revert to prepared hour-long presentations. Instead, add zing to your content and delivery.

You have help. If you're a guest speaker, your hosts want the session to succeed and will likely ask questions to spur others. If you're the organizer, you may have a helper in the group to get the discussions flowing.

If you talk to the early arriving audience members, you build rapport. Some may reciprocate by asking questions. You likely know what questions usually get asked and can ask yourself questions.

Sometimes I’ll show popular questions on the screen as a guide. I’ll also leave gaps in the prepared section to prompt questions.

If you don’t know the answer, audience members might. Invite them. This is effective even if you know the answer.


Routine presentations are boring for today's audiences. If your session doesn't require audience interaction apart from clapping, do us a favour. Record your talk. Upload to YouTube. Save our time and yours.


Preparing a shorter presentation takes more skill since you'll need to edit ruthlessly. You can't include content just because you like it.

Group discussions rely on the audience for success. The uncertainty can be unnerving. To practice and get insightful feedback, join a Toastmasters club (as I finally did in Dec 2010).


A dynamic session benefits everyone. There's a reason to attend since the audience gets more than a canned presentation. There's a reason to attend more than once (depending on the topic) since each time is different. Like a Springsteen concert.

You also show your expertise. You're a pundit instead of a parrot. Isn’t that exactly want you want? Authority is the third universal principle of influence. You also have more fun ... once you're comfortable with interaction.

You learn what’s on your audience's mind. That's valuable. You may not be Springsteen (though if you are. leave a comment!), but you can make your presentations alive.


PS Years ago, I did Ask An Actuary sessions for advisors. They could ask any question in this safe environment. I didn't know all the answers but sometimes other attendees did. If that failed, I could research afterwards. There was a solid reason to get invited back.

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