People have suffered long enough from having to listen to incompetent presenters. I have come to believe that anyone who speaks in public must be licensed. To obtain a licence should require a rigorous theoretical and practical test. The licence would then be revoked if the speaker inflicts undue pain and suffering on the audience. During the last talk that I had to endure I even thought that transgressors should be subject to at least 30 minutes of waterboarding.
Speakers should be required, as a minimum, to adhere to the eight-minute rule and its various caveats, described below.
The eight-minute rule is defined as:
No speaker charged with the task of talking to an audience should speak for more than eight minutes before either leaving the ‘stage’ for good or engaging the audience in some meaningful and related activity between each eight-minute segment.
Talking to an audience means giving a speech at any social gathering such as an awards night, a wedding, a funeral, or a celebration of some event such as a graduation. Here the application of the rule is easy. Stand up, deliver and sit down within eight minutes and less if you can-subject to the caveats provided below.
Less obvious and ridden with more complexity (and angst for some) is that the rule also applies to any presentation to a group, perhaps a business breakfast, a five-day workshop or a lecture to university students. In this situation the speaker will need to organise the presentation into bite sized chunks interspersed with activities related to the concepts being delivered-subject to the caveats provided below.
Why the Eight-Minute Rule
The optimum attention span for an adult human being is around 20 minutes under the best of conditions and with many variables under control. Unfortunately controlling the enormous number of variables that affect attention, information processing and memory is impossible in real life and, mostly, speakers are not operating under optimal conditions.
Humans are prone to go into a trance very quickly. You may have even noticed this when you have been chatting to someone and their eyes glaze over: quite clearly they have drifted off somewhere. In this state they person is half aware of you and half listening, while the other half of their conscious is thinking of something else. This is a light hypnotic trance. As a psychotherapist I found that I could induce a trance in people simply by boring them and, indeed, this is how a lot of hypnotic induction works. If the mind is not fully occupied it will drift off somewhere else.
When you are talking to a group, or even an individual for that matter, and presenting your thoughts and ideas you, perhaps unwittingly, cause people to start thinking about what you are saying. So, even while you are rambling on some people in the audience will very quickly start to process what you are saying and disappear on tangents or simply chew over what has been said. They will think about their own experiences, contradictions and possibilities. So, these people are quickly into a trance.
There will be other members of the audience who have something else on their mind: an argument with the spouse that morning; a child who has been hiding a bong in their room; waiting for a phone call about a pressing problem at work; a hangover; that attractive person in the third row who helped with the hangover at the conference dinner last night; a runny nose. These people will drift into a trance.
All this assumes of course that you have not added to the problem by being confusing, telling awful or off-colour jokes, talking too quickly or too slowly, being overly complex, or wearing pink polka dot trousers. The room may be too cold or too hot, there is noise from elsewhere, the projection screen is too dark, and the seats are really uncomfortable or, perhaps worse, too comfy.
Then there are those who right from the start are thinking of their incredibly clever riposte to what you are saying and designing their own speech or perhaps article that they are going to write to shoot you down in flames. There will also be people who just don’t like you and turn off immediately.
All in all, getting and maintaining people’s attention when speaking to a group is a very tricky task. Sadly, speaking in public is perceived in much the same way as teaching and counselling-that anyone can do it. This is a dreadful mistake because it requires great skill to speak well in public.
I have to be honest here and admit that eight-minutes is somewhat arbitrary. However, it seems about right especially if you, and I’m sure you have, suffered through a painful speech or talk for any length of time. At least eight-minutes is bearable and it is not too long out of the listener’s life, so we are being as ethical as possible in terms of inflicting cruel punishment on others. It seems about right for delivering a concept, telling a story, or making a point. And, it makes the presenter have to think about what they are doing: something sadly lacking, it seems to me, in most presentations-careful thought, that is. However, never believe that you should use the whole eight-minutes: less is good.
So, eight-minutes it is.
Applying the Eight-Minute Rule
This is simple enough. Keep your talk down to eight-minutes or even less. Rehearse with a watch, use notes, don’t change it at the last minute because someone has just told you a good joke or given you some juicy gossip about the groom. When you have decided on what you are going to say practice in front of a critical friend or two.
Use the eight-minutes wisely:
- Look at the audience before you start and smile (if it is an appropriate occasion). Take your time and get settled.
- Talk clearly, relatively slowly and engage the audience often-mostly after each major point-with your eyes. Look AT the audience, not at a dirty mark on the back wall. Use pauses to emphasise and give the audience a moment to reflect. Raise your voice slightly when you restart to get their attention.
- Don’t tell jokes unless they are relevant to the point you are making. But use humour-check it out with your critical friend first.
- Use a story, metaphors and/or anecdotes. This is why movies keep people entranced for two-hours: they tell a story. Stories are very useful tools to get people to change.
- Make what you are saying personal to the experience of the audience. We have all experienced similar things in our lives so this should not be difficult. Do this right at the beginning of your talk.
- Find a relevant emotional hook.
- Tell them what you are going to say, say it and then tell them what you said. Then stop. Using an anecdote or story for one of these steps really works.
- Finish with an amusing anecdote or example: something that people can take away. It is most likely that this is the thing they will remember.
- STOP at eight-minutes.
Longer Presentations and Workshops
All of the above applies but with more complexity and thought.
Eight minutes is about the right amount of time to talk about one concept. Then it is important to get the group to do something. It need not be a complicated activity but should:
Enable the participants to talk about their own experience or understanding.
- Provide an opportunity for the facilitator to see what learning has or has not taken place.
- Enable the facilitator to change course should the feedback from the group indicate the need. For example, the group may be lost or, as is most likely, have a number of questions that arise from their new learning that take the presentation beyond the ‘curriculum’.
- Involve at least application and preferably synthesis It might be appropriate to use synthesis level activities later in the workshop or presentation.
- Be at least as long as the presentation time but preferably longer. I try to have activity and feedback/discussion sessions that are at least 30 minutes or or more. It is surprising how feedback sessions can become the key presentation tool and the Powerpoint can be discarded for real interaction. The problem is that you’ll really need to know your stuff and not need to rely on props.
Once you’ve completed the activity allow yourself some time to think about a change of course given the feedback you have received. It is the kiss of death to continue talking about stuff that is either irrelevant to the group or that the group has already clearly grasped. It is vital to address the questions that new learning might have raised in the mind of the participants even if this takes you into new territory. If you don’t then the unanswered questions remain a distraction in the mind of the listener.
If you are interested in this technique for your workshops and want to see more detail have a look at the following article:
Hase, S. (2010), Learner defined curriculum: Heutagogy and action learning in vocational training, Southern Institute of Technology Journal of Applied Research, Special Edition on Action Research, available at http://sitjar.sit.ac.nz