My client sounded quite anxious over the phone. She had just learned she had been scheduled, finally, to brief the governor on a major project she and her agency had been championing for many months, and she needed to prepare the presentation. However, she had been told she would have just 12 minutes as her part of the afternoon’s agenda, which also featured other community leaders making similar briefings about their respective projects and needs.
Her problem, as she and I well knew, was there was too much information to offer. She easily could spend a hour talking about the details and implications of her project.
So, we met in a big, vacant conference room to organize her remarks. Our objective would be to see how we could distill her narrative down into something cogent, concise, and very, very brief.
First, we agreed that her job was not to educate the governor, but to leave him with an impression. Jettison the details. Stick with the big picture. After all, he wasn’t going to be tested on what he heard. It only had to register with him so he would be comfortably familiar with it when the topic came up in later discussions, as it was destined to do.
Second, we probed for the essential quality of her project, the the Big Idea, and kept peeling away layers and language until it had been reduced to a single sentence. That gave us our core theme from which we could build a bare-bones, to-the-point narrative.
Third, no visuals. There wouldn't be enough time in the presentation to set them up sufficiently and make them work. They would distract from the narrative. The power of this presentation had to be carried entirely in the economy of her words and the sincerity of her delivery. She understood also if her remarks were too complex to be described without charts and graphs, then her remarks were too complex.
She would have 12 minutes on the agenda. Let’s do better, we decided. Let’s bring it under 10 and buy a little breathing room. By the end of our session, she was covering the basics of the program — what it was, who was affected, why it was important, and what needed to be done to make it move forward — in about seven minutes.
After her meeting in the capitol, I asked how it went. “Great,” she said. “I did my pitch with several minutes left over.”
She had had the chance to witness other presenters as well.
“I felt like I was the only one to come in under the assigned time,” she recalled, “the only one who got right to the point.”
Okay. Now you’re the governor – or the CEO of your company or your customer – and you hear everything you need to hear on a topic in less time than was allocated. The message is refreshingly tight, crisp, basic, with a succinct account of the problem, a clear description of the proposed solution, and an explicit call to action. Meanwhile, everyone else presenting that day delivers a flabby, complicated, meandering narrative that ultimately fails to respect your time or interests.
Who has left the better impression? Who’s going to be remembered as the presenter with a story that’s under control and therefore, attractive to follow-on attention? Who ends the day the hero?
Few presenters get good marks for going on too long with too much. When it comes to conveying big ideas amid a crowded agenda, less is more.