Beyond TED: Why and how you should prepare shorter talks

With presentations in the popular series maxing out at 18 minutes, audiences have recalibrated their attention spans. Speakers, though, are exploring a new frontier: the two-to-five-minute tal

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Lots of people assume that all TED talks are the famous 18 minutes long, and they think that’s short enough.

Yet the lengths of popular talks in this style are getting even shorter.

At least one TEDGlobal speaker tells me that 14 minutes, rather than 18, is the limit under discussion. Far shorter are the two-minute talks given by innovators featured in TEDMED’s The Hive, bringing them to the main stage.

In my coaching (apart from TED conferences) many clients are asking me to work with speakers to develop five-minute TED-style talks.

Why the shorter times? Here are a few reasons:

  1. Conference organizers can include more content and feature more speakers. At TEDMED, the two-minute talks served as introductions to these entrepreneurs and innovators, who would spend most of their conference time in The Hive, a space for meals, discussion, side events and exhibits. The short talks did the trick, encouraging participants to mingle with these entrepreneurs, having come early in the program to encourage interaction.
  2. Audience attention spans are getting shorter. After six years of coaching at TEDMED, I find my foot tapping impatiently 15 minutes into any talk, even a good one. TED and TEDMED talks helped bring our attention spans to 18 minutes, but they’ve always included a range of lengths, because variety matters to the audience. Those short talks are among the most popular in the TED portfolio.
  3. Speakers get a high-impact opportunity that’s more likely to be heard in a variety of settings. If you think of talks as your introduction to the audience, rather than a catalog of everything you know, the shorter talk makes sense. It can have just enough in it to get those donors, investors, supporters and fans seeking you out for more after the session. If you have a well-learned five-minute talk in your back pocket, you can speak at a moment’s notice at a wide range of events. Use a two- or five-minute talk to open a Q&A session or town hall, speak at a reception, introduce a day of conference talks with a theme and more.

Trying to fathom what constitutes a two- or five-minute talk? Use the speechwriting standard of 120 words per minute for a well-paced talk. That means two minutes equals 240 words, and five minutes equals 600—just a page of double-spaced text.

The trick is to polish that script like a jewel; then you’ll see just how much you can fit in that compact space.

A version of this post first appeared on The Eloquent Woman.

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