Four Characteristics of a Good Short Talk

I recently had to give a short talk for a conference. All the talks at this conference were about 20 minutes long, and it got me thinking about what I like about short presentations.

1. Not a Ton of Information

Most people attending a talk won’t be able to remember very much from the presentation. That isn’t the fault of the speaker or the content that was presented. It’s just the nature of human memory. However, most audiences can remember at least one key idea.

When I’m creating a talk, I try to focus on one main idea for the audience to take away. The point should be clear, introduced early and brought up again in the closing moments of the talk. While the speaker can elaborate on this idea in the body of the talk, the audience isn’t likely to remember the details, so the speaker should spend time persuading the audience that this idea matters.

For example, if I gave a talk introducing GraphQL, my main takeaway would be that GraphQL is an interesting alternative to REST APIs. Most of the talk would be about sharing examples of the interesting features of GraphQL, mainly to stir up more interest. My main goal would not be to equip the audience members to design a simple GraphQL API. Rather, I’d want to generate enough interest in the topic that they would investigate more themselves.

2. Simple Visuals

A simple slide deck should accompany the talk. Any visuals should help enhance the words you say–not replace anything you should include in your speech.

Typically, my slide deck will show a title describing the current point I’m trying to make. I’ll occasionally add bullet points to help the audience understand the structure behind my point. Diagrams can also be useful, assuming they aren’t too complex.

I always try to avoid showing a block of text on the slide (such as a relevant quote). Talks are a unique opportunity for people to hear what I have to say. I don’t want to waste the opportunity by having them read what I write. That’s what blog posts are for.

3. A Well-Rehearsed Presentation

Always run through a presentation a few times before sharing it with the target audience. By cleaning up any rough edges of the presentations, you can speak about your topic with more confidence. This typically leads to a better experience for the audience. It’s never fun to sit through a talk where someone’s struggling to find the right words and describe ideas.

Putting the extra polish on a presentation not only shows that you care about your topic. It also shows that you care about your audience. By practicing the talk, you can ensure that you’ll give your audience a good performance that they can sit back and enjoy, not just drudge through trying to glean some useful information.

4. Entertaining Content

Ideally, the audience should walk away smiling. I feel like the best way I can respect my audience is to give them a good laugh. A talk becomes much more engaging if you don’t have to fight boredom through it.

The presentation doesn’t have to be a stand-up routine, but I usually try to at least weave some humor though the content. This can make the talk a bit more memorable. And if the topic isn’t very interesting to the audience, at least I gave them a good time.