Alfred Hitchcock is credited with saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” I believe he was making the case for suspense and intrigue. Unfortunately, many public speakers seem to take the advice literally. Here are four ways that you can prevent the needless suffering of listeners and be an advocate for them:
1. Topic selection – A presentation should not be about what the speaker wants to say; it should be about what the audience wants or needs to hear. When selecting a speech topic, aim for the intersection of what your audience wants or needs and what you are knowledgeable and passionate about. Don’t rely on an event organizer to tell you this information; survey or speak to likely attendees instead.
2. Speech length – TED Talks are 18 minutes long because audience attention and retention plummets after this amount of time. When you are asked to speak for 30 minutes, an hour, or even longer, offer 20-minutes of speaking followed by Q&A or several 20-minute blocks of material punctuated by exercises, discussion, or other interactive elements.
Shorter speeches require more careful curation. Cut out any material that is extraneous or included for the benefit of the speaker (and not the audience). If you find yourself resisting cuts because you need to “cover” a certain point, that’s a sure sign that you are focusing on your goals and not the needs of listeners.
3. Visual elements and handouts – If you are using slides, ask yourself whether the material on them is for the benefit of listeners or speaking notes for the presenter. Keep if the former; eliminate if the latter. Similarly, if you are providing a handout, it should be crafted to help the audience engage with takeaway points and remember action items.
4. Feedback – After you speak, solicit feedback from listeners to find out if your talk was valuable. Consider surveys (paper or electronic) and interviews (immediately after or by phone in the days following a presentation). If you never ask, you’ll never know whether you successfully infused your speech with suspense and intrigue, or if you inflicted pain and suffering on audience members.