Christian Heilmann

A call for shorter talks

Monday, June 18th, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Right now I am in San Francisco working on training materials for the Mozilla Evangelism Reps program. As a part of this I am analysing great talks and point out the tricks the speakers used and what new speakers can learn from that.

I love giving talks and I love watching good talks. I used to watch Southpark and American Dad episodes on the cross-trainer in the gym but lately I replaced them with TED talks and presentations from YouTube (why isn’t there an option to download them without an add-on) and Vimeo.

Both when watching and when giving talks I realised a thing lately: shorter talks tend to be better. Yes, a well crafted long talk can be very exciting, too, but I find myself drifting off quite quickly. A well written and executed 15-20 minute talk can bring across the same messages as a one hour talk that is padded with a lot of demos or stories.

Running the danger of many a “how dare you suggest how to run an event, what have you done to earn a right to say something about that” comment and tweet I wondered if we shouldn’t think about aiming for shorter talks at events and if they aren’t more effective. Here are some reasons for shorter talks:

  • The audience’s attention span is not stretched to its limits
  • You can have more talks, thus offering more choice and also a chance for unknown speakers to have a slot
  • Speakers are forced to plan their talks better. You concentrate on one thing that makes a difference instead of once again telling “the history of HTML5” or “how medieval sock-knitting relates to responsive design”
  • Talks become more of a “check this out and look it up later” giving the audience resources to look up in their own time and on their own terms
  • After the event re-use is easier. A 15 minute talk is easier to edit and release on the web and will get much more viewers than an hour or longer talk – simple file size and dedication from the viewer’s side are the reasons here
  • Content becomes more reusable. If your talk is shorter you are likely to show things that people can try out for themselves later. In a longer talk you can show all kind of cool stuff that only works in your setup and a special version of the browser and so on. In a short talk you don’t have time to explain how people should set up their environments
  • We have more time for Q&A

Of course this doesn’t apply to all talks. A good inspirational session or something discussing an idea in depth will take more time and a good speaker will make it worth your while. I have, however, seen shorter talks work very well in unconferences and lately more and more conferences seem to favour them, too. I for one am happy to deliver more short, focused items (maybe several in different tracks) as it keeps things fresh.

Of course some talks are performances and the time is planned well and it makes sense to allow the speaker to deliver a short play around a topic. This is very much not me though and for quick educational items maybe less is really more.

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