Giving a presentation on Monday? Don’t watch this on Sunday.

Rule #1 when giving a presentation: Be the audience.

Consider what your audience wants to know—but also, and every bit as important, what they don’t because they’ve got no time, no interest, they’re preoccupied with 10,000 other things, and they’d gladly pay you a boatload of money if you simply didn’t tell them.

The audience experience can be painful, which is why I’ll probably skip the Academy Awards on Sunday.

I experience the Awards like a bad movie. A good movie throws you into the action right away, and then, eventually, rolls the credits. But with the Awards, there’s hardly any action, it’s all credits.

Occasionally, I watch the speeches. Does anything work here? Yes, three things.

1) Short beats long: The shortest acceptance speech ever, two words: “Thank you,” said Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock believed “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” But that night at the Awards, unless you’d been over-zealous about staying hydrated, gulping down water like a horse, right out of a bucket, you probably wished Hitchcock had elaborated.

Audiences seldom feel that way.

One year, the Oscars lasted over four hours. Afterwards, the Academy imposed a 45 second limit on acceptance speeches. But even 45 seconds, in an endless parade of speeches, can be wordy.

Suggestion for you: Ruthlessly edit your presentation. Less is more.

2) Unexpected beats predictable: Saying “thanks,” the most frequent word at the Awards, is gracious. But it doesn’t have to be predictable.

Steven Soderbergh (Traffic): Instead of thanking individuals, he thanks “anyone who spends part of their day creating . . . this world would be unlivable without art.”


Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment): “I’m not going to thank everybody I’ve ever met in my entire life . . . and in the other life I might have had.”

(I had a third example here, but it was too much. I want to thank my editor for pointing that out.)

Suggestion for you: Capture your audience right away with an unpredictable opening—e.g. an intriguing question, a fast story. The 1st 30 seconds matter.

3) Passion beats “cool”: It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

Cuban Gooding, Jr. (Jerry Maguire) breaks the two rules above: he’s not concise—he barrels past his 45 seconds, even after the orchestra tries to cut him off—and he thanks everyone in sight.

But he does it with such exuberance, you can’t help cheering.

Suggestion for you: Monitor your energy. Your audience will never be more enthusiastic than you are.

Tip: The next time you’re in the audience, whether for the Oscars or anything else, pay attention to what makes you pay attention—and what doesn’t. Then, use that.

© Copyright 2014 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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