10 Lessons from a 5-Minute Presentation

Guest contribution by Diane Windingland, Virtual Speech Coach

Imagine if you had only 5 minutes to speak, and had to use 20 slides, each of which automatically advanced every 15 seconds.

Well, I don’t have to imagine it. I did it last night.

I was one of 11 speakers at an Ignite-style event called “Leadership Spark.”

My presentation went well, but it was probably the most challenging short presentation I have ever created, mainly because of the format restrictions.

However, it was a valuable experience because of 10 lessons it reinforced:

1. Prepare earlier than you think you need to. You don’t know what may come up. There were supposed to be 12 speakers, but one dropped out the day before the event because he had obtained a full-time job unexpectedly the week before and ran out of time to prepare adequately.

2. Communicate promptly with the meeting planner. This event was the first multi-speaker event of this nature for the meeting planner. The poor guy was overwhelmed by all the “speaker wrangling” as he put it. Each of the 12 speakers had to submit 5 items, so that meant there were 60 items to keep track of. Some speakers didn’t confirm right away. Some didn’t follow directions. Some missed deadlines (one of the speakers was replaced by a backup speaker because of a missed deadline). Be the meeting planner’s favorite speaker because you are easy to work with: communicate promptly, don’t be demanding, and ask questions if something is not clear.

3. Create your verbal content before you create your slides. Get clear on your content, then create your slides. Typically, your slides support your content. If you start your planning in your presentation software, it’s like the tail wagging the dog. I like to use sticky notes to plan out my slides. It’s much easier to throw out a sticky note than it is to throw out a slide you may have slaved over or paid for.

4. Limit text on slides. Fewer words on a slide are better, especially if a slide is up for a short amount of time.  When you have text on a slide, audience members will look at a slide and read it. While they are reading, your speaking will annoy them (this is also why having bullet points, if you must use them, fade in one at a time is better than having all your bullet points appear at once).

5. Chunk your presentation to practice it in shorter segments. A short presentation can be learned quickly, as you can pack in several back-to-back practices in a short time. The day before the presentation, I practiced my speech 10 times in less than an hour.

Application to a longer presentation: chunk a longer presentation into shorter segments or “modules” of about 5 minutes and practice the modules (include the transitions between modules as part of the practice, so you know what leads into each section). As a bonus, if you create modules, you can easily adjust your content for the length of time of your presentation, giving you variations on the presentation.

6. Practice as closely as you can to actual speaking conditions. The most ideal situation would be to have a rehearsal with a live audience at the same venue. That usually can’t be arranged, so consider what you can do to replicate as much as you can. For me, that meant:

  • Practicing with the slides
  • Standing up
  • Gesturing and moving as I planned on doing
  • Holding a microphone (I knew we would be using a handheld microphone)
  • Taping up a few sheets of paper with crudely drawn faces to simulate an audience, so I could practice making eye contact.

When I added in all those elements, my next practice didn’t go so well, as I had divided attention. I practiced again, and it was better, as I got used to the extra elements.

It’s not “practice makes perfect.” You can practice and reinforce wrong skills. It’s as Vince Lombardi said, “perfect practice makes perfect.” After you have worked out the major kinks in your content and delivery, practice as closely as possible to the actual speaking conditions to reinforce the right skills.

7. Allow time for the audience to laugh, if you say something funny. This was especially tricky for this presentation. I knew I had one guaranteed laugh line, so I had two versions of what I would say, depending on how long the audience laughed. I planned to pause a little before the “punch” line. And, I planned a longer pause after the punch line. If you rush on while the audience is still laughing (i.e. “stepping on the laugh”), the audience will not feel as satisfied, and they will be less likely to laugh very much again.

8. Tell a relevant story. Your audience will be engaged and more likely to remember your point. As a bonus, a story is easier for you to remember, too. Most of my short speech was a story about a leadership lesson I learned as a child from my grandmother. One part of the story naturally flowed into the next, like a movie playing in my head.

9. Act confident. Confidence attracts. If you act confident, you will be more likely to feel confident. Stand tall. Pause to breath. Smile at your audience. Instead of telling yourself you are nervous, tell yourself that you are excited! 10 Ways to Create a Confident Mindset for Speaking

10. Get video. The event had a videographer, so I will be getting a video of my presentation. I may be able to leverage the video to promote my business, but most importantly, I will have the opportunity to self-evaluate, looking at what I did well and what could have been better or different. It can be hard to watch yourself on video, but it can be the fastest way to improve. Playing back one of the first speeches I had someone video years ago, I was aghast to note that I hitched up my pants three times in 7 minutes. I was unaware that I was doing it. Fortunately, the fix, a belt, was simple!

Your next presentation probably won’t have the format restrictions that my presentation had, but you can confidently create and deliver compelling content by practicing these 10 lessons.


Diane Windingland is an author of 10 books on communication skills. She speaks on communication topics and trains subject matter experts how to present with clarity and confidence, shaping what they know into presentations that engage and get results. Learn more at www.virtualspeechcoach.com

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