Behind the Scenes: Calibrating Content for Different Session Lengths

Same topic; different session lengths: 10 minutes, 60 minutes, 20 (then 25) minutes.

That's the situation I have experienced for my keynote presentation on lifelong learning, Life's A Great Teacher: Are You A Great Student?
How do you calibrate content and format to fill containers of such different sizes? I thought you might enjoy a behind the scenes tour of what I did and what I learned.

Always prepare various content bundles regardless of session length
If you don't speak often, this may seem particularly challenging, but I always prepare several different bundles of content no matter how much time I have been given.  Why?  Because things happen: lunches run late, the speaker before you eats into your time, participants get really engaged in a discussion and use more time than you had planned, you move through a content segment faster than you had anticipated, etc. Case in point, ACPA HEd talks were planned as 20 minutes, but shortly before taking the stage I was told I could take longer because another speaker was running late.

So I always prepare content outlines for (1) the time I've been assigned, (2) about 10-15% less time, and (3) about 10-15% more time. I identify content milestones for where I want to be on the clock at certain points in my presentation and then make real-time refinements based on how time is unfolding: i.e., shorten or expand a segment, skip a few slides, change the reporting out from an exercise to use less time. Because I outline both more and less content, making adjustments on the fly is less stressful than it otherwise would be.

This only works if you prioritize the content most important to participants, plan alternative presentation formats should you need to use them, and create a slide deck with alternative slides you can skip to as needed.  The latter is particularly challenging in keynotes if your deck is being run from a central AV station away from the stage instead of your laptop.  In this case I won't be able to punch in a new slide number and skip around. So I spend time with the AV staff to prepare them to do so should I call out "could we go to slide 53 please"?

Use more time for application and exploration, not just more presentation
Some people see longer session lengths and think "Great I can talk more."  You could, but the time might be better spent involving participants in their own exploration of the most critical content you share.

When taking content from a 10-minute TEDx talk to a 60-minute general session keynote, I first carved out the key conversations I thought participants would value and then crafted some participant interaction formats that honored both introverted and extroverted learners. I also reflected on how the TEDx talk was delivered at a quick pace that I wanted to slow down. These changes produced an initial content outline that clocked in around 40 minutes.

What to do with the gift of 20 extra minutes? Now I reviewed the core content delivered in the TEDx talk and looked for potential enhancements to add into my longer presentation. While 10 minutes let me sufficiently raise awareness of what people need to think about as lifelong learners, it didn't let me get very specific about what they need to do about it. So I used my remaining extra 20 minutes at AFA to introduce a new presentation segment offering specific habits for people to try on in pursuit of lifelong learning.

Use the visual to sustain the value
Participants in all three of these conferences were fairly heavy social media users, so I turned to Twitter to see what people most commonly shared as takeaways.  At TEDx, the Edward deBono quote about a box of 64 crayons was shared very frequently. At AFA, not so much. Preparing for ACPA, this troubled me a bit because as Mary Catherine Bateson says, "Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories."


Reflecting on why something would stand out at one conference and get lost at another, the answer became obvious.  The deBono quote was used at about the 3-minute point in both the 10-minute and 60-minute presentations, but in the longer version it is followed by 57 minutes of content instead of 7.  No wonder it got lost.

deBono's box of crayons/one blue pen metaphor tells a great story about the practice of lifelong learning, so I wanted it to be a core takeaway from my ACPA HEd talk. And because I wanted to include the additional AFA content focused on practical application, I now had a shorter talk that was going to cover a lot of ground in a less interactive format.  Yikes!  Of course, the longer exercises I used at AFA had to go, but I also had to leave people with a strong roadmap of the broader range of content I was covering.

My solution was to distill the core points of my talk into a final slide, add in the box of crayons and blue pen visuals from the 3-minute mark slide, and frame it with a T to remind people of the example I shared about how IDEO draws on T-shaped professionals in their highly collaborative culture.

When that slide went on the screen and I saw smartphones fly into the air to capture it, I knew this was a winner. Reviewing the Twitter feed after the event confirmed it was the most frequently Tweeted point from my talk.

Bottom line?

Honing content is an interative process, one that requires preparing for multiple presentation scenarios. As I've said before, it's important to prepare to present, but make sure you also prepare to be present.  Our 100% presence is the greatest gift we can offer as a session unfolds.
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Life's a Great Teacher, Are you a Great Student? is one of the keynotes I will continue to deliver (In varying lengths of course) during my extended sabbatical in 2015. If you'd like to bring it to your conference, let me know.