Five Minutes is a Long Time

Mark Twain once said “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” If you have any doubts about the truth in that statement try to write a five minute presentation sometime. Last week I did just that – twice.

Last Thursday and Friday I took part in a presentation skills workshop. This was the third presentation workshop I have taken part in during the last five years. That’s at least two more such training than I took part in during nine years of classroom teaching BTW. Makes you wonder doesn’t it? Anyway, during the two days each of 14 people gave two 5-minute presentations. All of these people give presentations, often to skeptical or even unfriendly audiences as well as friendly ones of course, as part of their job. Many of them have been doing this for years. Several have been university or high school faculty. All are comfortable in front of all sorts of audiences. In short, this was not amateur hour. But for everyone preparing a five minute presentation was a lot of work.

I spent at least two hours on each of my presentations and that was using and modifying an existing presentation. In one case I had previously taken a 40 minute talk and pared it down to 20 minutes. Now I had to pair it down to five minutes. What do you take out? What do you keep? And how do you keep the audience awake and interested when you are one of 14 people giving a talk based on the same original presentation? I’d love to report that mine was the best – but it wasn’t. I put myself in the middle. It was a great learning and somewhat humbling experience. It caused me to completely rethink how I use PowerPoint BTW. Some of my team is just amazing at putting together visual interesting slides that augment rather than distract from a talk. Now I am going to re-do all of my slide decks.

One of the big things that I learned  from this experience is that one can really pass on a lot of information in a five minute talk. Obviously you can cover a lot more with more time but I think that all too often speakers add a lot of filler in order to fill the time they have available. By forcing oneself to think about the five minute time limit one really gets to the heart of what they are trying to say.  I wonder if a five minute talk would be a good way to introduce or perhaps review a topic for students? I’m pretty sure that asking students to cover a topic in a five minute talk would be a good exercise though.

I can see a bunch of students thinking “ha, five minutes. I can do five minutes in my sleep.” But I’ll bet that many will go too long and others will fit their talk in the required time only by leaving things they know are important out. They’d learn something though. Do this often enough and they’ll get good at it though. I really think this is a valuable skill. Some of them will eventually want to work on the 30-60 second “elevator pitch” and this will get them going in the right direction. Others will find themselves with only a few minutes to explain an idea or a project or a product to a senior manager some day. All of them will have to think very hard about what is and is not important in a topic and that is a valuable skill in itself. This is as import in computer science as it is in any other field.

Sorry this is so long. I really didn’t have time to shorten it. 🙂

Comments (2)

  1. randguth says:

    Awe Alfred, you were better than that.  But Dan and Hilary really humbled me. – Randy

  2. Hi Alfred. Yes! Please get your student to learn the art of 5 minute presentations.  It’s a vital skill. Make an over-long or unfocused presentation at work and a bored audience will miss your important points.  If a meeting overruns and your presentation time gets cut short you need the ability to put your ideas across clearly and succinctly.  

    The biggest benefit I’ve gained from being part of a Toastmasters International speaking club is learning to edit.  Every speaking opportunity gets timed so rambling is not an option!

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