Why Brevity is Best in a Presentation

Published: Sep 09, 2015
Modified: Jun 01, 2020

By Beth Noymer Levine

When was the last time you or someone you know complained because a speaker was brief? Quite the opposite, right? Like bling, brevity immediately gets our attention. It’s a quick way to be memorable and ensure that your audience retains your points. There’s nothing quite like brevity for making a lasting impression.

Regardless of how brilliant or compelling a speaker’s material is, audiences get downright annoyed when speakers are long-winded or go over their allotted time. In these cases, even if the content is stellar, the takeaway is a less-than-stellar impression. When people use the words “brief and to the point” to describe a speaker or presenter’s performance, it is usually high praise.

The inability to be more concise or to make a point succinctly can be a career blocker. The opposite is also true; brevity can enhance a career. Think about the Gettysburg Address. President Lincoln’s three-minute speech has resonated for more than 150 years, but no one remembers Edward Everett, who was supposed to be the main speaker that day, or his two-hour oration.

Brevity works, because people have ever shortening attention spans. This change in attention spans is often discussed in negative terms, as a deterioration in our ability to focus. But I think we have to ask ourselves, is this really a bad thing? I prefer to look at the phenomenon as a market disruption or correction that is forcing communications to adopt the often-touted corporate principles of leanness and efficiency. As companies try to increase engagement and productivity, improving communication—by cutting out waste—could be quite effective. Being brief and to the point may require a little extra effort, but it can accomplish a lot and save precious time.

According to research conducted by psychologist Dianne Dukette and physician David Cornish, adults are able to maintain twenty minutes of sustained attention. However, within those twenty minutes, the audience needs to experience a “stimulus change” every few seconds in order to maintain focus. The stimulus change can be as subtle as the speaker moving or shifting positions or as overt as a change in visuals or sound. For the workplace, Dukette and Cornish’s research boils down to three rules of thumb:

  1. You have eight seconds to grab your audience’s attention when you open.
  2. You have a maximum of 20 minutes to transfer information.
  3. You should “change things up” every few seconds during the interaction.

My experience suggests both that the researchers are right on target and that there are two significant challenges to following their advice. The first is that holding the attention of an adult audience requires a tremendous amount of multitasking. The second is that it requires careful advance planning.

In other words, brevity—or perhaps we should call it efficiency and expediency—in communication takes discipline and planning. As the speaker, it’s up to you to do the hard work of organizing your thoughts and packaging your content for your audience.

This post was adapted from Beth Noymer Levine’s book, Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World.

About The Author

Communications coach Beth Noymer Levine is an expert in helping Fortune 500 executives, professional and world-class athletes, and other high-profile individuals effectively think about, prepare for, and deliver their messages to important audiences. The founder of SmartMouth Communications, Levine is also the author of “Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World" and the creator of SmartMouth OnDemand , an innovative online learning platform that offers interactive skill-building communications courses. She is a frequent speaker and workshop presenter at conferences and events nationwide.