Wednesday, 20 March 2013

How rock band Queen showed the way to becoming champions of the short presentation

Last week I discussed the importance of keeping to time when giving a presentation.  There are plenty of reasons for sticking to time and you can read about some of them if you scroll down.  

I would now like to expand on the theme by looking at the challenges presented by being given a very short time slot in which to present.  The fact is that, unless you have plenty of experience at giving short presentations, it really is quite difficult.  Anyone can give a long presentation – it is achieving the same (or greater) effect in much less time that requires expertise. As Mark Twain once said: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” 

My favourite example of the way that a short time allocation needs more work, not less, comes from the world of rock music.  Anyone who remembers the original Live Aid concert in 1985 is likely agree with Bob Geldof’s assessment that “Queen where by far the best band of the day”. Queen succeeded against the odds, as they were not exactly at their peak at this time. Perhaps that’s why they took their planning for the event so seriously, with shortage of available time being at the very front of their minds. They went for a greatest hits set, morphing them into a medley and culminating in a ‘We are the champions’ singalong. 

Lesley-Ann Jones
Then they did something that I only discovered when I read Lesley-Ann Jones’s excellent book Freddie Mercury: the definitive biography. While other bands regarded 20 minutes at Wembley as something they could knock off in their sleep – Dire Straits admitted that as they were playing at the Arena next door “we just wandered across the car park with our guitars” – Queen committed to some serious rehearsal. They booked The Shaw Theatre in London’s Euston Road and spent a week rehearsing for that short 20-minute slot.  And once they had it perfect they re-worked it so as to come in just a little under time.  As a result of all this preparation – and attention to timing detail - they stole the show and people are still talking about it to this day.

As I say, editing yourself down to a short time is difficult and you need to be brutal – I may come back to this one day with a discussion of ‘Killing your darlings’ as they say in the movie business, but start off your editing process like this:
  • Script what you would ideally like to say as if you had no time restriction
  • Carve it all up into a) what you must say, b) what would be good to say and c) what would be nice to say.
  • Start rehearsing and keep rehearsing until you come in at just a little under the time you have available – and be ruthless!
For the record, my own most challenging presentation came when I was invited onto the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 to explain the Rules of Magic and how they could be applied to good effect for businesses during the recession.  One catch: I had three-and-a-half minutes!  I can’t possibly cover the topic in such a short time, I thought; on the other hand I was very interested in the opportunity of addressing 6.5 million listeners.  I applied the must say/good to say/like to say principle and then adjusted it all to suit radio broadcast.  As a result, I received enquires that took me all over Europe and eventually led to a publisher asking me to write my book Presentation Magic.   

So you can do it if you’ve got the right incentive.  Next week I’ll have a look at how the movie makers distil their messaging with a principle known as ‘High Concept’.

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