January 25, 2024

How Long Should a Memorable Keynote Presentation Be?

Jeff Vara
Director, Creative Strategy

Hartmann Studios Executive Creative Director Jeff Vara gets this question a lot. And given his decades of experience crafting keynotes, we’re keen to hear his answer. “Any form of communication should only be as long as it needs to be to get your message across. And no longer,” Vara explains. “Once [your audience] gets your message, they’ve got it. And that’s when your presentation is over.”

Seems simple enough. But anyone who’s stood in front of an audience knows it’s anything but. “It’s easy to lose your sense of time,” Vara explains. “When you’re on stage, time goes by so much faster than if you’re in the audience.” In other words, if any part of a presentation starts to drag, the audience will quickly lose interest. And, thanks to mobile devices, audience members now have something “better to do” if they’re not hanging on to your every word. Vara offers a few suggestions when developing a speech to keep your audience engaged:

  • Start by writing as if there will be no visuals. Hold off on the presentation slides for now. Instead, focus on the words you want to say. Even to the point of using good ol’ fashioned pencil and paper to encourage you to think strategically about your words (and not how they look on a computer screen).
  • Know your audience and their capacity for your subject. If it’s a well-loved topic, feel free to wax poetic for a moment (not minutes). But, if your presentation is going to be a tough sell, brevity is your friend. Keep it concise. This is important, and certainly not easy. 
  • Trim your takeaways to what’s truly necessary. Every good presentation has clear action items for the audience, but this is where “less is more” could not be more true. Are there five things you want your audience to know? Try to whittle it to three. Three points you want to make? Trim it to one.

Ultimately, you want your presentation not only to engage your audience, but to drive them to action. So instead of starting with a prescribed time limit in mind, Vara advises speakers to ask this simple question: “What is the least amount of time I need to get my message across?” 

“When you fully focus on the goal of a presentation, the right length will find itself,” Vara finishes. “Anything extra is superfluous.”

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