Do Presentations Have to Be 60 Minutes Long?

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While discussing typical lengths of various types of presentations during a course recently, I got the question whether it actually makes sense to do a 60 minute presentation on any topic.

That's a great question, well worth considering. Why do traditional conferences still insist on reserving 60-minute slots for presentations? Is it because it makes the scheduling easier? I would hope not. And in fact, while the first talk at a conference often starts on the hour, things shift during the day and you end up with 60-minute sessions starting at 11:15.

The real question, of course, is whether you really need 60 minutes (or even 45 minutes) to cover your topic. I'm going out on a limb here and say: No, you don't. If you really have a lot of stuff to cover, then we're talking about a workshop of sorts and it should be even longer than 60 minutes, but with exercises (people learn by doing!) and breaks. That's a different type of presentation altogether.

TED talks demonstrate that you can cover even complex or innovative topics in way less than an hour but in a way that makes the audience really understand and appreciate it. Going by TED's 18-minute limit - what are you going to talk about in the remaining 42 minutes that would really benefit your audience? And it's not just TED talks; Joey Asher argues that 15 minutes would be enough for any business presentation - including the time for questions.

Some conferences are already experimenting with shorter formats, e.g. 30-minute talks or lightning talks (which are usually about 5 minutes, with a hard limit). Even a 30 minute slot would give you about 20 minutes for your talk and 10 minutes to take questions from the audience.

If you're stuck with a 60-minute slot because that's what the conference is using, then try changing the system from within. Do a mini workshop in those 60 minutes: Talk for 15 minutes, let people do an exercise for another 15, summarise the results and add some additional content, then take questions. Ask for feedback after the presentation; see how people (and the organisers) like that format.

Using shorter formats is not to cater for the perceived notion of people's attention spans getting shorter. The question that you should ask yourself is if you really need all that time to tell your audience something that they really need to know at this point. And I'd bet that in the majority of cases, if you're being honest with yourself, the answer is "No".

(Photo by Felix_Hu, from pixabay, CC0)

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