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30 seconds to prepare

Here’s the scene. Two analysts have been tapped to address the San Francisco chapter of an industry organization. The rules are: you have ten minutes to speak, and you cannot use slides.

The organization is for executives and managers of the cable television industry. One of the analysts is me. I analyze the television industry for Forrester Research, advising companies on how technology is changing the business. The other analyst is the most respected financial analyst covering the cable industry — he is advising investors about the public companies in the industry and their prospects for the future (specifically, the appropriate valuation for their stock).

Both of us spend all of our time carefully scrutinizing every scrap of news about the business and getting briefed by the executives in it. Those executives pay close attention to us and try to influence us, because what we say makes a difference to how they are perceived. In this, our space, both of us analysts really know our stuff.

We’re not really competitors, this financial analyst and me, because we serve different audiences. We rarely run into each other, since we run in different circles. We do, however, know of each other, since we’re so used to seeing the other guy getting quoted in the articles we read.

As we sit next to each other, preparing to speak, I’m jotting down a few notes on an index card. The other analyst is looking over several printed out page of text in a folder, presumably the text of his short speech.

“How long did it take you to prepare for this?” he asks me.

“Counting the last 30 seconds . . . about 30 seconds.” I say.

He looks at me as if I have three heads. He’s clearly taken a lot more effort to get ready, and he’s still nervous about it. I’m not.

And then the person running the event calms down the audience, and we each get up to speak in turn. Judging from the audience’s reaction, both of us do great.

Ready to go in 30 seconds?

You may think my 30-second remark was arrogant. But here was the difference between me and that other analyst.

In my work as an analyst of the television industry, I focused on trends . . . and ideas. Every day was a chance to build on, modify, or replace the ideas in my quiver. Every fact I learned in a briefing was a chance to find support for or broaden those ideas.

When I wasn’t building the ideas, I was delivering the ideas. Frequently. In speeches. In reports I wrote. In blog posts. In sessions in front of clients. All of those activities were basically exercises in answering the question, “What’s happening right now in the industry, and what does it mean for people like me?” At any given moment, I might have to put that into words, powerfully and succinctly.

So when it came time to give the talk in San Francisco, all I had to do was think, “Which ideas am I go to tell these people about, and in what order?” All that took was 30 seconds of jotting notes on an index card.

The other guy knew at least as much about the industry as I did, and likely more. His knowledge was broad and deep, but he wasn’t frequently called upon to condense it into quick sound bites. He had a knowledgeable perspective on trends, but not a set of go-to ideas to talk about. “Comcast will be worth more because of broadband trends” was a crucial concept for the financial analyst’s audience, but certainly not all that interesting to the audience we were about to speak to.

Because he was less experienced at talking to audiences like this — and because he needed to do the work of shaping his knowledge into easily consumable ideas — it took him longer to prepare. I’m sure he would have been more comfortable with a bunch of slides with numbers and charts on them, but he didn’t have that crutch to fall back on.

What this means for you

It’s not enough to know things. You need to practice how you communicate them.

You never know when you’ll be put in front of an important audience — it might be a large group, or it might just be your boss’s boss — and asked to explain what you know in a minute or two.

When you get your chance, you may have 30 seconds to prepare, or even less.

Get used to refining and expressing your ideas on a regular basis, and you’ll ready when your moment arrives.

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  1. Hi Josh – Great blog! This hit home for me as I am relatively early on in my career, spearheading new projects, and find that I have a hard time explaining those new projects to my coworkers. Would love to hear any other tips you have for this (but obviously practice makes perfect). Have a great weekend!

  2. To Own The Room, a confident public speaker will concentrate on just a few themes, not the words, the words will come. In a few words each, notes for each theme are listed in order.

  3. Great comparison and analysis! I have a 10-minute presentation on Tuesday (I can use slides), so “pokes” like this help me to dig deeper in advance into the details that each slide summarizes.

    I’ve forwarded this link to a speaking coach friend who coaches people to prepare in depthy for their presentations, as you show here, so they aren’t just reading the PowerPoint slide text to the audience (yawn). My friend is Mike McQuillan of FIT Presenter. Here’s his website, in case you’d like to connect with him – https://fit-presenter.com/