More and more the call is for short speeches.  Of course, the popularity of TED and TEDx talks is one cause, but the impatient of the times is another, along with our shrinking attention spans and all the other distractions competing for our mindshare.  Keynote speeches, which used to be 90 minutes, are now 60, and our clients regularly report that they are often asked to give a 20- or 30-minute version of their keynote speech – and sometimes on the fly.

So you’d better have a short version of your talk ready to go, along with that splendid, full-bore, detailed, 60-minute masterpiece.  How do you shrink what you have to say into a 20-minute miniature version of itself?

The secret to saying something memorable in 20 minutes is to resist the urge to say too much.  Changing lives in 20 minutes takes focus.  And that’s something that most people have a hard time doing.  In 20 minutes, you can say roughly 2500 words, give or take, and that’s not very many if you’ve set yourself the task of changing the world.  So you’ve got to narrow the field, resist the urge to say it all, and pick your details judiciously.

A good 20-minute talk presents one idea, tells one story, and asks one question. 

Begin by choosing one idea.  Try to make it an idea that has universal interest, but where your specific expertise can usefully be applied.  Then, narrow it down and focus it until you can sum it up easily in an elevator pitch of a few sentences:

As a neuranatomist, I study the difference between normal brains and the brains of the mentally ill.  One morning, I suffered a stroke, and experienced a mental disorder of my own. I was fascinated to learn from the experience.  Here’s what I learned while I was dying, especially about the differences between the right and left hemisphere’s experiences of reality. 

That, roughly speaking, is what Jill Bolte Taylor might use as a guideline for preparing her TED masterpiece on her “stroke of insight.”  It’s one idea, her expertise is highly relevant, it’s focused and it’s inherently interesting.

Next, pick one story to go with the one idea.  Make it a story only you can tell.  And make it a story with a point, or lesson.  In the Taylor example, her story focuses on the drama surrounding the moment of the stroke, and what follows from that.  The insight Taylor brings to bear on her stroke lets her tell the story in a way no one else can.  The lesson she derives from the story is all about learning to live, especially in that right-brain, non-judgmental world of affirmation, and in the end it’s her affirmation in the face of such a harrowing life-event that makes her perspective powerful and unique.

Note that your story doesn’t have to be as dramatic or life-threatening as a stroke, but of course it doesn’t hurt.  The further down you are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the more viscerally you will grab your audience.  The safety level is the best place to be, but don’t fake it.  If your speech is not about life and death, don’t distort it to try to make it so.  Just tell it in the way that only you can.

Finally, ask one question.  A good talk poses a question, for which it has an answer that might be sketched quickly at the beginning of the talk, but for which the talk itself is the fuller answer.  Don’t be afraid to make it a big question.  In Taylor’s case, the question she asks is “Who are we?” – plenty big – and the answer is that we are boundless beings that channel and embrace the energy of the universe – but that have the physical body to do something with that energy.

Audiences always start out asking why – why should I care, why is this talk important, why should I listen – and it’s good to give a provisional, brief answer at the top of the talk, so that the audience relaxes and listens to the whole talk as the fuller answer.   Taylor cheats a little on this one, opening with the statement that she studies the brain because her brother suffers from mental illness.  So she studies the differences between brains like hers that allow her to dream her dreams and yet bring them into reality, whereas her brother’s dreams never become reality.  That does answer the question why, but her speech is not really about normal v mentally ill brains.  Rather, it’s about the universal and differing experiences of reality offered up by the left and right brains.

But by the time we get to the end of the speech, most of us have forgotten that entry point, so compelling is her story.

One idea, one story, one question.  That’s  how you focus your thoughts to produce a coherent, potentially powerful 20-minute speech.

My Stroke of Insight


  1. A good 20-minute talk presents one idea, tells one story, and asks one question – that’s a great piece of advice. I have always found that it takes much longer to prepare and write a short speech than longer. The art and skill is knowing what to include, what to leave out and how best to structure the key points. I also think your point above, (The further down you are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the more viscerally you will grab your audience.) is really helpful in learning how to significantly engage the emotional level of the audience. Pathos Is such a powerful tool in making our speeches stand out. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Thanks, Peter, for the comment and point about pathos — it is also a good reminder! If we don’t touch the emotions of our audience, we don’t touch them at all.

  2. Hi Nick,
    This is such a helpful post. I’m just in the midst of transforming my 45 minute talk into a 20-minute version. I understood the idea about getting down to the most essential content, but the “one idea, one story, one question” is so valuable. Putting my thinking hat back on, but feeling very focused! Thanks.

  3. Nick – I’m a bit late coming to this. Nontheless – This is particularly helpful. Brilliant! I’m using it right now for an informal talk I have to give. I’ve been asked to “share my wisdom” with a group of people at a dinner gathering and have been trying to determine 1) if I have any and 2) how best to impart what I’ve learned in a brief and pithy way that can be useful to others. Thanks!

    1. Ruth, you do have wisdom to share, as anyone who knows you will attest, so good luck with the process!

  4. Thank you for this. Very helpful. While I am a presentation trainer, training people every day on presentations and public speaking, it is good to be reminded of the basics. I need to give two big talks in the next few weeks and will use this process. Completely agree about the use of pathos. The greater the emotional buy-in the more powerful the talk. And that is often the hardest part of a talk to get right.

  5. Hi, just stumbled upon this link! Very informative. I have been asked to share my story to grade 5-6’s about being vision impaired. I have spoken to adults before, but how would you approach talking to kids for 20-30 minutes?!

      1. One powerful tool with kids (and adults if done really well) is repetition of the key aspects of a story from different perspectives…

        Eg (crap simple draft version…)
        I was on my way to work when realised that I had forgotten my keys. No keys. Uh, oh… What will I do…
        When I got to work I said to my boss “I was on my here and do you know what? I forgot my keys. I don’t know what I going to do.
        Then I asked my friend “I found out that I don’t have my keys. I don’t know what I am going to do”
        etc… builds up the excitement bit by bit, and all the kids start to see the pattern… kids love the sense that they know what is going to come up… and then the surprise when something changes…

        (this comes from years of practice with my 7 year old daughter, no guarantee that it will still work when she is 8 or 12 or 16…)

  6. I found this page on google. Such a brilliant article. I’m preparing a TED like speech for freshmen at the faculty of Engineering. As a guest speaker and alumni, I want to draw their attention, share my experience, and leave them aome thought. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

  7. I really appreciate this advice, Nick. I am speaking soon about stuttering, a subject about which I am passionate. I was so tempted to try and fit ‘everything’ in but I will focus on how my personal (and hopefully powerful) story can encapsulate the main issues and on communicating my main argument. Thank you.

  8. I have found that most talks lasting under 45-60 minutes are a total waste of time to attend. With severely linited time, speakers are unable to present their hypothesis and the underlying subject matter properly. They resort to platitudes and uninformative statements that cannot be followed up and verified.

    Of course I am referring to proper academic presentations of serious topics. It seems though that most talks nowadays focus on deathly boring, human-(non)-interest anecdotal drivel about the speaker’s personal experience, which has no scientific value whatsoever. I avoid that sort of crap like the plague anyway.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ammut. I wish you the best of luck in finding talks that fit your description of what’s worthwhile. They are increasingly rare.

  9. Ha – very useful. Ive just been asked to convert a 13,500 word first chapter of a book about Laozi (written by a Chinese academic that I proofread the English for) into a 30 minute speech. WTF? Anyhoo I found these 3 ideas skimmed the chapter and BOOM there was the outline of the speech I have to write. Check how many words 30 minutes is on Google – Aiming for 2500 and within 30 minutes the speech is on its first draft. Thanks so much.

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