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Loaded for Bore

Every time I watch a PowerPoint presentation, I recall one of my favorite Dilbert cartoons. In the first frame, Dilbert points to a slide and says "as you can clearly see on slide 397." At that point a character in the audience puts his hands over his eyes, screams, and passes out due to "PowerPoint poisoning." It's an all-too-common -- yet easily avoidable -- affliction.

As a business-communications coach, I see the longest presentations you can imagine. I worked with an entrepreneur last year who was preparing to pitch his company to important investors. His presentation lasted more than an hour and contained 52 highly technical slides.

THANKS, MTV! I felt like the guy in the Dilbert cartoon –- for a moment, I thought I was going to pass out in the conference room. Within just a few hours, we had trimmed his presentation to 20 minutes and no more than 10 slides, with a product demonstration thrown in to end on a high note. The CEO went on to successfully wow his investors and eventually took his company public. Shorter was stronger.

When it comes to presentations, 15 to 20 minutes is what I call the "window of impact" to get your message across. Our attention span isn't that long -- thank you MTV.

Kidding aside, studies have shown audience retention drops off dramatically after about 18 minutes. Have you noticed the segments on the television show 60 Minutes run no longer than 15 to 17 minutes?

DON'T LOSE THEM. The Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan, gave strict instructions to his speechwriters to avoid writing speeches that lasted longer than 20 minutes. Not because he wanted to go back to the White House for a nap, but because his training as an actor and public speaker taught him what 60 Minutes producers understand: Shorter is better.

Listeners retain up to 90% of what they hear in a 20-minute block. As the length of a presentation gets longer, listeners remember less and less.

Several venture capitalists who listen to dozens of pitches a week have told me that 15 minutes is the longest they expect speakers to talk before getting to the heart of the message. Any longer, and you've lost them.

STRONGEST IMPACT. I would argue that most of your audiences will react the same, whether you're speaking to employees, customers, or colleagues. Stay within the Window of Impact.

Sybase (SY) CEO John Chen once told me in an interview that the ultimate success factor for anybody in a leadership position is the ability to articulate a message that's passionate, clear, and concise. As a business leader, it's vital to get your point across in as few words as possible to make the strongest impact.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a magazine editor who had just returned from a publishing conference. She said the attendees were excited to hear from one expert, who had some interesting forecasts.

SURVIVAL STRATEGY. They were captivated for about 15 minutes, according to the woman. But 60 minutes after he began, expert was still speaking -- and the attendees were miserable.

I once had the opportunity to speak to New York real estate queen, Barbara Corcoran, who took a $1,000 loan and turned it into a multibillion-dollar brokerage called The Corcoran Group. She recommends being "hyper-paranoid" about respecting your listeners' time by keeping presentations succinct.

Everyone is busy, she says, and most folks just don't have time to hear all the details unless they specifically ask. Corcoran puts it bluntly when she says, "People are not as interested in you as you think they are." Very true. Keep it short -- or be shown the door.

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