Why Most People Fail at Giving Presentations — and How to Make Your Next One Successful Here's what I learned guest lecturing at Stanford: You can become a better presenter by following the "Two Points per Hour Rule."

By Cory Hymel

Key Takeaways

  • Following this rule will lead to better presentations and more engaged audiences.
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Not long ago, I was asked by a research partner and friend to guest speak at his Stanford MBA class on "People Analytics," which explores how social networks interact and how data can be used to understand them. The lesson I took away from this experience has stayed with me through every presentation I have made since.

The focus of my lecture was on how to make analytics-based solutions for organizational/team coordination purposes commercially viable. I'd never lectured before and spent a ton of time prepping material with slides, points I'd like to make, and a perfectly curated talk track.

The class was an hour long, and I spent around 35 minutes presenting and the rest answering questions. By the end of it, I was mentally exhausted. Absolutely brain-dead.

Afterward, my friend and I grabbed coffee and I told him how mentally drained I was. He simply laughed and said that he had four more lectures to give that day. It was only Tuesday!

I was astounded at how he had the mental fortitude to do that over and over each day — much less a full semester. He laughed and said something that I'll never forget:

"In any one-hour lecture, you can only have two main points you want the class to walk away with. Everything else is just supporting material for those two points."

I'd just spent 35 minutes making about 100 different points and trying to drive each one home! Ouch.

At work and in everyday life, that same rule is true. Whether it's pitching customers, peers, bosses or executives, you can only have two points per hour which you want them to walk away with.

Those two points need to be simple and concrete. Here's how you do it.

Related: 6 Ways to Take Your Next Presentation to the Next Level

Anchor new ideas to familiar concepts through analogies

Analogies are a great way to turn complex points into simple and concrete ones. Analogies are powerful tools because they rely on mental schemas. Schemas are pre-recorded information you have in your brain from memories.

For example, if I told you that I got a new "sports car," an image probably pops into your head. I can then tie this pre-recorded information into a more complex idea, and it will be easier to digest.

Here are some examples from Hollywood. Before movies are greenlit and funded, they go through various pitches. At the executive level, they have what are called "high-concept pitches:"

  • Speed = "Die Hard on a bus"

  • 13 Going on 30 = "Big for girls"

  • Alien = "Jaws on a spaceship"

You could spend hours trying to explain Alien to someone, but the simple statement of "Jaws on a spaceship" pulls on those mental schemas that let people populate the idea themselves.

Related: Five Common Presentation Shortfalls (And How to Fix Them)

Support your two points per hour through examples and repetition

When creating your two points, you can use schemas to make those points simple and concrete. Then in your one hour, you can add color and support for those points to ensure that your audience will leave with those two points in hand.

The next speaking opportunity I had, I reworked my lecture about analytics-based solutions. I organized the 100 points I had previously tried to make and put them into different subcategories until I found the two big ideas of the talk. If the other points could be used to support or clarify my main points, I kept them around. If not, I tossed them out (I ended up tossing most of them out).

Next, I thought up specific examples and stories I could use to better illustrate my points. Similar to analogies, stories bring the audience to a more familiar mental schema and allow them to experience your example instead of simply hearing it.

Throughout all of the supporting material, I made sure to tie things back to my two points and repeat the big takeaway. That combination of repetition and more approachable and digestible supporting arguments allowed those two points to sink in and have an impact on the audience.

Related: Five Ways To (Better) Influence Your Audience When Speaking In Public

The real proof was in the feedback I received from that talk and from other presentations I've given since using the "Two Points per Hour Rule." The Q&A portions are much more focused and show that the audience understands the two points and is ready to dive deeper into those concepts. People are much more likely to mention one of those two big ideas in their questions and feedback and demonstrate that they actually took something away from the lecture — which should always be the goal.

The "Two Points per Hour Rule" isn't hard and fast, but it is a great rule of thumb no matter who you're talking to. If you want to learn more about turning complex ideas into simple ones, you should check out: "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Cory Hymel

Vice President of Product & Research at Gigster

Cory Hymel serves as the Vice President of Product & Research at Gigster, a company democratizing access to great software development. With over 800 engineers, Gigster helps startups to Fortune 500 companies unleash human cloud-driven innovation at a global scale.

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