The Golden Rule of Public Speaking

How to win at every pitch, presentation, and speaking engagement

Joshua VanDeBrake
Feb 4 · 4 min read
Photo by Product School on Unsplash

You have eight seconds.

That’s how long you have to capture your audience’s attention. Eight seconds. If you can’t convince them in that span of time that what you have to say is worth listening to, you’ve lost. That’s why TED advises its speakers to never start with a chart or a graph and instead begin with a story, bold statement, or a question.

That said, presenting is hard enough without the looming knowledge of your audience’s short attention spans. In fact, public speaking is cited as most people’s biggest fear. So why not make the process of developing a winning presentation a little better?


The 10–20–30 Rule

Guy Kawasaki is the former Chief Evangelist at Apple, the best-selling author of more than a dozen books, has served as an advisor to several dozen companies, and now serves as the Chief Evangelist for Canva, a popular online graphic design tool.

He gives over 50 keynote speeches per year to companies such as Apple, Nike, Google, Audi, Microsoft, and Breitling. It’s safe to say he knows how to capture and hold an audience’s attention. And he’s shared his golden rule for all of his presentations.

He calls it the 10–20–30 Rule. Don’t use more than ten slides. Don’t talk for more than 20 minutes. And, my favorite, don’t use less than 30-point font.


No More Than Ten Slides

In marketing, we know that clear, concise messages drive results. People remember and act on them. And what is public speaking but a marketing tool? Because it’s a form of marketing, we can apply this concept of clear and concise messaging as we trim the presentation and only include the most important points.

And with that, we arrive at the “10” rule. For visual accompaniment (such as a PowerPoint), keep it to a maximum of ten slides.

Let’s say you’re giving a presentation about Froot Loops.

  • Option A: While talking about the various colors of Froot Loops, each slide could show a different color, going on and on, and on, and on... “And now, let’s talk about the packaging.”
  • Option B: Instead of showing a different slide for each color, why not keep it concise and show a single slide with a bowl of Froot Loops? I mean, it makes sense since they’re all the same flavor.

Each time you put something new on the screen, your audience’s attention shifts from what you’re saying to what’s on the screen. And if you’re constantly flipping through slides, your audience’s attention gets even more fatigued. They start thinking, “How much longer is this going to take?”

Having only ten slides will force you to focus on what’s most essential and impactful. That way, you won’t lose the battle for your audience’s attention to your slides.

Plus, this will require you to rehearse more. And the more you’ve rehearsed, the better you know what you’re going to say and the more comfortable you’re going to be saying it.

So keep your presentation to a maximum of ten slides. Any more than that and you’re going to lose your audience’s attention. One slide at a time.


No Longer Than 20 Minutes

We have short attention spans. It’s a fact. That’s why most experts recommend maximizing the white space of written content.

Applying this knowledge of less-than-perfect attention spans, we understand that most people can only focus on a topic for so long. In the case of a presentation, 20 minutes is a good standard.

Any longer and you’re probably delivering filler content, going on tangents, or rambling. In fact, TED recommends its speakers to cut their presentation time in half. And then cut it in half again. Just like the slides, shorten it for impact.

Pro tip: To make sure you stay under 20 minutes, video yourself doing a practice run of your talk. In addition to knowing your timing, being able to hear and see yourself will also give you insight into how engaging your speech is, how you’re modulating your voice, and what filler words you’re using.


No Smaller Than 30-Point Font

As I said, this is my favorite of the three. That’s because bigger fonts result in fewer words. And fewer words result in fewer things competing for your audience’s attention. It forces you to be very clear and concise with your content.

When your slide has a lot of words on it, your audience wonders, “Should I listen to the speaker or read the slide?” Don’t make them choose. Oftentimes, instead of choosing to focus on either you or your slide (which probably has too many words anyway), your audience will start daydreaming.

Their minds will wander… “I’m hungry. Hmmm… What did I have for breakfast? Oh, that’s right, Froot Loops!”

Don’t make your audience choose between you and your slides. The visuals should complement your speech, not distract from it.


Next Time You’re Speaking

Whether it’s for a keynote about Froot Loops, a VC pitch, or a regular team check-in, use the 10–20–30 rule to build a winning presentation. It’ll be even more effective and you’ll do a better job of holding your audience’s attention.

When you boil it down, you could summarize all of this into the mindset of “less is more.” Fewer slides, less time, fewer words.

That is the winning formula.

And maybe, using this method, combined with enough practice, you’ll join the small percentage of people who love public speaking.

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