How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

The Five-Minute Talk

You’ve just gotten an invitation to give a talk. The audience is one you’ve been dying to reach. You’re getting five minutes toward the end of a day that starts early and has a very busy program.

Your first thought: that’s not enough time. You’ve done low-stakes panel openers and lightning talks for colleagues, but you have a lot to say to this crowd and some of it’s very complicated and it’s really unfortunate that…


It’s enough.

It’s not about the time you need to describe what you know.

It’s about the time your audience needs to learn one thing from you that will change their minds about something important.

Five minutes is enough time for you to teach them that.

Here’s one approach:

  1. Choose one of the biggest problems your expertise addresses — one the world isn’t solving well because it doesn’t understand something you do.
  2. Tell us about the problem, remind us why we care about it, and then say: The world is making a mistake about this. Don’t describe the problem in the talk right away. Just declare that a) there’s a big problem in the world, and b) we’re thinking about it or addressing it all wrong.
  3. Now describe the mistake: what it is, who’s making it, why it’s important.
  4. Explain why it’s a mistake, using the minimum amount of evidence you need to do so, leaving no doubt where the preponderance of evidence points.
  5. Then tell us how we should think about or solve the problem instead, and why evidence tells us that’s going to be a much better solution.
  6. Wrap up with a call to action — a thing they can do that moves the status quo toward your solution, along with a reminder of the costs of the status quo, and who’s paying them.

Steps 2-6 (the actual talk) should each take about a minute — some more, some less.

You can’t do that? Here’s Derek Sivers delivering a three-minute talk that does all six of these things quite well.

There are other ways to give a five-minute talk. (Here’s a storytelling one by Raj Raghunathan.) None so quickly start to position you as an authority with your audience — someone they need to listen to, someone they might come to trust, someone whose one thing they’ll remember long after they’ve forgotten the rest of the day.