One of the most important responsibilities you have as a speaker – regardless of whether you are presenting at a company meeting or a keynote at a major industry conference – is to finish your session on time. Finishing 30 minutes early can give organizers a heart attack, especially if you get zero or just a few questions after you finish. The more common timing issue is a speaker running over their scheduled time slot.
Whether you go short or long, both are disrespectful to the organizer, audience and the speakers that follow you. It also negatively affects your presentation as well as your brand as a public speaker. When you are running long, for example, you are typically forced to race through your last set of slides, forcing you to eliminate key points or examples you had planned. It also means, that there will be no time for the Q&A session, something many in the audience may have counted on.
Reasons speakers run long or beyond their allotted time slot:
• The organizer is behind schedule, due to earlier speakers running long or an inability to get the audience to the rooms on time. So you might actually start 5-10 minutes late to begin with.
• Unbeknownst to you ahead of time, the person introducing you decides to take 5 or more minutes to tell your life story for you and/or a story or anecdote of their own. Or they decide to summarize the event’s sessions up to that point.
• Not rehearsing at all or enough.
• Losing control of the time by allowing too many questions from the audience or taking too long to answer them.
• Having technical difficulties such as not getting a video to play or a Web site to load because of slow Internet at the venue.
• Having a co-presenter get long-winded on something you didn’t witness in the walk-through and rehearsals.
• You simply have too many slides.
• You ad lib much more than you expected on various slides.
• Beyond all of the above, you just lose track of time or don’t even monitor your progress.
Reasons for running well shorter than planned include:
• Simple inexperience and not knowing what to expect.
• Not having enough slides – you simply didn’t prepare enough material.
• You were nervous and spoke about twice as fast as you had expected.
• You read somewhere that you should plan for 3 to 4 minutes per slide, but your pace was half that rate or less.
• You didn’t rehearse and get any sense of your actual timing.
Here are some tips for finishing your presentation on time:
1. Estimate realistically your actual time available: Is this a new presentation or one that you’ve given several times? Have you factored in late starts, introductions, event announcements, questions during and at the end of your session, adlibbing and talkative co-presenters? In a 60-minute session, you might actually only have 40 to 48 minutes for your actual presentation.
Consider, for example, a late start of 2-5 minutes to allow everyone to return from the break. A moderator then reads your bio, asks the audience to fill out a survey after your session, and tells everyone where and what time the buses will depart for the museum tour and reception – taking another 2-5 minutes. Add another 3-5 minutes for questions during your session and 5 minutes more at the end during the formal Q&A period. That’s a minimum of 12, and perhaps as much as 20 minutes that you need to subtract from the time you have from your presentation.
2. Cut the fat: When reviewing and finalizing your slides, look for ones that are not absolutely vital to your presentation. Does your presentation lose anything if the slide or what you will talk about on that slide gets cut? Is it a slide that you can touch on the key points elsewhere? Keep in mind, however, that simply cutting slides doesn’t guarantee a shorter presentation. As you build confidence as a speaker you will find it becomes easier to ad lib and tell stories, negating any time reduction from fewer slides.
3. Rehearse, really rehearse: Rehearsing your presentation at least a few times as if you were actually presenting it on stage should give you a pretty realistic estimate of how long you will talk when live. I recommend to add at least a few more minutes for a 30-minute presentation and 5-7 or more for a 45-60 minute talk.
Be careful, however, to not base your estimate on simple walk-throughs of your slides. I once practiced a presentation while on my flight to the event – speaking silently to myself using a print out of the slides – and I timed my talk after two different walk-throughs at about 17-18 minutes for a 30-minute keynote. However, the next day I rehearsed in my hotel room speaking out loud, adlibbing as I might live and my talk came in at around 28 minutes three consecutive times. This was about 10 minutes more than the initial walk-throughs on the plane – a significant and potentially disastrous difference. My actual presentation went about 29 minutes.
4. Keep track of the time: Many event organizers will have someone in the room with signs letting you know you have 20, 10, 5 and zero minutes left in your session. But you can’t count on this or that the person with the signs is accurate. Increasingly, most podiums or floor presenter monitors will have time-synced lights – for example, yellow letting you know that you have 15 minutes left, orange or red meaning 5 minutes and flashing red meaning you are out of time.
Personally, I like to use a kitchen timer app on my iPad. This way I can control my own timing and watch my progression toward a specific target I’ve set. If you have a 60-minute session with a target of 5-7 minutes for Q&A, you might set your timer for 45 minutes. As the timer starts approaching a few minutes left and you still have 15 slides left you know you have to pick up the pace – but still have a few minutes of leeway. Use whatever approach works for you. I have a tendency to ad lib or take questions during my session – so I like to cheat and try to trick my brain into thinking I have less time than I actually do.
5. Plan for questions during and after your session: Depending on the size of the room you are speaking in and mood of the audience, you could receive several questions during your session. Decide in advance if you will have time to field questions while you are presenting or if they will have to be held off until the end after your session.
If you have a 45-60 minute session, you might want to plan for a combination of say 10 minutes for questions during and/or after the completion of your presentation. In shorter 20-30 minute sessions you may not be able to take any questions or limit them to very quick questions that clarify points to the audience or exchanges that validate key points. If you want to make sure that you leave plenty of time for Q&A figure that you may actually take 5-10 minutes longer than your most realistic rehearsal time.
6. Have a plan: if you have to pick up the pace or skip over slides, have a solid idea of which slides you can click past or cover in a few seconds. If you have slides that you had planned to elaborate on for several minutes, then know how you can make your key points in seconds rather than minutes. Or, if you are looking like you will end your session extremely early, have a few stories at the ready you can use to stretch your talk. Or perhaps you have a few questions in mind to ask the audience to get them talking and asking their own questions.
7. Ensure any use of video, audio or the Internet works as planned: If you plan to play video or audio or visit a Web site live, make sure everything works well in advance. Wasting a few minutes having the A/V person work on a problem or waiting for Web pages to load is painful for the audience, unprofessional and will cost you valuable minutes. Have a back-up if something goes wrong. Have screenshots of the Web site or video that you can just talk to and convey the key points of the video or site. Finally, consider eliminating the risk of things going wrong. Is a video really key to your presentation – or is it just a nice to have?
8. Be honest with yourself: If you speak fairly often you should have a good sense of your tendency to either go long, short or just about right. Use that track record to assess your time estimate. If you almost always go longer than planned, don’t assume that just because you have greater resolve to finish on time, that you will. Instead know your past and cut some non-critical slides.
9. Work at it: The best way to ensure you finish on time is simply to make it a priority and work at it. For years I had a bad habit of using every second of my allotted time for my presentation, or even going long and not allowing time for Q&A. I finally admitted to myself it was a problem and made finishing on time a key priority and changed how I estimated my presentation time … resulting in a great improvement in “on-time performance.”
10. Keep track: Create a simple spreadsheet where you track how many slides are in your presentation, the duration of your talk, and notes such as whether you had questions during or after, did you ad lib a lot or a little, how did your pace feel? Then calculate your average minutes per slide for each presentation and find your range. My average tends to fall around .75 minutes (45 seconds) per slide, or if you prefer 1.3 slides per minute. For 60 minutes this equates to about 80 slides.
Finishing your session on time is an important part of your growth and success as a public speaker. Follow the ten tips above and improve your “on-time” performance.