Article Category: Ask Six Minutes, Speechwriting

How to Axe Your Presentation… and Still Deliver Value

You know your content. Success is in view.

But now, your time slot has been chopped in two.

Oh my! Oh my! What will you do?


If you’ve been speaking for a while, this has probably happened to you. If it hasn’t yet, it’s only a matter of time.

Can you still salvage the presentation and provide value for your audience?

Ask Six Minutes

Josh H. from Montana writes:

I’ve been witness to at least two presentations in the last two weeks wherein, the originally allotted time was hugely condensed by outside forces.

For example, an expert researcher came to talk to my colleagues about how to facilitate focus groups. She had scheduled 5 hours to present an overview, lead activities, and inspire lots of conversation. She lived 2 hours away, and was an hour away from us when her car broke down, she had to get back to her home city, secure a rental, and drive back. The 5-hour workshop turned into a barely-2-hour rapid fire lecture. This was something she couldn’t have prevented.

How do other speakers/presenters/educators design flexibility into their talks for unexpected limitations?

Okay, let’s start with what NOT to do…

Your natural response is probably to do one of three things:

  1. Quit.
  2. Rush through your entire planned presentation.
  3. Use all of your original time, going way, way over.

First, don’t quit. Real speakers don’t quit, even when disaster strikes. If you quit, you will probably never be invited to speak to that group again. Your credibility will suffer. Even worse, the company or organization you represent will be tarnished.

Second, don’t rush through the entire presentation. I’ve seen this approach, and it never works. You will be so intent on flying through your content that you’ll lose all chance to connect meaningfully with your audience. They won’t be able to absorb anything at all. In short, this option takes a bad situation and makes it worse.

Third, check your ego. The people in your audience have other meetings to attend, meals to eat, and loved ones to hug. They don’t want to be stuck listening to you for a lot longer than they planned. (Okay, I concede that there are very special circumstances where they may want you to go overtime, but I have never seen such an audience.)

Okay, then what DO you do?

Alright, if you are still reading, then you understand that whatever you deliver must be delivered at a reasonable pace, and end when your original time slot was expected to end. How?

1. Chop big chunks out.

When you lose half of your time slot (or more), you can’t make it up solely by cutting small bits of content here and there. You’ve got to chop big chunks of your presentation out.

Be merciless. Now is not the time to think about how the presentation would be better with the longer time slot. Now is the time to focus on providing value for your audience with whatever time you have left.

2. Plan for it.

It will be difficult to know how much to cut unless you have prepared a lesson plan — a division of your presentation into modules of (approximately) known length.

For example, suppose your presentation is planned for 5 hours in length. Your lesson plan might include modules such as:

  • 10 minutes: Introductory story and session overview
  • 20 minutes: Examining the status quo
  • 40 minutes: 10 principles for improving the process
  • 10 minutes: Break
  • 30 minutes: Partners exercise
  • 20 minutes: Exercise debrief
  • 30 minutes: Case studies
  • 10 minutes: Break
  • 40 minutes: Group exercise
  • etc.

If you have this lesson plan with you, it will be straightforward to prioritize modules and select those which add up to the time you have available.

In the example above, perhaps you decide to cut the “partners exercise” and the “exercise debrief”. That’s 50 minutes right there. Then, you decide to chop…

3. Poll your audience.

Suppose you have alternatives for material which you can cover within the remaining time. Maybe you have time to review case studies, or time to do some hands-on exercises, but not both. From your point of view, both would be more or less of equal value.

In this situation, you can poll your audience. You might say something like this: “I have two different modules planned for today, but we’ll only be able to cover one effectively in the time remaining. Which would you find most valuable?”

The audience may not be happy about your truncated presentation overall, but they will be happy that you are seeking their input. Maybe you’ll get invited back to deliver the other alternative module.

4. Plan two endings.

Whatever you do, decide quickly. The clock is ticking.

We’ve already said that you shouldn’t charge arrogantly ahead and go overtime, but in certain circumstances, there is one acceptable way to go past your original time boundary if some of your audience is able to stay longer. It involves asking for consent.

Here’s how it works. Make a plan to chop modules which allows you to end on time. Consult your audience with something like: “I understand many of you have to leave at 5:00PM to make your flight, and so I’ve redesigned my presentation to end on time. For those of you who are able to stay longer, I would be happy to stay and lead an optional exercise that I have prepared.”

It’s not perfect, but it does show that you are being flexible and trying to meet the needs of as many people as possible. Those who are able to stay late (if anyone does) may really appreciate it.

5. Deliver chopped content in another form.

Even though you can’t deliver the full content as planned, there are other ways to deliver it.

  • You could create a handout with the chopped content, and send it out to participants via email. (No, a copy of PowerPoint slides which you eliminated doesn’t cut it.)
  • You could capture the eliminated modules on video, and make it available to participants.
  • You could offer copies of your book as “compensation”. (This only works if that is fair value on the same topic.)
  • You could even offer to deliver the other modules at another time. I recall a multi-day conference where a presenter in this situation offered to deliver “part two” of their presentation during breakfast the next morning.

6. Make yourself available for follow up.

Making yourself available to your audience after the presentation is always a good idea, but especially so when, for whatever reason, you couldn’t deliver 100% of what was promised to them. Maybe you could stay behind for more Q&A, or perhaps you agree to take their questions via email/phone and answer them promptly.

7. Be decisive.

Make your new plan as soon as possible. (In the scenario of the broken-down car, you could be making a mental plan while driving, and be ready to implement it as soon as you arrive.) The time constraints are bound to be an elephant in the room, so deal with it by assuring your audience that you have revised the agenda. It will ease tensions, and allow everyone to focus on having a productive session.

Whatever you do, decide quickly. The clock is ticking.

What’s Your Opinion?

What other strategies have you used in these situations? What have you seen other speakers do? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Comments icon8 Comments

  1. Ajit Limaye says:

    I enjoy reading your articles.
    In this one, you have wielded the axe (or knife?) sharply. The suggestions were to the point and helpful.
    I have faced this situation a couple of times, and am glad to say that I had used some of the strategies mentioned by you.
    It’s valuable advise.
    I think it was Winston Churchill who said that he found it far more difficult to prepare a 15 minute speech than one which was to last an hour. You have addressed the situation when one is forced to focus on the essentials and cut out the frills.
    Thanks and best regards,

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      The situation you describe with respect to Churchill is the related, but somewhat different challenge of editing speech content during the speech preparation phase when you generally have more time to use the knife.

  2. Great article, and an important issue. We hear about this kind of last-minute time squeeze frequently. My advice to clients is to have 20-minute, 40-minute, and 60-minute versions of your speech ready to go at all times.

  3. Great post, Andrew. This should be required reading for every presenter! Presenters who try to jam their originally planned presentation into a condensed time slot drive me crazy … and show clearly that they aren’t at all focused on the audience.


  4. Great post Andrew! Nice tips on preparing for shorter presentation times. Ross

  5. John Care says:

    Great points! I’ve been using a hybrid version of Cliff Atkinson’s “Beyond Bullet Points” format for a while now, and encourage my clients to do something similar. For each module you plan on presenting it gives you the option of a 5,15 or 45 minute pitch.

  6. Eugenia says:

    Great article, Andrew. Loved the suggestions for other ways to provide content in the aftermath.

  7. Thanks Andrew. I really like the option about polling the audience. That seems like a great way to make the best of a bad situation, and I think it’d win respect.

    I agree with Nick Morgan’s comment too: Have several versions of your talk ready. If you’re using PowerPoint, this post shows how to use a little-known feature to make your slide deck flex to fit the timeslot. (All your slides stay in your original file, and there’s no need to make multiple copies of most slides, so it keeps your content easy to manage.)

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