Article Category: Speaker Habits

Presentation Timing: 5 Tips to Stay On Time and Avoid Audience Wrath


Do you remember how you felt the last time you were attending a presentation, and the speaker went over their allowed time?

Were you happy about it? Or were you mad that they now put you behind for your next appointment? Or did you leave before they wrapped up?

In this article, we examine the importance of finishing on time and give 5 tips for staying within your time constraints.

Is finishing your presentation on time important?

In most situations, yes!

Always assume that your audience is busy (because they are).

Always assume that could have chosen other places to be (because they could have).

Always assume that they have something planned immediately after you finish (because they usually do).

Want to learn more?
Speaking over time is one of The 7 Deadly Sins of Public Speaking.
What are the other six?

Audiences get uneasy if you are approaching your time limit and you aren’t wrapping up.

  • They start to consider walking out.
  • They start to get nervous thinking about their next appointment, and how they may be late.
  • They start wishing you’d wrap it up already.
  • Most importantly, they stop listening to you!

Not only do you lose credibility with your audience and risk offending them, but you also lose the opportunity to make a strong conclusion because they either aren’t listening or they aren’t in the room!

Is it better to end early, or right on time?

If it’s really bad to finish over time, then one might assume that you should always try to end well under your allowed time. However, that’s not always good either.

If you finish your presentation considerably under time (e.g. 20 minutes early in a presentation scheduled for one hour), your audience may feel cheated, particularly if they paid to listen to you speak. They may feel that you promised 60 minutes of value, but only delivered 40.

For this reason, one safe rule of thumb is to speak for between 90-100% of your allowed time. So, if your presentation is planned for 60 minutes, you should speak at least 54 (or 55 for a nice round number). This ensures that your audience doesn’t “feel cheated”, but also ensures that you don’t go over time.

There are all sorts of exceptions to the above rule of thumb, so use your judgement and do what makes sense in your situation.

5 Steps To Keep Your Presentation Within Time

It’s really not that hard to finish your presentation on time. Just follow these five simple steps:

#1 — Know Your Allowed Time

Have you ever heard a speaker walking away from a venue muttering: “I thought I had longer”?

This is the result of poor communication between the speaker and the event organizer. Both the speaker and the event organizer end up looking bad in this scenario.

Make sure you are always aware of how long you have to speak. Verify with the event organizer before the event.

#2 — Plan Your Content and Edit as Necessary

For many speakers, the problem is not knowing how much time the audience is giving them. The problem is being unreasonable with how much they can say within that allotted time.

Most people overestimate how much material they can adequately cover within a given time. They want to “share everything” and “leave nothing back”. On the other hand, the wise presenter develops strong self-awareness about how long it takes to effectively deliver their message.

When you are planning, also consider:

  • Q&A: Allow time for audience questions, either within your presentation or at the end.
  • Activities: Allow adequate time for any planning audience activities or exercises. One of my challenges is that I tend to underestimate how long it takes to explain an activity and “break into groups” before the exercise even starts.
  • Breaks: For longer presentations, budget time for breaks for stretching, bathroom visits, coffee, or meals. This all comes out of your allotted time. In a typical full-day (8-hour) training course, for example, you might only have 6 hours of instruction once you subtract out all of the breaks.

Cut mercilessly to make sure the material you intend to deliver can be delivered within your time constraints. It’s better to present the appropriate amount at a pace which the audience can absorb rather than whizzing through too much material so the audience grasps nothing.

#3 — Rehearse Effectively

Until you gain experience as a speaker, you may not be able to accurately gauge how much content fits within a given time. For example, how many pages would you write if delivering a 30 minute commencement address? How many case studies can you cover in a lunch-time seminar?

If you go over time while rehearsing, you’ve got to cut material.

The best way to measure how long it will take is to time yourself while you rehearse effectively:

  • Rehearse standing up and speaking out loud. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can just “whisper” your way through your slides while sitting in front of your computer. Your pace will be different while standing.
  • Speak to a test audience, even if all you can arrange is one person. This eliminates the tendency to “practice within yourself” as some speakers do while rehearsing. Just one audience member forces you to make eye contact and look for audience feedback. It also simulates a bit of the pressure you may feel with a real audience. You can also get valuable feedback by asking “How was my pace? Did I go too fast?”
  • Make it as close to the real thing as possible. If you’ll be using a presentation remote to advance your slides, then rehearse with one. If you’ll be moving around in the “real presentation”, then do so as you rehearse. If you can rehearse in the room where you’ll be presenting, do so. The more closely you can mimic the real thing, the better your time estimate will be.
  • Make it a dress rehearsal. If I’m planning to wear a suit when presenting, I like to rehearse in one. For me, the act of dressing up creates the same nervous energy and tends to give me more accurate timing.

Rehearsing in this way allows you to accurately time your presentation under close-to-real circumstances. If you go over time while rehearsing, you’ve got to cut material.

#4 — Start on Time

How many times have you seen a presenter ask for “just 5 more minutes” at the end of a one-hour presentation, despite having started ten minutes late?

Do everything in your power to start on time. Arrive early, sort out your technology, and make sure everything is set to go when your time starts. Don’t waste a moment.

Your exact start time isn’t always within your control. For example, I know of one company where “lunch-time seminars” always start at 12:15. If you are invited to speak in this forum, you’ve got to know that. A thorough discussion with the event organizer should reveal this.

#5 — Measure Your Progress and Adjust

For short speeches (say, under 15 minutes), you can probably just launch into it and hit your end time target within reason (assuming you have rehearsed it).

Want to learn more?
For 7 tips on cutting your presentation on the fly, read How to Axe Your Presentation… and Still Deliver Value.
 

For longer presentations, however, you can use a more strategic approach:

  • As you rehearse your content, note how long it takes for each “block” of your presentation. (Get someone to time you if necessary.)
  • This gives you a number of intermediate time targets. For example:
    • 12:05 – Start presentation
    • 12:15 – Introduction and case study introduced
    • 12:30 – Case study and lessons learned complete
    • 12:50 – Live demonstration complete
    • 12:58 – Q&A complete. Applause.
  • Write down these targets and have them with you as you present, perhaps on a small notepad by your water. (I do it with red pen and big letters.)
  • As you reach the end of each “block”, check the clock. If you are running behind, you can adjust your pace. For example, if you are starting the live demonstration at 12:35, then you know you are 5 minutes behind, and you’ll have to cut planned material to “catch up.”
  • If necessary, recruit an assistant with a watch to help you monitor your intermediate targets.

Summary

Speaking over your allowed time is disrespectful and will annoy at least some people in your audience. It’s a privilege to have their attention, whether it’s for 5 minutes or 5 hours. Don’t abuse it! End on time — every time.

Share Your Stories

Do you have presentation timing anecdotes to share? Either when you were speaking, or when you were in the audience?

Please share in the comments. We love to hear from readers.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future articles.