How to keep to time during your presentation

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Photo credit: zoutedrop

Do you regularly go over time when you’re delivering a presentation? If a time limit has been set for your presentation, then it’s your responsibility to finish it within that time. Consider it as part of the contract between you and your audience.

Here are some tips to help you keep to time:

1. Decide on your “talking time”

You can’t keep to time unless you know beforehand how long you should be talking. Your “talking time” is different than the total time you’ve been given for your presentation for two reasons:

  • You need to allow time for questions. This may be decided by the meeting organizer. If not, as a rule of thumb I would allow 20-25% of your presentation time for questions.
  • Generally, live  presentations take longer than the rehearsal.  This is because of a combination of factors. You might start a couple of minutes late, you might take longer to make a point, and there may be other interruptions that delay you.

So if your presentation time is one hour, your talking time will be 40 minutes (15 minutes for questions and 5 minutes for interruptions and delays).

2. Find out how long it takes to deliver your material

This is a prerequisite to being able to keep to time. If you don’t know long your talk takes how can you hope to meet the time limit. Many presenters are very bad at judging how long it will take to deliver something. Seriously bad. On our courses, we ask participants to prepare a five minute talk. One time, a participant talked for 23 minutes! When we asked how long it was she thought that she had been talking for about seven minutes.

Time yourself early on in your planning process. This will save you time and agony. If you leave timing your presentation till the end of your planning process you’re likely to find that you’ve prepared too much material which will mean you have to edit your presentation. And editing is can be agonizing when you’ve grown attached to your material.

3. Write a timed schedule for your presentation

When you do a final rehearsal, note down the time that each segment takes and then take that information to prepare a timed schedule. So say your presentation started at 3pm your schedule would look like this:

3 pm Opening
3.05 Part 1
3.15 Part 2
3.25 Part 3
3.35 Closing
3.40 Stop talking

That means that during the live presentation, you’ll be able to easily tell whether you’re keeping to time. Note that it’s not enough to know that each part takes 10 minutes. In the presentation itself you won’t have the head space available to calculate whether you’re ahead or behind.

4. Write assertions so that you don’t waffle

Waffling is one of the things that can make a live presentation go longer than the rehearsal. Here’s what can happen: you make your point but the audience looks blank. So you elaborate on it some more, and then some more… and before you know it you’re waffling. The antidote to this is proper planning. During you’re planning, write each point as a full sentence (not a bullet-point) which expresses what you want to get across. You may later reduce this to a keyword or phrase in your notes but you’ll have done the hard thinking required.  It’s much better to do your thinking before, rather than during, the presentation. For more on this see How to avoid waffling.

5. Have a clock or timekeeper

You can’t manage your time unless you can see the time. And you can’t rely on every meeting or conference room having a clock. Have a small, but easily readable, travel clock that you can put on the lectern or even in front of you on the stage. Make sure you can read it at  a distance without your glasses on. There are remotes that also have a countdown timer and that will buzz you at 5 minutes and 2 minutes before the end of your presentation.

6. Start on time

Many presentations go over time simply because they started late. Lisa Braithwaite recently wrote about this issue in her post: You never have as much time as you want. Often that’s because the presenter or meeting organizer has decided to wait for late-comers. Like Lisa, if I’m in control then I’ll start on time. I don’t see why people who have made the effort to be on time should be penalized by having to wait for people who are late.

You may be concerned that people who are late will miss out on crucial information. So don’t start with crucial material. Instead open with a relevant and engaging story which leads into your first main point. The stragglers will come in while you’re telling your story.

7. Be ready to adapt

Despite all your advance preparations you may still run out of time. The solution is not simply to talk faster! Work out ahead of time what segment you will drop if this should happen. Make a note of the first slide number after the dropped segment. By keying in the number of that slide and then pressing ‘Enter’ you will jump straight to that slide. This is much more professional than clicking through your slides. Your audience need never know that you had to edit on the fly.

Go well with keeping to time in your next presentation! If you have any other tips that have helped you keep to time share them in the comments.

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