How to keep to time during your presentation


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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  1. Excellent post as always. I am going to read further what you’ve written about assertions and waffling (I love these descriptive words, by the way). I’m curious: do you always speak with notes, and do you recommend this? When I do a presentation supported with Keynote or PPT slides, I don’t use notes. I figure if I know my material well, I don’t need them. So far, this method has served me well. (However, I do print out 6 slides per page with the slide numbers, in case I need to flip back to a particular slide, using the method you’ve described.)

    • I just made your post this week’s compulsory reading for my students :)

      What I like to do to keep a check on myself is printing out my slide thumbnails all on one page. I make a screenshot from the lightbox view in Keynote or slider sorter view in PPT (which keeps the slide numbers) and then I mark certain slides with the anticipated time in large and friendly red numbers: 10:45 hs. 11:15 hs

      As you go along, check real time vs. planned time.

      This works really well with longer talks or workshops.

      After the talk I can immediately make any corrections necessary and see where I planned poorly or where I can tighten things a bit. It is also a great help for »next time.«

      With shorter talks keep a large *analog* antique pocket watch nearby. It is like a large checkered handkerchief: it is so obvious is does not bother anyone. I find I still understand analog watch faces faster than the timer in presenter’s view.

      • Hi Anke

        Putting your anticipated times on your screenshot printout is a great idea.

        I can relate to your preference for the analog watch. Delivering a presentation is such a full-on activity that everything else should be super-easy for you.


    • Hi Donna

      Thanks for your appreciation. I do always have notes within reach. I don’t normally look at them, but every so often I’ll have a mind blank where I go to myself “was there another point I wanted to make here.”. I’ll stop talking, look at my notes, find the point I wanted to make, look up again, find someone to talk to and start talking. I also do what you do with the printout of my slides. I find this useful because it means I can also see what slide is coming next and introduce it, rather than simply clicking and then talking. More about this here .

      • I can see how it would be useful to add the notes, in case of brain freeze!

        Also, I usually do put time stamps on the slide printouts, so I know how I’m doing for time at major junctures of the presentation (example: when I’m playing an audio clip — so I can check the time while the audience watches). I usually just take off my watch and put it somewhere where I can see it, when there’s no clock in the room.

  2. Great post. Going over the allotted time is annoying to the audience, the organisers and other speakers. I have found for me, if I plan to leave some time slack in my presentation it helps in keeping to time , i.e. if I have 30 minute slot I plan to deliver a 25 minute speech etc. It helps to keep me on time.
    If I finish early the time can always be utilised – a longer break, questions etc.

    • Hi Edward

      Yes, nobody ever minds a presentation ending early!

  3. Good advice, as always – and knowing what to cut in advance is absolutely critical!

    You mention a way of skipping slides – for people using Keynote there’s a better way, don’t forget. The menu option allows you to see different slides on your laptop without them showing on your screen and deciding where to go next – if you want to. That way you can edit on the fly with even more dignity and (importantly) the transitions are protected in a way that they’re sometimes not if you do ‘jumping’ in PowerPoint.

    • Hi Simon

      I get that Keynote is better in every respect!

      I keep using Powerpoint to be the same as 99.98% of my clients.


  4. Thanks for this thorough discussion of staying on time, Olivia! And thanks for the link to my recent post.

    My suggestion for keeping track of the time is to use a regular kitchen countdown timer. Because of this: “…you won’t have the head space available to calculate whether you’re ahead or behind…” I find it harder to keep track of my time when looking at a clock, especially if we’ve started late. If I have a countdown timer, I know exactly how much time is left without having to do “clock subtraction” on the fly.

    But I do also like to use approximate clock times on my notes, as you mentioned in #3. It does give a general idea of where I should be at a given time.

    • …..Hi Lisa… at risk of sounding like a stuck record about this… :) “Get a Mac”. Keynote has this kind of function built in!


      PS: Do you think Mr Jobs would give me commission? ;)

      • Haha Simon! Yes, you should get a commission for that.

        That’s a great idea if you want to stand in front of your computer the whole time. My timer is usually on a table where I’m also keeping my props, handouts, water, etc., because who knows where the laptop is going to end up!

        • Good point about the laptop not always being in front of you. I make sure mine is. I take a 50M VGA cable with me in case the event organisers want the laptop to be somewhere near their projector – that way I can pretty much ensure having enough cable to keep everyone happy! :)

          Mind you, 50M VGA cable isn’t a light thing to carry!


      • You Apple fanboy :-).

    • Hi Lisa

      Good point about the countdown time being easier. Given Anke’s point it’s all about finding out what works best for you in the heat of the presentation.


  5. Olivia,

    great post! Two comments:
    1) 25% for interaction in my opinion is no longer sufficiant. Attendants nowadays want to be involved and strive for a shared outcome, so interaction is key. I would suggest to take at least 50%. The real great speakers shorten their story to the lenght of a teaser and are willing to rely on the fact, that they will be able to deliver the rest of their content in response to questions and discussion.
    2) take into account that when you try your speech at home, you might talk faster than on stage. That is because nobody is really listening and you allready know the stuff. I often write text for voice-overs and have to add at least 10% to be on the safe side.


    • Hi JJ

      It’s interesting that you suggest devoting 50% of the presentation time to audience interaction. I tend to agree with you for my own presentations, but I know that not everyone is ready for that, so for this particular post I stuck to the more conventional 25%. In other posts, I have encouraged people to consider taking questions throughout their presentation rather than making the audience wait till the end.

      Good point to about talking faster and your experience with voice-overs. Of course, some people talk even faster during their live presentation because they just want to get it over and done with! So it can be quite individual.


  6. Important post Olivia – going over time is one of the top annoyances for audiences, and it is so easy to avoid!

    It is really important to schedule in time for questions, too. In any type of presentation, this is the point at which you can really understand what your audience wants, and justify your views to them. This opportunity should never be underestimated!

    Thanks again for a great post.

    • Hi Jessica
      I agree with you about the importance of questions. We should also examine the convention of leaving questions till the end of a presentation.

  7. Great post, as usual.

    Among the technics I am using to respect my time, their is “hierarchical structure” and their is a printout plan of my presentation (most of the time, a mind map.)

    On my plan, their is the timing of my presentation, and I am using A big iPod as a timer (their is a stopwatch built in).

    This way, it is easy to know where I should be at any given moment and to adjust myself.

    I wrote a post about this : How to respect allowed time. I explain what is the “hierarchical structure” technic.

    For the questions: it depends of the situation. You have to be strategic. My preference is to have good interaction with the audience by accepting question anytime. I usually don’t have a dedicated question period at the end.

    Denis Francois Gravel

    • Hi Denis
      That’s a useful post laying out your method for planning a presentation and keeping to time.


  8. I arrive a little belatedly, but still wanted to thank you for the useful points and comments.

    My ideal route is to have a time-keeper; at larger international events I find that the event organisers tend to have someone dedicated to this task; provided that you have timed your presentation reasonably well it shouldn’t be a shock when you get the 15 minute board (or whatever).

    One very useful tip that’s related to time-keeping that I learned ten minutes before speaking at an event in Brazil; if you’re being ‘live translated’ you need to know how the translated language compares in terms of word density to your own; Latin languages are about a third longer to say the same thing. Fortunately I was able to adapt my presentation as I went, but it’s not an oversight I’ll ever make again!

    On the back of reading your post I went to the App Store and downloaded ‘pClock’ for 59p (I have no affiliation to the product): it gives you a large countdown timer that changes colour at pre-specified timing points (it can also give a vibration or sound reminder too).

    As for Keynote, I’ve heard it’s very good but I too use PowerPoint and provided that you don’t let it dictate your presentation format or style it’s a capable tool. It’s undoubtedly tarnished by association with the masses of people who, were they to have had access to it, would have made dreary presentations in Keynote too!

    Prezi ( looks really interesting; if I ever have the time to investigate it I could be tempted to switch to that because I think it could deliver an entirely different experience.

    Philip Graves

  9. Hi Philip
    Thank you very much for adding the benefits of your experience, especially, on the issue of being interpreted. I agree that latin languages use more words, but I wonder whether that actually makes the time longer. My mother is a simultaneous interpreter (English-French) – I’ll ask her. But it doesn’t make sense to me because otherwise the interpreter would constantly be falling behind. And a competent simultaneous interpreter is just that – simultaneous.

    • Hi Olivia – a couple of people who’ve had the duty of simultaneously translating me complain that I’m particularly hard to translate live because there is almost no redundancy in my speech and no filler words… they told me they typically use these times to catch up.

      (That was into Japanese though, so many things are very different to French or (other?) Latin languages.)


  10. Hello! If you are being interpreted try and talk to the interpreters beforehand. Have a script ready for them (this can be sent days beforehand through the event organiser). Even just a few notes give us a chance to adapt to your vocabulary and mode of thinking. We typically try and follow your trail of thoughts so it helps a great deal.

    I would also recommend using less metaphors than usual. But more importantly as already suggested by Simon make a short pause between your sentences and this will give time for interpreters to catch up with you.

  11. Just had a skype call with my mother (Florence above). She added some more useful thoughts.

    Don’t slow down your rate of talking, just wait a beat between sentences. Different languages have different ways of ordering words within a sentence, so if you slow down or pause within a sentence, the interpreter may not have enough words to be able to carry on interpreting.

    You don’t have to wait for the interpreter to finish interpreting before starting your next sentence. They’re trained to listen and to speak at the same time.


  12. My experience is that unless you have extremely good simultaneous translation (like you get at big international meetings like the UN) you do need to insert a significantly longer pause between sentences – particularly sentences with technical content – than you would normally to let the translation catch up a bit. This is particularly the case if you are speaking English as our bigger vocabulary often makes things easier to say with fewer words. Agree with your translator before hand a signal for “slow down” to make sure she or he isn’t getting swamped by your speed of delivery (it is particualrly important to keep looking for this signal if the translators’ booth isn’t in your normal line of sight) and give them a copy of your slides and any notes so they can check for unfamiliar words or technical vocabulary ahead of time. Provided your audience are using earphones you don’t however need to wait until the translator has finished a sentence before starting the next. If your slides are in the wrong language for some of your audience don’t forget to talk through the slide – “this graphic shows average weekly family spending on xxxx in US dollars on the vertical axis against age of children on the horizontal axis, blue dots mean zzzzzz” and so on.

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