Stand Up and – Toast! Timing is Everything

A minute can fly by – or seem to take forever. When you run long in your presentations, your audience will probably begin to fidget.

Have you attended a presentation and the speaker runs long? What happens? The attendees stare at their watches, text their colleagues that they are running late, or simply leave. Regardless, the speaker has lost the attention of the audience. Even the most dynamic closing will not resonate. 

When you appear on an agenda, you are expected to stay within your allocated time, since other speakers are scheduled to follow your presentation. The same is true of meetings: if you run long, then agenda items may need to be cut, meaning valuable information may not be communicated. Or you will no longer be asked to speak early in a meeting.

Conversely, if you run too short, then attendees – who may have paid a substantial conference fee – will be disappointed.  And in the daily business world, if you get 15 minutes with an executive or customer, you are missing an opportunity if you only use 5 minutes of that time.

How can you practice timing for your presentations? The easiest way is to focus your content to the time allowed, and to learn to use signals.

At a Toastmasters club, each portion of a meeting has specific timing assigned to it, to allow you to practice staying within your time limits. Speeches are typically 5-7 minutes, evaluations are 2-3 minutes, and “Table Topics” for impromptu speaking are 1-2 minutes. Speakers receive traffic light signals from a Timer. Green means you have met the minimum, red means you have reached the maximum allocated time. Between the two, a yellow card indicates that it’s time to wrap up. And 30 seconds over the time limit, you may be politely clapped off – think award shows! At the end of the meeting, the Timer provides a report of whether speakers stayed within their time limits.

At conferences, speakers are sometimes given large cards at the back of the room, indicating how much time is left. There are also a variety of apps for mobile devices that help you track your time. It’s far less intrusive to occasionally look at an app on a lectern than your watch.

The most extreme example I have encountered is producing the monthly cable access show Toastmasters Bay to Bay. The show is exactly 28:30 minutes; we have varied from 28:28 to 28:32. Meaning that when a speaker goes over time, something else needs to be shortened – in one case, an evaluator only had 30 seconds instead of the planned 2:30 minutes. And when a speaker goes long, the host must have material ready to improvise on the spot. I once had to stretch a closing segment from 3 minutes to 7 minutes on the fly, to avoid “dead air” where literally nothing is broadcast – resulting in a black screen.

While it’s a very subjective rule of thumb: use your allocated time fully to bring your message to your audience, while planning for 10-15% of your time for audience reactions and questions. And if you are running long while practicing, don’t try to “make it fit” by talking faster. Rather, cut tangential stories to ensure your content remains focused.

Access an online “traffic light” speech timer here: http://www.d4tm.org/Speech_Timer/speech_timer_800x600.htm

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Atul Nayak August 23, 2012 at 04:49 AM
Table Topics has helped me keep responses to questions within 2 minutes! Toastmasters is a great place for training yourself to stay within time.
Birgit Starmanns August 24, 2012 at 08:43 PM
I agree, Atul - Table Topics has given me a much more intuitive sense of how much time I'm taking, esp. when trying to stick to a schedule in a session that includes Q&A!


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