Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Three steps for speaking to time.

Few things irritate an audience or an organizer more than a speaker who runs over time. It’s also a problem for the unlucky speaker who follows the slowcoach. If you’re on a panel  after a couple of undisciplined long winders, you may have less than half your allotted time left –  before you even start!

On the other hand, speakers who watch  the clock and always finish comfortably before their time runs out, are well respected and make a big contribution to their reputation.

To be a public speaking Time Lord,  imagine it’s a bit like a plane journey. You want to start on time. You want to keep track of where you are. And you want to land smoothly where you’ve planned to go.

1. The first step to finishing on time is to start on time. Especially when you’re keen to have an audience, it can be tempting to wait a few more minutes for the stragglers to arrive. It’s almost always a mistake. Closing the doors and getting started is a good discipline and it helps set the tone, but it’s also a courtesy. It says the people in the room aren’t any less important than the people in the lobby who need to squeeze in another few minutes on their phones.

2. The second step is to watch the clock. Speaking in public can change your sense of time. An awkward minute can feel like an eternity and a fluent half an hour can flash past in an instant. If you’re not paying attention, you can suddenly discover you’re ten minutes over your time and haven’t even got to your third point.

There are two ways to achieve this.  First you need to prepare the right amount of material. People talk at different rates, but if you want to be understood your best presentation speed is probably a bit slower than your normal conversation. The best way to find your own speed is to count some words and time yourself saying them. You may be surprised at how much time it takes to get through something that seems quite small when you’re reading it. You’re likely to speak  about 130 words per minute in a presentation.  At a slow 100wpm it would have taken three minutes to read this far in this blog post.

Of course, you won’t be reading your speech, you’ll be speaking from notes. If you’re well-prepared you may have written a version out in full before you made the notes.  If you have a 5000-word paper and a 20-minute slot, you’re in trouble.

You also need  a clock to watch. The countdown timer on your phone is ideal, provided you can position it discreetly.  Or get the organisers to have a clock on view. If you have no choice but to use your own watch, take it off and put it on the lecturn, or turn it round so the face is  inside your wrist. This makes it less obvious when you check it.

The clock is the only sure indicator of where you’re up to and how much time you have left. Watch the professionals carefully and you might be surprised at the number of times they check the time, all the way to the end.

Experienced speakers get the hang of how long things take.  Observe people who really have to work to the clock. There’s no leeway for parliamentarians when “the Honourable Member’s time has expired” or radio presenters when it’s news time. The good ones have a well-calibrated sense of what fits into one minute or ten, and will make adjustments as they get towards the time, to finish perfectly to  the second. You can see the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, doing just that at the end of that speech. It’s a great skill, but it’s not as hard as it looks, if you learn to keep your eye firmly on the clock. And the more you do it, the more you’ll get a feel for what you can fit into one minute or five.

3. The third step is to make certain you know where you want to finish. If there’s one part of your speech which should be well rehearsed, it’s the ending. If you have in mind a clear idea of how you’ll wrap up, and the last thing you want to say, it’s much easier to get there, especially if you need to adjust or to ad lib as the time ticks down. It doesn’t matter whether you have half an hour or half a minute left, or whether you’re saying “We’re the best people to do this project”, or “Happy birthday to Jill”, or “Man the barricades!”. If you know where you want to finish, it’s easier to get there, and much more likely your message will be heard by your audience when you do.

When things go wrong.

If you find yourself needing to adapt, don’t feel shy of taking the audience into your confidence. In a professional setting, you’ll usually win respect if you share the problem and produce a solution.

If a weak moderator has let the first two speakers on your panel steal your time, don’t fall into the trap of trying to squash your presentation into half the time. We’ve all seen speakers  trying to speed up to fit it all in. It’s like watching someone jamming a pile of stuff into a cupboard before slamming the door shut. We remember well their frantic helter skelter, but almost nothing of what they said.

Instead, you might consider saying something like ‘In view of the time I’m going to have to cut the last part a bit, the key point is this:….’, and then inviting your audience to follow you up if they want more – “Find me by Googling….”, “I’ll be at the door afterwards…”, “Send me an email saying you were here…”. Who’ll look more in command of their game, the person who’s taken 10 minutes of extra time, the person who’s tried to squash too much into the space, or the person who’s been able to adapt and stay relaxed?

Time management is a core speaking skill, and well worth mastering.


One comment on “Three steps for speaking to time.

  1. Penny Gay

    A timely reminder of the importance of speaking to time! there are few more off-putting things than a too-long speech gabbled to its death – the audience only notices the fluster and gabble, not the message or argument.
    Another clue: if you’re afraid that your speech will be too short, have a reserve paragraph/point/anecdote/illustration ready to go on a separate page of notes just before your final summing-up/conclusion (make sure you have composed a ‘connection’ both at beginning and end of this extra bit). You’ll rarely have to use it if you’re properly prepared, but it’s a comfort to have it there – and it’s an extremely handy thing to have for question time! ‘Great question, and in fact it was something I was going to mention if I had time …’

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This entry was posted on 05/11/2012 by in Conference presentations, Preparing a speech, Public speaking.

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Speak For Yourself