It’s Just a Matter of Time

Suppose someone asked you to do a presentation on “The History of NASA’s Space Program.” Do you think the approach and content would be impacted by the length of time they gave you to speak? Of course it would. That is why knowing your allotted time upfront is so helpful. In many ways, the allotment time will inform you about how to approach your subject.

Coaching presenters involves helping them use their allotted time wisely. It is extremely difficult to prepare when the aforementioned question about time is unanswered. Take Phil, as an example. For a presentation at work, he was supposed to talk about a budget proposal to twenty senior-level managers. When I asked how much time he had been given to speak, he said, “between ten and twenty minutes.” Obviously, there is a huge difference between talking for ten minutes and speaking for twenty. In the end, he realized he did not actually know how much time he had to talk. His assumption of ten to twenty minutes was based on prior years’ presentations. When he circled back and asked his boss, he was told that the meeting agenda was packed, and he had, in fact, only seven minutes. As a result, this newfound information caused him to rethink the way he prepared his presentation.

Knowing the amount of time you have to speak is essential, but so is sticking to that time. Quite often presenters, to their own peril, violate the guidelines they are given. They decide that what they have to say is more important than the allotted time the host has given them. Good presenters figure out how to say what they want to say in the time provided. Presenters must learn that twenty minutes means twenty minutes, not twenty-five or thirty minutes. With few exceptions, it is highly inappropriate to talk longer than the time allotted. Presenters who fail to heed this advice are not likely to be invited back.

Some speakers who use the manuscript method learn to measure their words in terms of time. For example, they read copy for five minutes, count the number of words they’ve read, and then divide by five to see how many words they normally speak in a minute. Once they have that number, they simply multiply the number of words they speak in a minute by the number of minutes they have been given to speak, and then write their speech accordingly.

Of course you may need to allow a little time for ad-libbing, dramatic pauses, and perhaps occasional clapping when you say something exciting, but this “formula” should help you craft a well-written talk that will fit neatly into the time frame you’ve been given. This is particularly important if you’re giving a keynote morning or luncheon talk that will be followed by scheduled workshops or seminars.

Perhaps you have heard about the little boy sitting next to his dad at a political rally. At the beginning of his speech, the candidate took off his watch and placed it on the lectern that held his notes. The little boy turned to his dad and asked, “Dad, what does it mean when the speaker takes off his watch and puts it on the stand?” Dad turned to his young son, shook his head, and said, “Son, it means nothing, absolutely nothing!” Let this never be said about you.

Dr. Gary Rodriguez is President of LeaderMetrix and author of Purpose Centered Public Speaking

Gary is committed to helping aspiring and active speakers improve their presentations skills. This is accomplished through Purpose Centered Public Speaking Workshop and personal one on one mentoring. He also offers a free public speaking phobia test and monthly newsletter to those who visit his website.

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