Master Your Message Blog

The Presentation Time Bomb

You’re fourth on the program, waiting to go on. You’re miles away, mentally sifting through your presentation while you wait for the introduction.

Suddenly, you realize speaker number three has run past their allotted time and is now about ten minutes into yours. The Master of Ceremonies pulls you aside and asks you to cut your presentation short by twenty minutes.

High anxiety cuts in as your mind rifles through your slides, trying to figure out how you’re going to cut whole groups of them on the fly. A state of mind panic lurks in the shadows.

Yes, it’s happened to me—a speaker’s worst nightmare!

The most highly disregarded aspect of speaking is most certainly TIME.

I observe this disregard for time month after month in speeches, presentations, seminars, and workshops, in and out of business, speakers ignore time. They go into overtime, accidentally or not. It shows a total lack of respect for audiences, fellow speakers, and event organizers.

Here are three examples:

  • A speaker on a conference or convention main stage who goes over and throws off the time for following program speakers
  • The executive who goes off topic and seems to ramble on, taking time away from the question and answer session.
  • The toastmaster who asks for eight minutes for a speech and takes ten.

Each one of these has the potential to negatively impact the their own reputation to the point where they may never get asked to speak again for that client (the word “client” being used loosely to include the audience).

The solution is to plan, edit, and rehearse your presentation so that you can exceed expectations, not only in time, but in value, each and every time.

Let’s explore the negative implications of going overtime in three examples.

Conference Speaking

I’ve personally been impacted by an earlier speaker taking more than the allotted amount of time.

I was speaking about how to use television on the internet for maximum impact. As part of my talk, I had planned a live demonstration with an audience member on camera, had a series of video clips to play, and a slide deck (mostly visuals) as support. I was highly prepared.

The speaker before me did not seem to be as prepared. In fact, she stated about five minutes into her talk that she never really knew what she was going to talk about until she hit the stage. “Oh, great!” I thought.

Sure enough, at five minutes past her allotted time, she asked the audience if she could play a short video clip featuring a story about her and her husband. Although many in the audience were getting a little weary of her “meandering,” what were they going to say en masse? She continued.

Needless to say (I hope), the organizers will never bring her back for an encore. I was forced to cut my talk by twenty minutes to make up the time.

Corporate In-House Presentations

Unrehearsed technical presentations, in my experience, tend to be the major offenders in this category. But I’ve also seen an advertising manager completely bomb out with a complicated, overly-detailed presentation that completely alienated the conference audience.

At the time, I was directing the event. I was the one that made sure all the technical aspects were in place for the program and ensured all the presentation support (PowerPoint, Keynote, video, and audio) ran smoothly and on cue.

Her presentation was visually stunning, having been prepared by the advertising department’s artists. The company was a national outdoor signage company, so when I say “stunning,” I really do mean top-notch.

However, in a hour time-slot, there were about 180 very complicated slides. That’s 3 slides per minute.

She got about a third of the way through before the president of the company shut her down … at ten minutes over time. She was not working for the company the following year.


Toastmasters International is an organization with clubs all over the world where people learn how to speak in front of an audience.

When you become a member, you’re given a manual of templates for completing a series of ten speeches. Typically, it takes one to two years to complete the manual and become what they refer to as a “Competent Toastmaster.”

All the speeches in the manual are supposed to be delivered within a time frame of five to seven minutes. However, I continually see newer members asking for longer periods of time and ending up speaking even longer than that!

Here’s what makes me crazy! A seven minute time limit is stipulated for a reason: It causes you to focus on your objective, refine the words you use, and rehearse to that objective for all the reasons I’ve already alluded to.

What’s even crazier is that each speech in Toastmasters is timed, with visual indicators for the final one and two minute marks. But many still don’t “get” the importance of time.

It’s much more difficult to make a major impact on your audience in under seven minutes, but much more powerful if you’re successful. Less really is more. It sets you up to be a reputed speaker who gets asked back because you achieve results within your allotted time.

This is a case of getting out of the exercise much more than you put in.

The Bottom Line

For a professional speaker, time can be the ultimate judge of how you’re perceived by your audience. You can deliver an extraordinary talk, but if you exceed you time slot and impact everything else on the program, the value will be dwarfed by the apparent disregard for those around you.
Amazing to the uninitiated, but so true.

Plan, rehearse your talk out loud for time. Bring a small timer you can position within eyesight. Pay attention to it.

Pay attention to time. It’s the unseen bomb that sits quietly in the wings, waiting to undermine an otherwise exceptional performance.

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