Beat the Clock!

When I’m on vacation, I often go days without wearing a watch. It’s nice not to be guided by the clock, at least for a short while each year. What time is it? I don’t know: time for a swim; time to eat; time for a beer.

For a speaker, on the other hand, losing track of time is a major faux-pas, especially if it results in running over time. Even worse is the speaker who feels no compunction about speaking for 5, 10 or even 15 minutes beyond his allotted time.

In almost every case, running over time is highly disrespectful of one’s audience. If the speaker is one of several on the agenda, it is also disrespectful of the other speakers and the event organizers who will be forced to adjust the schedule. And rarely is a speaker who drones on remembered kindly by the audience.

So here’s an idea from an old TV game show for your next presentation: Beat the Clock!

The premise behind the show was simple: contestants were given a series of challenges that they had to complete in less than the time allotted. If they succeeded, they beat the clock and won a prize.

The next time you have a presentation, see if you can beat the clock. Speak for less than your allotted time.

I realize that this might sound counterintuitive to many people, but I have yet to see an audience complain when a speaker finishes a little early. The reaction is usually one of pleasant surprise and appreciation.

Let’s be clear, though, about what I am suggesting. You should not race through your material at breakneck speed; nor should you speak for much less than your allotted time, thus leaving a gap to fill. Rather, you should aim to have your presentation, including questions and answers, completed a few minutes before your time is up. For example, do you have an hour? Aim to have everything wrapped up in 55 minutes.

Of course, the less time you have to begin with, the more difficult the exercise is. Five minutes is only 8% of a one hour presentation, but it is 33% of a 15-minute presentation. You probably don’t want to leave that much time on the table.

Nevertheless, aim to finish with a few minutes to spare or, at the latest, when your time is up. You might not win any prizes, but you will win the the respect and appreciation of your audience, your fellow speakers and those who organized the event.

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  1. Two memories came to me, reading your post.
    First – in a church (in Bristol I think it was) I once saw a sermon glass. Before watches, regular public speakers, like ministers in their pulpits, would have to time themselves with hour glasses. As I recall I was told this particular glass contained enough sand for a 45 minute sermon. The glass was visible to the speaker and to the whole congregation. You can imagine how a poor speaker would see the audience’s attention shift from his face to the sand falling in the glass. And how he might face difficulties if he over-ran!
    The second memory was hearing Peter Eriksson, one of the Swedish Green Party leaders, speaking in a formal debate from the Riksdag not so long ago. He had 45 seconds to respond to a statement from the Prime Minister. It’s pertinent to this story that the current PM (Fredrik Reinfeldt, a conservative), since taking over the reigns of power, has developed a speaking style that comes remarkably close to the measured, pedantic, slightly superior style of the previous Prime Minister (Göran Persson, a socialist). Instead of responding to the PM’s platitudes, Eriksson used just half the time available to remark on the transformation in the PM’s speaking style. I thought it was both well-observed and rather funny, but the 20-odd second pause when no one spoke was too long and ended up filled with nervous titters from some of our fine political representatives.
    I suppose the point of this comment is to support what you say about over-running, but to stress that even under-running has to be got right too.

    1. John, thanks for the thoughtful comments and great anecdotes. I can well imagine how an emptying hourglass would attract attention in the way an ordinary clock never could! And I agree completely about going too far under time which is not a good thing either.

  2. I agree that finishing early should be done with caution, but you’re absolutely right – audiences love it when a presenter or speaker finishes early. It implies that you respect their time – and may even put them in a better mood too. I remember the sheer delight on the (extremely) rare occasions when a university lecture would finish early…

    1. Thank you, Jessica. I think we all tend to get caught up in what we are saying so much that we lose sight of the audience’s perspective as well as their ability to retain information. Your reference to the length of university lectures brought back pleasant memories. And unpleasant ones too!

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

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