How to get your talk timing right

Posted on by Rachel in speaking tips.

If you struggle with timing then it is definitely preferable to be a little short than a little long.

A common worry for presenters is what happens if you overrun, or come in too short? While this is something that does tend to improve with time, even the most experienced presenter can occasionally find themselves sending everyone for an early coffee or racing through the last section of a talk. In this post I share some suggestions for accurately timing your talks.

Running short is always better than running long

With a tightly packed conference schedule, catering is arranged for set breaks, and often the venue has to be cleared quickly at the end of the day. This means that if a speaker takes longer than their slot, it can cause repercussions for the rest of the event, the organisers and other speakers. I know from experience that it is no fun when you are closing a conference and find that your slot has to be shortened, or that attendees are leaving to catch a train or flight during your talk.

New speakers often worry they will rush and run out of material. While it is a great feeling to close your talk on the minute, if you struggle with timing then it is definitely preferable to be a little short than a little long.

Check how long you really have

Speak to the organiser and check how long you have on stage for your talk. The scheduled slot may include time to set up, or to swap to the next speaker. It may include questions from the audience or a conversation with the MC. You don’t want a nasty surprise of discovering your 45 minute slot is actually 35 minutes plus Q&A and changeover time. So, always contact the organiser and confirm. Sometimes they will leave the decision for things like Q&A to you, in which case you can decide if you want to fill your time with the presentation or leave time for questions.

Timing Tips

Over the years I’ve become better at timing my presentations, and the following advice are the things I have learned - mostly the hard way!

Practice your talk out loud

The first tip is really at the core of any public speaking advice, and that is to practice out loud. Running through your talk in your head will not give you a predictable time for your presentation. Stand up, use your clicker, and present as you would on stage.

If you are running short, then it may be that you have time for more material, however it may also mean you are rushing some point that could be better explained. If you are running long, then you may need to identify some material to cut from the talk.

If you have practiced enough then you should find that the amount of time you are likely to drift is minimal. As you become more experienced you will also learn whether you are someone who speeds up under pressure or slows down, this can help you to estimate more accurately.

Add timing markers to your notes

If you are using slides with speaker notes you can add a comment for yourself so you know where you should be at that point in the talk. Work out these timings as you practice. This will help when you are doing the talk on stage and are perhaps a little nervous and either rush, or start to drift off topic. If you know that you are running long at the half way mark, or that you have raced through the first 10 minutes in 7 minutes, you have time to sort it out and speed up or slow down. I generally put a time in for the beginning of each major section of a talk, and just put the time I would expect to have on the presentation timer at that point.

Record demos - even just as a fallback

A demo that goes wrong can eat up a huge amount of your presentation time. If you are intending to do any kind of live demo, have a backup recording of the demo, or a set of slides that describe it, just in case it goes wrong on the day. Being able to smoothly switch to the video or slides instead is something you should be ready to do. It should be part of your rehearsal, so you don’t lose time - and your audience - trying to get a demo to work under pressure.

It is also worth considering if you need a live demo at all. You could record it in advance and then talk as the video plays. This makes timing of that section very easy!

Identify the places you can speed up

It is likely that there are places in your presentation where you could go into more or less depth without taking away from the talk as a whole. If you know where these points are, and you realise you are running longer than intended, you have a plan to make up the time without racing through the slides. Coupled with timing markers in your slides this is a really helpful way to feel more confident in your timing.

Some speakers have entire sections they can skip on the fly. I’ve never felt the need to do this as I can usually get my timing close via rehearsing. However if you do find you are really struggling with running too long then this could be an approach to consider.

I have been at events which have been running over time and asked by the organiser if here is any chance I could come in slightly shorter than I had expected, so these techniques can be useful to speed yourself up even if the need to shorten your talk is due to external factors.

Have a closing section you have rehearsed at different lengths

I often finish my technical talks with a section which wraps up the things we have covered, and perhaps gives some personal insight or shares a relevant story. These narrative sections are a good way to nail your timing to the minute. When I get to that section I know that all the complicated slides and demos are done, I just need to wrap up. I make sure to have rehearsed those closing statements at different lengths so that I can give a good conclusion to my talk whether I have one minute or five minutes left as I get to it.

Try a lightning talk

A 5 or 10 minute lightning talk is an excellent way to challenge your timing skills, and can be an excellent way to learn how to deliver a message in a concise way.

Timing is something you improve with experience

There is no substitute for experience in presenting to help you nail your timing. As you become less nervous you will become more consistent, and more confident to ad lib when running short, or trim on the fly when you realise you are coming in too long.

Hopefully these tips will get you started in crafting presentations that fit the slot you have been given. We’ve set up a forum in the Notist support site which we would love to become somewhere speakers and potential speakers share their advice or questions. If you would like to add your thoughts, check it out here.

Photo Credit: Jeff Merriman

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