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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Our Internal Timekeeper: On Speaking Longer Than We Should

I just returned from a conference, and I was reminded how when we speak before audiences, we often lose track of time and speak longer than we're supposed to. At a typical conference (or at least the ones I attend), you are given 20 minutes to present -- 15 minutes for a formal presentation and 5 minutes to field questions from the audience. However, because it is so common for presenters to run over, virtually every conference has designated time keepers just to keep folks on track. Even then, it's sometimes hard to get the presenters' attend, and so they often run long anyway.

Professional conferences aren't the only place I've witnessed this phenomenon. I've seen it happen at company retreats, church gatherings, workshops, board meetings, and so on. Unfortunately, at such events there typically aren't time keepers, so it becomes next to impossible to reign folks in. Thus, it's quite common for people to be told they have 5-10 minutes to speak, but they take 20.

I'm not sure why this is. I suppose sometimes it's because folks think that time limits only apply to others or that what they have to say is more important than what others have to say. However, I think that most of the time, it's a function of a lack of preparation and a poor sense of elapsed time.  When we don't prepare beforehand and simply trust that we'll say what we need to say in the amount of time we've been allotted, we end up rambling on about unimportant details, taking more time than we should, and boring people half to death.

Thus, in the interest of short meetings, conferences, retreats, and respecting other peoples' right to have their say, here are some modest guidelines for making presentations:
  1. Prepare. Few of us are natural speakers (I'm certainly not), and we usually do better if we write down what we plan to say. This helps to keep us from repeating ourselves needlessly and spending too much time addressing minor points and too little time addressing important ones.
  2. Practice. Presentations flow much smoother when we practice. Practice also allows us to time how long our presentations are. You may be surprised to discover that you often don't have enough time to talk about everything you want to. That's OK. That helps you focus on what's important.
  3. Bring your notes. Notes helps keep us on track, preventing us from needlessly repeating ourselves, spending too much time on minor points, and too little time on important ones (see point #1 above). Unfortunately, ever since Johnny Carson made off-the-cuff monologues the norm (although he actually had note cards at the front of the stage), many people assume that good speakers speak without notes. And while a few of us are gifted at this, most of us aren't. Unfortunately, too many of us think we are when we're not. 
  4. Don't tell people how long you plan to talk. Once you do, their clocks starts ticking, and if you go over, they will start tuning you out. I once heard Marcus Borg speak at a Baptist church in McMinnville, Oregon, and when he stepped to the podium, he made a big deal about putting a timer on the podium and stating that he was only going to speak for 45 minutes. As you might have already guessed, he spoke for much, much longer. When he reached the 46 minute mark, people started squirming in their seats, and by the one hour mark, only half the crowd was listening. And when he finished over a half-an-hour later, only a handful were hanging on his every word.
  5. End on time. Easier said than done, but if you prepare, practice, and bring your notes, you'll finish on time and send your audience home happy.
I make no claims on being a great orator. However, I do know that when folks follow the above suggestions, they are seldom thought to be bad ones.

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