Presentation Perfect Timing: 7 Foolproof Tips (Plus a Secret Weapon!) to Always End Your Talks On Time

Presentation Perfect Timing - Foolproof Steps & A Secret Weapon to Always End Your Talks On Time with an image of a woman holding a clock

Keeping your presentations to their allotted time is crucial to your reputation as a professional speaker. It’s too important to leave to chance because it affects your credibility, your ratings and your chance of getting hired.

Whether it’s preschoolers or diplomats, every audience has a limit and eventually resents a speaker who overstays their welcome. You never want to choose between racing to the end, taking extra time, or squeezing out the Q&A to fit in your remarks, because you’ll alienate the crowd, distress your host, and irk any panelists onstage with you.

Luckily you can prevent all of this when you right-size your remarks for any session length.  Use these seven steps and bonus strategy to prepare, plan, and most importantly, end on time, EVERY time.

Pro Tip #1: Clarify Expectations

Before you even plan your talk, find out the time you’ll have to actually speak. Ask your host/the event planner what to expect, such as:

  • Do the sessions typically start on time, or is there usually a grace period while people file in?
  • Are there perfunctory announcements (“housekeeping”) before you jump in?
  • Will you be introduced by an emcee, introduce yourself, or just begin with your speech?
  • Will there be questions from the audience at the end of your session? At the end of the event? How much time is allowed?
  • Is there anything else on the session agenda that you need to expect or allow time for?
    • Introductions of VIPs or officers?
    • Scheduled or unscheduled breaks?
    • Remarks from a sponsor?
    • Giving of awards or thanking volunteers?
    • Handing out evaluations?
    • Anything else?
    • And most importantly, has the time for these things already been accounted for in the session, or do you need to deduct them from your own speaking time?
  • If there are other speakers in the session:
    • What if they run long? Are you expected to compensate by shortening your remarks? Or do they deduct from Q&A time?
    • Will there be a moderator keeping track of time?
    • Can you speak with them in advance or practice together virtually?

You can’t control every variable, of course, but covering what you can in advance leaves your headspace free to handle anything that comes up last minute.

Pro Tip #2: Cover Less, Accomplish More

Even teaching a year-long course, you’ll never cover every detail. It’s even less realistic in a half-day workshop, hour, or even briefer session.

Make your peace with it and prioritize. Choose only the most essential talking points – those you’re known for or like best, the most immediately useful, or whatever you’re required to present.

If you’re not sure which areas to highlight, ask your host to choose. List five topics and ask which three to touch on lightly, or if they prefer you can focus on one.

If they want all the info and you know it can’t be done, don’t get frustrated, get excited! Can you add a second time-slot? Meet again next month? Divide up into workgroups? Just don’t agree to an impossible task and try to make it work.  Imagine your speech is a suitcase. If you stuff it to the gills, there’s a chance of overflow. And no one wants to see your underwear all over baggage claim.

Speaking of things everyone will see…

Pro Tip #3: Streamline Any Visual Aids

Audiences HATE when you don’t cover your material. And how do they know? Because you put it on your slide. Be prepared to cover every single line that you put on the screen, or face the harsh evaluations that tell you how you failed.

The best way to keep the peace? Design your slides to send a general message, not show your entire speech onscreen.  Use images or words that relate to your theme and reinforce your words.

When you’ve made your point, move on without anyone feeling robbed. Include references (or even better – links to your books and other products!) for anyone who wants to learn more.

Pro Tip #4: Allot Time Per Section

I’m sure you rehearsed your speech to see how long the whole thing takes and whittled it down if necessary. Now practice it section by section so you can time each topic, part or slide.

Jot down on your notes or make a separate card that tells you where you need to be at each 10-minute mark, or divide and allot a number of minutes to adequately cover each topic.

Then on presentation day, you can keep your eye on the time and slow down or speed up depending on when you hit your marks. This will also help you pace yourself if you tend to rush or go off on tangents.

Pro Tip #5: Plan to Be Delayed

Plan to have less time to talk than you’re officially given, even with the modifications you’ve already made. Everything takes longer than planned, especially when other people are involved. At both live and virtual events, there are often snafus that deduct precious moments from your time in the spotlight.

Whether you’re speaking in a venue or online, check when you arrive that the agenda is on schedule (or not). If anything has changed, it’s your job to make it work, even if it has nothing at all to do with you.

Be prepared for unexpected but manageable delays by underfilling your time. That way when the host waits a few minutes for attendees to settle, the previous speaker keeps yammering too long, or tech support takes time getting everything online, you won’t be panicking or hurriedly crossing out your notes.

(Note: Significant delays require Plan B. See Someone Stole My Time – Now What?)

Pro Tip #6: Try Out Your Tech

Dress-rehearsals are helpful for ANY live event, whether it’s on-site or on-bedroom. Take every opportunity to run-through the schedule, check your sound, test a new camera, install a new app – everything down to your new slide-clicker – before your presentation day.

You’re trying to eliminate anything that could slow your pace, distract you, or derail you while you talk. You’ve already put in so much time to keeping your talk on track; it would be a shame if something preventable kept you from covering an essential point.

And yes, I know, there will often be glitches you couldn’t foresee – sun flares, auto-updates, your cat threw up in your special chair – but anything you handle in advance can’t drain drops of precious presentation time or throw off your timetable.

Pro Tip #7: Bring A Timepiece

Lots of venues have countdown clocks or timers, and sometimes volunteers to flag you down with hand signals or flash a “Wrap up!” sign. But there may not be a clock where you present, and you can’t assume it’ll have the correct time.

Can you imagine halfway through your talk realizing the clock hands haven’t moved? (Actually happened. I lived through it. But still. Lesson learned.)

With your own clock, watch or phone, you’re in control of where you put it, it’s the same as when you practice, and there’s no chance your volunteer will get distracted and forget to wave. I prefer a timepiece over a countdown app, simply because the most important data for me is the time I need to end. As with everything, use the method that’s best for you.

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 = Success!

There’s one final thing that can interfere with all of this: worrying you’ll be SO efficient that you’ll finish too soon, with excess time to spare. No one will have questions, so you’ll stand there on the stage, alone and super awkward, clasping your hands together, shrugging in a “What do we do now?” gesture. In the perfect silence you’ll get the clear message: everyone’s disappointed.

I suspect this is unlikely. First of all, when was the last time you were upset a lecture ended early? I mean as great of a speaker as you certainly are, everyone else has places to be. But more pertinent, people typically have more questions than time to ask them, so they’ll probably be delighted to have extra Q&A.

But if you’re even a little worried that underfilling and over-planning will leave you on stage with time to spare, you might be tempted to put in extra slides. It’s classic overpacking to make sure you have enough; a reverse kind of stage fright, and equally upsetting.

To help you fight that urge, I present you with:

The Foolproof Secret Sauce of Perfect Presentation Timing

All you have to do is plan and prepare one (or more!) secret things – i.e. they aren’t on the official agenda – to keep in your back pocket that no one will miss. For example:

  • A true story from your life that reiterates your major point
  • A funny anecdote that relates your topic to current events of the day
  • An invitation for an audience member to role-play a situation with you, or with another participant
  • A demonstration of how you’d do something you talked about
  • Lead the audience in an experiential activity
  • A case-study where you describe a situation and audience members share how they’d handle it based on what they learned from you today
  • Pair off and discuss a topic you assign, or exchange emails with your neighbor and agree to recap in a month on how you utilized this information
  • Breakout groups to each solve a different problem and report back their ideas
  • Ask audience volunteers how they’ll take the info presented today and use it back at work
  • A surprise presentation for your host or someone in the group, or a raffle of your book or product
  • A game of charades or pictionary using prompts related to your topic
  • A jeopardy or trivia game related to your topic (always nice to bring prizes)
  • A special poem or reading or demonstration of your special talent

or anything else – LITERALLY anything else – that won’t be missed if you don’t have time. If time is short, you just exclude it, and no one ever has to know.

That way if you need to fill some extra time – unlikely as it is, but you really never know – instead of feeling stressed you’ll feel excited to reinforce your message with the extra activity and end your session on a high note.  Who knows, maybe you’ll plan such a meaningful or fun activity that you’ll decide to plan it in to your next presentation! 

I’d love to know how you’re doing with timing, and what you come up with for your secret bonus activity. Let me know in the comments below.

And if you do better with one-on-one advice, email me to set up a time that we can talk.

Jessica Setnick is the author of A Dietitian's Guide to Professional Speaking: Expert Advice for Pitching, Presenting & Getting Paid

Presentation Perfect Timing: 7 Foolproof Tips (Plus a Secret Weapon!) to Always End Your Talks On Time

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