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This is part 4 of a multi-post series on public speaking

A talk that finishes on time ends well. It leaves you with a nice feeling, you’ve nailed it. You’ve finished on time (and on budget)! On the other hand, having a talk end 15 minutes earlier does seem awkward, and trust me I know. It’s happened to me a few times. Your goal should always be to have the talk last pretty much exactly as long as the allocated time. But how to do it?

There’s really no magic to it beyond practice, practice and more practice. However, given that I’m guilty of not practicing my talks much, over the years I’ve picked up some “tricks” (if you can call them that) you can use to try and adjust things as you go along without it being too obvious, as well as a few things that you should generally avoid. And let’s start with the latter ones

Things you shouldn’t do

Slides per minutes

I’ve seen many times people talk about spending 50 seconds on a slide and given 60 slides that makes 3000 seconds, divided by 60, that’s 50 minutes and 10 minutes Q&A and I’m set.

Here’s the thing, if you can actually time how much you spend on each slide and you have actually managed to master the art of spending the exact same amount of time on each slide, then good for you, go for it. Me? Nah. I don’t buy into that stuff.

I’ve given talks with 10 slides that have lasted one hour, and I’ve given talks with over 250 slides that have lasted 45 minutes. This whole slides per minute thing is completely overrated. I wish I could even say it provides you a ballpark figure. But it doesn’t, so just don’t waste time over it.

Skipping slides

Nothing looks more unprofessional than a speaker saying

“Oh, we don’t have time for this so let’s just skip it”

as they go over a slide.

If you don’t have time for a slide, then you should have practiced more and made time. Even if you don’t have time, don’t make it obvious. Try and be very brief on the slide or tell the audience that you’re just highlighting this or that aspect and that it would be it’s own talk. Don’t just completely ignore the contents you’ve put in there.

Jumping to a slide

Some applications such as PowerPoint, give you the ability to jump to a specific slide by entering the slide number while in presentation mode. For instance, if you’re on slide 30 and you’re really running short on time, you can jump to slide 40 by entering 40 on the keyboard. It might seem great but it also requires a few additional efforts

  • Memorising slide numbers.
  • Structuring content so that jumps don’t appear incoherent.

Now, think what is less effort and more rewarding - having to do the above so that you can jump around, or just practicing and getting the timing right…

Too many questions

In another post we’ll cover how to deal with long-running questions and trolls, but in terms of timing it’s important to make sure that you do not allow questions to go on for too long (this is if you’re taking questions during the talk), as it can significantly impact your timing. Of course one might not, but if they’re frequent enough, it all adds up.

Things you can do

Below are a list of things that have helped me deal with timing somewhat.

Use Presentation Mode

Presentation Mode, a.k.a. the ability to see the next slide, the number of remaining slides and the time left, is very useful to try and get a better picture of how much contents you have left. There really is no reason why you shouldn’t use it. However, there are some cases when it becomes somewhat more challenging to use, namely:

  • You’re far away from your monitor and there aren’t any comfort screens. In this case, my only recommendation is to try and stay close to your screen and put it at an angle that doesn’t make it too obvious you’re glancing at it.

  • You’re switching to another tool. When using Presentation Mode, you usually need to configure you laptop to use Dual Monitors, as opposed to Mirrored. This poses a problem if for instance you want to switch to an IDE or Browser window as you’d essentially be operating it on the second screen (i.e. the one that the attendees see). And that is quite challenging. If I have talks where I need to do this, what I try and do is structure the talk so that I minimise switches. For instance, I’d first go through all the slides, leaving the demos to the very end. Right before switching to demos, I’d quickly revert to Mirrored settings and know that if I do have a Summary or Thank You slide, I’m really not going to need the Presentation Mode.

Use a remote control

A remote control is a must. It’s very unprofessional to walk back and forth to the laptop and press space, or for that matter just stay at the laptop and press space. In addition, remotes provide some interesting features that help with timing.

One of the best remote controls I’ve owned is the Logitech R800. It’s best feature is a small screen that shows the remaining time. It’s really useful to be able to glance in a subtle way at your remote and know exactly how many minutes you have left.

I’ve recently switched though to the Logitech Spotlight which is awesome, especially the spotlight feature, but I do miss the screen. It does though provide a software counter, but to be honest, I usually now just use the Presentation Mode time features.

However, both remotes also have a setting which make the presenter vibrate when there are X minutes left. While very useful, you still need to be aware that you have to mentally keep track of the few minutes left.

Have a story ready

Stories and anecdotes, even jokes to a certain extent, are very useful to “adjust timing”. If you’re going too fast, you can take a pause and tell a story. If you’re going too slow, you can skip it and nobody will know. Also specific topics that you know can cover in 2 or 5 minutes are useful, because they provide a sliding buffer.

Know the end is near

One thing that really looks weird is you’re giving a talk and then suddenly you encounter the last slide that shows a “Thank you”, your contact details, or what’s worse, your presentation software flips out of presentation mode.

Know when your talk is about to end. That’s another reason a Summary slide is important, because it allows you to know that it’s the end of the talk and gives you some time to recompose and summarise the things you’ve covered. If you find yourself with a few extra minutes, you can also try and stretch it somewhat on the summary slide.

Until next time.