Whether delivering a keynote or taking investors through a pitch deck, presenters are often prescribed a specific amount of time to speak. But those who frequently occupy the podium know that this can change at a moment’s notice.
Other speakers might go over their allotted time, start late, or drop out entirely. Sometimes the intended audience’s schedule changes last minute, setup time goes over, or, in the most dreaded scenario, technical difficulties eat up precious minutes.
When speakers are forced to adjust their presentation time moments before going on, there are a number of tactics they can use to ensure their message still gets across.
Seasoned speakers often get into the habit of breaking down their presentation into a number of different time allotments, each of which contain the same key messages with varying degrees of elaboration.
“I’ve got at least three versions of any speech I do,” says Jim Kokocki, the president of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization that develops public speaking and leadership skills. “There’s a 30-second version, where I tell you the five points I’m going to make. The two minute version of that is, ‘here’s the five points and number one is important for these reasons, number two is important for these reasons. And then the third version is the full speech.”
This structure, says Kokocki, lets speakers expand or contract the level of detail they dedicate to each point, based on their level of importance to that particular audience.
“By organizing it in that fashion, it’s much easier to say, ‘I’m going to de-emphasize point number two to fit within the allotted timeframe,” he said.
What’s important, says Kokocki, is to not allow time constraints to detract from the message you’re trying to get across. While the level of detail you’re able to dedicate to each point may change, it’s important not to sacrifice any important elements of your presentation in the interest of time.
“Know what your key objectives are in speaking, and just make sure they get landed,” he says. “Know what your supporting material is, and what you can leave out.”
When schedule constraints limit speaking time those who are most at risk of missing their key objectives are those that stick to a tight script. Unscripted speakers are able to adjust the amount of time they spend on each individual point and adjust on the fly.
“Use eye contact, look around the room, and assess whether your messages are landing. If you see notes of confusion be alert enough to acknowledge that and ask if there’s clarification required,” says Kokocki. “That’s why it’s important to have flexibility built into your speech, to be confident about the points you want to make and that you can land them.”
When speaking time is jeopardized it may be tempting to move the seemingly less important points to the end of the speech, and only deliver them if there’s enough time. That approach is flawed, says Kokocki, as each point should be vital to your presentation or not included in the first place.
Instead he recommends bookending speeches with summaries, so that if a speaker’s time is cut short no vital information is lost.
“It’s a bit of a cliché in the business, but it works. The cliché is: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them,” he says. “Start by telling them the key things they should take away from the speech,” Kokocki explains. “When you’re done, take them through that material, and in your summation you say: ‘Here are the key points,’ and remind them why they’re important.”
In a time-constrained environment, the easiest parts to cut from most speeches are backstories and jokes. While interesting and often engaging, backstories can often be summarized down or eliminated entirely without detracting from the main point of the presentation.
“You need to assess your audience and how much of the backstory they need to hear,” says Kokocki, adding that jokes should generally be avoided. “I don’t recommend using a joke unless it fits very tightly to what you’re going to speak about. Don’t tell the joke for the sake of telling a joke; If you’re a nervous speaker and it lands badly, that will shake your confidence.”