One of the most common mistakes that speakers make is to go over their time limit. However, sometimes a speaker makes the opposite mistake, by not speaking long enough. A colleague recently sent me the following email describing her experience with a speaker who spoke too little.
"Hi, Gilda. I went to hear an author speak at a local independent bookstore. It wasn’t a book signing—it was a presentation. The author spoke for less than 10 minutes—I’d say about 7 minutes. Since it was a Saturday night and my husband and I had driven 20 minutes one way to see her, we were shocked. We expected much more—something like a few minutes talking about her background and writing the book, then reading a chapter from the book, then a bit more about the topic of the book."
Here are three things that you can do to ensure you're not the speaker who shocks and annoys the audience by speaking too little:
1. Be clear about your time limit.
If you're speaking at a meeting, event or conference, check with the organizer about how long you have to present. And check with the organizer again as the day approaches because things may have changed. Also check any marketing materials or invitations that were sent out to ensure that attendees' expectations match your expectation of the time limit. In the above case, the speaker should have spoken longer or the event should have been advertised as "meet the author" only rather than as a "presentation by the author."
In order to know how long your presentation will take, you have to practice. And practice doesn't mean sitting at your desk thinking about your presentation, looking at your notes or flipping through your slides. Practice means you say your presentation out loud, in as close to the real environment as possible. So if you're going to give your presentation standing up at the front of the room, you should practice standing up at the front of a similar room, or ideally, the actual room that you will present in.
You are not trying to memorize your presentation word for word; your goals are to become comfortable with the content, be prepared to say it a few different ways and get a good idea of how long it will take.
3. Have extra material ready.
While it's acceptable and even preferable to end a few minutes early, sometimes your presentation takes substantially less time than you practiced. This may happen because another speaker unexpectedly covered much of your content or the organizer reduced the scope of your presentation at the last minute. Whatever the reason, you should have extra content ready just in case. Have some good questions to ask, an additional exercise or handout, or a separate section of slides to use if needed.
When you're trying to decide whether you should go to your extra material or just get done early, use the audience and the meeting organizer as your guides. Are the participants required to be in the meeting or conference session for a certain amount of time so they can get credit? Will they be shocked and annoyed if you end early? And if you decide to use your extra material, it shouldn't be perceived as "fluff" or just filler material with no value.
If you follow these three tips, you won't be the speaker who shocks and annoys the audience by speaking for substantially less time than expected. And you'll be better prepared to meet the audience's expectations of high-value content within the expected time frame.