It happened again.  I see it all the time.  I watched as a professional speaker fell prey to the same mistake amateurs make all the time.  I’m referring to losing your timing in a presentation.

We’ve all seen the telltale signs.  We sit through fifty minutes of a one-hour presentation that seems to meander a bit, and then suddenly the speaker puts the throttle down for those final few minutes.  As we watch the slides being shown, we hear clever lines like this:  “We won’t be needing to cover that,” or “That’s not as important to get to.”  Well, if it wasn’t important, why is it in the handout that you passed out to the audience?  It’s a mistake that has plagued speakers forever.  Let’s take a look at the two major issues that usually cause this problem.

  1. Uncertainty.  Unless you are a professional speaker who delivers one particular presentation frequently, timing is almost always an uncertainty.  Even though you may have practiced in an empty room or in front of a mirror, that does not come close to simulating the give and take that goes on in a live presentation.  When in doubt, speakers will always put in too much information to avoid the dreaded “running out of material” nightmare.
  2. Unknowns.  Sometimes audience members ask questions.  Sometimes the audience takes longer than expected to finish an exercise. Sometimes a speaker finds an inspirational moment in his or her delivery, and loses track of time.  All of these unknowns contribute to timing issues.

Now, let’s look at the solutions:

  1. Break it up.  No matter what the length the presentation might be, create a one page agenda that you can keep an eye on, and break the timing of that agenda up into four equal parts. If your presentation is an hour long, break it into 15-minute segments. If it’s three hours, break it into 45-minute segments.
  2. Think of a hot air balloon.  When I deliver a presentation, I always visualize the timing of my presentation like flying in a hot air balloon.  Let’s say my goal is to keep that balloon 2,000 feet in the air.  When that balloon goes to 2,200 feet, I cool it down, and the balloon comes down slowly.  When that balloon goes to 1,800 feet, I add a little heat and bring it back up. Now see your presentation as you see that balloon.  When you hit that first quarter mark in your presentation, check your timing.  Is that presentation running too quickly? Ask the audience some questions.  Break into a story or two you keep in reserve.  Edge off the throttle, and ease that balloon back down a few hundred feet.  When you hit the next quarter check your timing.  Is that presentation running too slowly?  Leave out that unnecessary story you tell from time to time.  Shorten your delivery a bit.  For those audience members with their hands up, tell them this:  “Let me take one last question, and please hold the rest until we reach the end of this presentation.  Then I’ll be sure to answer every question you might have.”  Lightly hit that throttle, and ease that balloon back up a few hundred feet.

The key is this: Don’t wait until the presentation is 90% complete to begin to gauge that balloon.  When you lose your timing, that frenetic finish is all the audience is left with. However, when you complete a presentation without rushing, or slowing down it’s a thing of beauty.  It’s like jumping off a balance beam and sticking your landing without a hop.  Ease the timing of that presentation up or down throughout the delivery, and you won’t find yourself jolting that audience back to earth when the presentation comes in for a landing.  You’ll know you stuck that landing because those who brought you there, the audience will be applauding and appreciative of your timing. 


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