One of the most common unpleasant surprises you’re likely to face as a public speaker is having your time cut short. You go into the meeting with a plan of what you are going to cover based on the time allotted to you. And then, the technology doesn’t work until 15 minutes into the meeting. Or the decision maker shows up late, and you wait to start until they arrive. Or someone (and maybe everyone) in the group runs for a few minutes, and by the time it’s your turn, those few minutes have been added and you’re left scrambling to finish. Becoming a good public speaker requires planning as well as flexibility and tenacity. Just because you don’t have as much time as you planned doesn’t mean you can’t have as much impact as you planned. This article covers three Plan Bs every speaker needs when time is cut short.
As a professional speaker for three decades, I have had to deal with my fair share of surprises that can completely derail my presentation. Like what?
Like talking during two separate blackouts without lights, AV, or functional toilets. Like facilitating a two-day training session where, in the middle of the first day, all participants receive an email informing them that layoffs are imminent. Like presenting in a glass-enclosed conference room inside the Congo exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, where a gorilla bangs on the windows every time I advance a slide. (I immediately turned off the projector and it still went on.)
One of the most common unpleasant surprises you’re likely to face as a public speaker is having your time cut short. You go into the meeting with a plan of what you are going to cover based on the time allotted to you. And then, the technology doesn’t work until 15 minutes into the meeting. Or the decision maker shows up late, and you wait to start until they arrive. Or someone (and maybe everyone) in the group runs for a few minutes, and by the time it’s your turn, those few minutes have been added and you’re left scrambling to finish.
This can be a win-win for both the participants and the presenters.
First of all, participants tend to experience an uneven distribution of content if the first speakers in a group get their time but later speakers interrupt their messages. Second, participants may miss the opportunity to ask questions, clarify understanding, and engage in a discussion if a presentation is shortened or sped up. Participants are also less likely to understand what the speaker is saying if they speak quickly to finish before their time is up.
Presenters are no better at this. They may feel pressed for time and frustrated with the situation (or their team members), which does not lend itself to an engaging presentation style. They may miss the delivery information that is important to the audience in favor of sharing what they really want to talk about. And if they haven’t practiced a shorter version of what they plan to say, they can sound unprepared, nervous, and incoherent.
One way to manage this dynamic in advance is to ask everyone to practice their section of the presentation with a timer, and to cut their own presentations to meet their allotted time. This helps prevent the inevitable “time creep” in a group setting. The second step in managing this is to ensure that the host or chair does not overprogram the meeting. They need to make sure the event is slow enough to allow for questions, comments, tangents, and even a glitch or two. Third, whoever is running the meeting should be adept at handling questions, comments, and tangents against the time allotted for the meeting.
And another way to deal with all of this is to make sure that everyone involved has a Plan B that they are ready and able to adapt ASAP. Here are three Plan Bs every speaker needs when time is cut short:
1. Be prepared with two versions of your presentation.
Come with the full version of the presentation you planned, and a version that is 50% of what you planned. Make sure you’ve practiced delivering both (just having a shorter deck won’t prepare you to deliver an effective, shorter presentation). When you start to realize that you are not getting your full allotted time, go back to your shorter version. You may need to make quick decisions about whether you need to cut some content. And plan to let your audience know that you will provide additional context or content in writing after the meeting. Take the advice of English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who creates the phrase “kill your lovers”, which means to be ready to cut the content that you really love, and without sentimentality.
2. Just hit the headlines.
This means that you should build your presentation headings instead of headlines. What is the difference between a title and a headline? A header is a neutral catch-all for what you’re going to talk about on the slide while a headline gives the story of the slide above. It lets the speaker and the audience know the key line first.
Slide header: “2023 Economic Outlook”
Slide title: “2023 Economic Outlook Looks Optimistic”
Slide header: “Q2 Sales”
Slide title: “Q2 Sales Revive After Disappointing Q1”
Slide header: “Next Steps”
Slide title: “Next Steps: Hiring, Onboarding, and Training”
If you have limited time to present your findings, you can give an effective (albeit brief) narrative by just covering the headings of your deck even if you don’t explain the details on each slide.
3. Don’t apologize, don’t throw your partners under the bus, and don’t pray.
Behave as if this is exactly the version you always planned to present. (Your audience likely won’t know unless you tell them.) Although you may be tempted to say things like, “If only our tech team was ready this morning…” or “Since the my colleagues at the time. …,” don’t do it. Stay professional and cooperative. All conversations can happen completion the meeting – not on time.
Finally, do some emotional management so you don’t come across as angry, frustrated, resentful, or resigned to your audience. Emotions are contagious, and negative emotions especially. Unless you want your audience to feel the tension you feel, take a deep breath or two, and trust your current reality as it is rather than what you wish it were.
Becoming a good public speaker requires planning as well as flexibility and tenacity. Just because you don’t have as much time as you planned doesn’t mean you can’t have as much impact as you planned.