Ending your presentation on time shows professionalism and respect

In the world of professional speaking, not ending when your client has told you to end is a big sin. Yet it is rampant among non-professionals.

This is seen as a sign of arrogance. People feel it says that you think you are more important than the schedule the meeting organizer has painstakingly crafted. It means the audience will have less time for breaks, or that someone else will have to cut their presentation to accommodate your inconsideration.

If you haven’t taken your presentation seriously enough to time it, you’re being disrespectful of your audience and the meeting organizer.

I was once given 2 minutes to make an important announcement to my professional association of 1500 people. I wrote out that announcement and rehearsed it for an hour, timing it each time until I could deliver it in 1 minute 45 seconds. Why not 2 minutes? Because I needed to allow for laughter or an in-the-moment diversion. Each time I went through it I tightened it up and it became better and better.

If I hadn’t timed it and I came in at 3-4 minutes, and everyone else making an announcement did the same thing, the program would go over 15-20 minutes. The schedule was tight. The time would be taken off the break, which wouldn’t be fair to the audience, or the exhibitors who depended on traffic during breaks.

For a large convention I was in charge of a special program honoring a beloved colleague. We had exactly 30 minutes for our tribute. There were 10 presenters, all veteran professional speakers. Each was given two minutes which would allow for the honoree to have time for a few words. The presenters were told if they didn’t show up for rehearsal, they wouldn’t be in the tribute. They attended reluctantly. When I asked them to do their piece, they winged it. Most went 4-5 minutes.

Why was I such a stickler about the time? Because if we went overtime, the production company staff got double time. There was no budget for that.

When I explained that we had to end at 30 minutes no matter what, the pros saw the severity of the time constraint. They went back and rehearsed. During the tribute, each person’s piece was crisper, more cogent, more articulate.

Recently, in a presentation skills course, I asked each participant to come up with a 2-minute presentation the day before they were to present. They gave their presentations, got feedback, then returned two days later to present a refined version. I timed each person, giving them 30- and 15-second warnings before they were to end.

During the second round of talks, one man talked about two role models in his life. He was still talking about the first one when I raised the 30-second warning sign. He continued as I raised the second warning. He was still talking as I raised the “stop” sign. I let him go another 15 seconds and when he showed no sign of wrapping up, I stopped him.

“Thank you for your talk. I’m curious, didn’t you see my warning signs I held up?”

“Yes, I saw them.”

“Then why didn’t you stop when I held up the ‘stop’ sign?”

“Because I wasn’t done.”

I was flabbergasted. “You were done when your time was up. By not preparing and rehearsing your talk so you could adequately cover what you wanted in the time allotted, you are disrespecting your audience. You are saying that what you have to say is more important than honoring their time.”

He hadn’t looked at it that way before.

All the other participants ended on time after that.

In the professional speaking world, it is common for a client to cut time off your speech — usually because one (or more) of the previous non-pros have gone over time. Since the client is boss, the pro does what has to be done to get the meeting back on schedule. Points, stories and laugh lines are jettisoned, often moments before the introduction. A professional speaker typically hones his/her presentation, having spent hundreds of hours practicing key stories and points. It’s similar to a one-person show. The audience doesn’t get the speaker’s best because they’ve had to make up for the non-pros not preparing nor respecting their time commitments.

I once sat in the audience watching my presentation time get whittled away bit by bit by the company’s insiders taking 5-10 minutes longer than the were allotted. I had a “must end” time so I was continually revamping my program, mentally deleting key parts as my time kept diminishing. By the time I was introduced, my hour talk was down to 10 minutes before the must-end time. It didn’t go well. I looked stupid trying to truncate the points my client had insisted I cover, and the audience got platitudes because there was no time to develop the points or illustrate them with examples. Everyone lost.

Don’t be the one who steals the audience’s experience because you didn’t take your presentation seriously enough to time it and stick to that time. The audience may not remember that you ended on time, but they will likely remember that you are the one who went 20 minutes (or more) overtime, and thus cut their break to nothing so they couldn’t return that important client call. You want your presentation to stand out, but not as the arrogant speaker who was so caught up in his/her own story that everyone else suffered.


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