Time Management Tips for Presenters

—Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

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I asked for tips on how to manage your time during speeches and seminars.

-- Rebecca Morgan

  • I give prizes (books, tapes) at the end of the break. Must be in the room to win. I also have my PPT (PowerPoint) downtimer on during the break so they can see how much time they have left.
  • If it is a new program, I have the outline printed with the approx. start times for each section. As I go along, when I have them working on self-assessments or in small groups, I note the *real* time I started so I can make adjustments in this session and for next time.
  • If it is a more practiced program, I know where I should be at what time in the program. I glance at my clock periodically, and determine if I need to skip or shorten a segment to keep on track.
  • I've had clients whose previous activities kept going and going and going -- like the Energizer bunny! As time slipped away I kept jettisoning stories or whole sections. If using PPT, I'll delete or hide slides I know I won't get to.
  • Also, I find a small bell works for 2-minute warnings and for start time announcements. I even go out into the hall with the bell.
  • I try to break every 1.25-1.5 hours.

-- Tim Durkin

I take a totally reverse approach. I announce before beginning my content something very close to these words. "First thing you need to know about me is that I do not work out my control dramas and issues on the group...(they laugh or pay rapt attention) sure we are going to have a break around (tell them the time) -- but if you need to get up walk around, stretch, or make any fluid adjustments, please feel free to do so at your convenience. Also know that since most of you are customer-focused, both internal and external, please know that I realize that some calls or pages may come in that you need to take...please do feel free to take or make them but please do it outside so as not to disturb your colleagues.

"In addition, I realize that sometimes these chairs begin to feel like medieval torture racks. Please feel free to get out of them and stretch lean up against the wall or even lie down. So go ahead and feel free to lie down if that makes you comfortable...but please don't snore! Finally, please remember this: In life pain is inevitable... but misery is optional. When we are children we are victims, and when we are adults we are volunteers. There is certainly no need to volunteer for misery in this session!"

I have never, in hundreds of presentations, ever had this "permission" abused. Most of the time no one leaves before breaks. And yes, I do have people lie down occasionally.

Plus I get a lot of positive energy right off the bat because NO one ever told them this stuff before.

-- Bill McCurry

  • Not sure who gave me this idea - either Orvel Ray Wilson, Mark S.A. Smith or Michael Morgan - so give them the credit - Don't say we will break until 10:15 because everyone has different time on their watch - say "Please look at your watch - we'll be back here in 12 minutes" - Puts them in charge
  • Depending on circumstances a "30 second warning - we start back in 30 seconds" may work - some presentations I use an audio bugle call played over the speaker system.
  • One that works without fail is a drawing at exactly the start time for door prize - must be present to win. Especially effective if most of the group knows each other - if someone's absent and misses the prize they are reminded about it for weeks.
  • I have large cheap battery operated LCD clock at the front of the room - I let the meeting planner know as tactfully as possible "I've just resent my clock to local time" and show the meeting planner the clock and my cell phone with matching time - now it's up to the meeting planner to start the proceedings on time. This is what I also use to time my presentations.
  • I have a print out of my PowerPoint showing the slide numbers - if I'm running late I can skip ahead to critical slides (do this by typing in the slide number and hit return)
  • With audiences of fewer than 250 I try to take the handheld wireless mike into the audience for questions - and I hold the mike, never give it to the audience member. This keeps me in control. Sometimes you have one person who asks too many questions or likes to hear the sound of their own voice. With this person I will not go into the audience but make them ask their question without the mike, it tends to discourage them from future questions without the audience noticing I'm shutting them down.
  • Preparation - every program requires at least one day in the field meeting with potential audience members so I can truly customize the material. Normally two days of phone interviews so my industry quotes will have geographical balance.
  • Adult learners (especially those who are not sitting down all day) should have breaks every 55-75 minutes - 8-12 minute breaks depending on how close the bathrooms are and how large they are. I'd never go past 2 hours without a break, since some folks can't hold it that long (don't believe it - watch next time you go to the movies).
  • An option to formal breaks is to allow small group discussion - this keeps the audience awake and moving around and allows those with bio needs to make a quick escape.
  • FYI: The biggest sin I've seen with speakers -- going overtime. More speakers have lost more bookings for that than any other definitive reason - Yet those folks I've discussed it with (including world famous CSP's) tell me the audience loved 'em. Yes, the audience loved them but the meeting planner blacklisted you -- but won't tell you to your face because your personality is too forceful for them -- they just never invite you back, they tell their meeting planner friends "off the record" and you never know. Play it smart, no matter when you start -- end on time. You're a professional -- no whining -- just make it happen.

-- Bill Conerly

My best time management tip is actually a preparation tip.

I (digitally) taped a speech at which time was running short--20 minutes of material left, but only 10 minutes of time. On the drive back home, I replayed the tape and found several segments where I had been going on and on and on. Later that week I gave the same speech, cut the blah blah blah, and had perfect timing. Taping and listening to speeches is now a regular part of my work.

-- Jan Dwyer

  • Sharing to the group that one of the norms is "start and end on time" and say that if no one is there after break, I will talk to the wall (said humorously, but the point is there)!
  • If it's a small audience for a training session assign a TIME KEEPER in the meeting so this person can help you and the group keeps things on track. I've seen Bob Pike put a timer on the overhead that counts off how much time is left before the break is over.

-- Resli Costabell

  • I tend to use notes when I talk. I notice which bits of a presentation I can 'lose' if necessary, and put those into italics, so they're easy to spot. I have extra material at the end of my notes, so that in the rare event that I run short, I can fill the remaining time productively.
  • When I know the end time for a presentation, I work backwards and put the latest possible start time next to each chunk of my notes. That way, I can tell how I'm doing in terms of time.
  • To get them to come back from breaks on time: I give them an 'odd' time to be back, e.g., 3:17 rather than 3:15 or 3:20. Sometimes I start a story or a joke, and tell them that I'll continue exactly at 3:17.
  • Breaks: I give a break mid morning, lunch break, and mid afternoon break. Minimum 10 minutes max 20.

-- Peggy Duncan

  • I use a digital timer. I start it during room setup so I don't have to remember to do it when I start my workshop. I angle it so I can see it at a glance. As long as I have a clear sense of time, I'm OK. If getting off track is due to audience participation, I let them know that I'm available afterwards in person and online.
  • What do you do when you suddenly lose thirty minutes? When it's a PowerPoint presentation, I have a review slide and know which number it is. If I lose time, I type the number of the slide, press Enter.
  • When I'm demonstrating computer tips, I ask the audience to review the handout and pick the tip they want demo of based on their workload.
  • How do you get the group to come back from breaks on time? I have a door prize only available to people who are in their seats.
  • How much time do you devote to preparation prior to your program? I stick to the same subjects and have everything set to go. I spend 2-3 hours researching the client and the audience.
  • How often should you give a break in a half-day or full-day training? Whether half or full day, seating arrangements determine how many breaks. If it's auditorium style, they need a break every hour because it's less comfortable...nothing to rest their arms on, can't spread out. If it's classroom style, it's every 1.5 hours. My workshops are lively and this usually works.

-- Mike Schatzki

  • How often to break: I feel people have trouble sitting for more than 90 minutes so that is my outside limit.
  • Getting people back from breaks: If your session will have only one break, allow five extra minutes. If you want a 15-minute break, announce 10 and then start in 15. If you will have multiple breaks, there are three things to do: start on time, Start on Time and START ON TIME. After the first, break people get the message.
  • Getting people to sit down at the end of a break: Often people will be the room talking and won't sit down right away when you say "Ok, let's get started again." Pick up an empty glass and start striking it with a pen or marker. I don't know why, but it never fails. People stop talking and sit down.

-- Dave Paradi

  • I usually practice what I am going to say and time it out in advance so I can see where I should be at each key point in the workshop. Then I track where I am at each exercise, break, etc. (I write the time down) and check to see how I am going according to the plan. Then I can adjust as needed during the workshop. The next time I deliver the workshop I can then make adjustments based on what actually happened.
  • I always have a small travel clock beside my laptop so I always know what time it is.
  • If something runs longer than I had planned and I am behind in the schedule, there are a number of things I have done. I have dropped an exercise (explaining it is there for them to do at home when they have more time to contemplate what we have talked about), I have combined two exercises into one, I have skipped ahead in the slide show (by knowing the slide numbers and entering the slide number on the keyboard and pressing the Enter key in PowerPoint - this technique makes it look like the next slide is what is supposed to be there) and explained that the pages in the workbook that I skipped are there for reference only and have been added as a bonus for them.
  • I usually work with groups under 40, so at the first break I tell them before I let them go that the break is x minutes long, which means we will restart at X:XX. If they dawdle on breaks, we still need to finish on time, so they will have less time to work on the exercises which are going to help them apply this material on the job, so it is really up to them but I want to work together today. It works quite well because it shows that you respect their need for a break, but also they need to respect the timing you have given them. If the break is in an area where some drinks or food is, I hang out there and at the appointed time I heard them back in.
  • In a full day program I usually have a break in the morning at 10:30 or so, a break for lunch and then one in the afternoon about 2:30. If I am doing computer training, I may make the breaks shorter (10 instead of 15 minutes) and have an extra break each half-day so that the eyestrain is reduced.
  • In preparing for a program, I am assuming you mean preparing for the delivery, not preparing the material (because that varies so much with what you are delivering). If it is a new program, I will run through it once as a rehearsal and time everything. Then I go back and see if that makes sense, revise and if it was way off, rehearse again. If the program is well designed, it should take a few rehearsals and you should be ready to go. Then adjustments happen over time as you get more experience with the reality of the program.

-- Bill Arcement

One way I stay on track is to place the time allotted for each page of my handout. On the upper right corner of each sheet I post the time I should complete that page. If I slow down or speed up, I can adjust on the next page.

-- Ruth Bonetti

Recently I purchased the invaluable "Pacesetter" - Time manager, a small battery-operated unit which can be programmed to beep or vibrate (subtly!) at up to three selected times. Now I can ensure that I run to schedule. For example, within a thirty-minute keynote I can program it to vibrate to notify after three minutes' intro, then after 24 minutes comes my nudge to begin the conclusion, and then the final warning signal when time is up. Of course longer sessions can be adapted as needed.

The small unit is unobtrusive in a suit pocket (or ladies in evening wear can slip it into their bra).

It's available from Interactive Solutions, at 1-(800) 950-1397.

-- Bill Hodges

I put the smokers in charge of calling for breaks at the appointed times, they rarely if ever let me down. Problem is that there are fewer and fewer smokers in my sessions.

As to getting people to come back after break I have learned that if you are giving them worthwhile information they will be back. The key is to start each session on time and not waiting for the late ones. If they know they will miss something of value they will be there.

-- Mike Podolinsky

  • Tell the group up front what you have in the handouts is what YOU wanted to present but far more important is to get ALL their questions answered. Get their agreement. Facilitate a quick "what do you want to learn today" session and put it on pages on the wall. "If we give you one, if not 2, 3, 4 or 5 solutions to each of these problems, will it make the time worthwhile?" They say 'yes' and now, you are off the hook, as long as you can get them all covered. Having done the same program for years, the answers are in the first half of the day anyway and the rest is more practice and detail.
  • As per point #1, use the old newspaper inverted pyramid design. Put the most important stuff at the beginning and if you chop at the end, it doesn't really matter so much.
  • Breaks can get out of hand, so using a noise maker to get attention for a '2-minute warning' really helps. I get stairs from some of the 'proper' English professors at the Singapore Institute of Management where we do a lot of training, but reality, my people take 15 - 16 minutes for a break and they sometimes lose 5 to 15 minutes at each break. In a 2-day workshop, that's 20 minutes to an hour.
  • I pre-assign a break timer to signal us with a 'music maker' every time we are scheduled for a break AND every 30 minutes to take a 30 second stretch break. The stretch breaks 'rob' us of about 6.5 minutes over a 2-day workshop but the results are fantastic with higher energy, greater participation and improved retention. Caution: The stretches must be as a group and should end with a laugh...the REAL stretch.
  • Only put on your PowerPoint or keynote, the key topics. Then, when you are falling short, just mention them briefly. If you have more time, give them the whole story.
  • Set time limits to group exercises and actually less is many times more. Give them 30 minutes to do something and they always need more time as some took toilet breaks, made cell calls, etc. Give them 6 minutes to come up with 8 ideas and they get buzzing and creative. (Parkinson's law)
  • I spend 14 - 15 hours for the first hour on stage in prep and 4 or 5 for each additional hour for customization. If it's a public seminar, once I've made the 'annual changes' to the program file notes and PowerPoint, it's usually just 4 or 5 hours in total. MUCH easier. The annual changes take me maybe 20 hours per 2-day workshop.

-- Kathy Fediw

I allow a 10-15 minute break after every 1 hour 15 minutes plus time out for lunch if it's a full-day seminar. So that equates to one morning break, one afternoon break plus lunch for a full-day seminar. If I see that people are getting restless (especially in the afternoon) we may take a quickie stand up and stretch break or do a physical activity to get the oxygen circulating.

I tell participants that we will take a short 5-minute break and we synchronize our watches. That way I know they'll be back within 15 minutes. If I say we'll take a 15-minute break, I won't see them again for a half hour.

The lunch break time depends on whether they need to leave the building, if lunch is being provided in the same room, etc. I always suggest that lunch be provided so we can take a shorter lunch break (30-45 minutes) and so we don't "lose" people, which almost always happens if they leave the building.

I tell people up front at the beginning of the seminar that we have a lot to cover and may not be able to spend as much time as they'd like on certain topics. I give them an index card at the beginning and tell them that if they'd like more information on any of the issues we cover, they can write it down along with their email address and I'll follow up with them after the seminar. They can also subscribe to my email newsletter on the same card-great for building the database!

I plan ahead what I want to have covered by the time we reach each break. If we are running behind, I may delete or cut short one of the group participation activities I have planned, or delete a story. That way we can keep on track.

Preparation time varies; depending on how often I've done the seminar and what revisions may be in order. I try to limit the topics I present and have them arranged in modules that can be combined for longer programs, or stand alone for shorter programs.

-- Maria Marsala

  • I have a timer like nurse uses and set it for every 45 or 60 minutes.
  • I start on time. Exactly.
  • Right before the break, I mention things on the table I'm selling, and that seems to get them back in the room and looking at those things after a break.
  • They know I'm serious about time and get back. If they don't the first time, they get back to me speaking and the next break they do better.
  • Of course this doesn't work 100% of the time!
  • I look to provide some sort of break every 45-60 minutes.
  • I tell everyone up front, they can leave the room whenever they need.
  • I try to have "things to drink" in the back of the room, so that they can get up, get what they want and not miss anything.

-- Roy Sheppard

I normally tell the audience to be back from coffee at 11:13 am - I always make it an uneven number - gets them chuckling, but it makes the point! And they do it!

-- Brad Warren

  • How I stay on track during a presentation: I use a large digital clock that I can see but the audience doesn't, and I put post-it notes on my presentation notes, telling me where I should be by when.
  • How often to give breaks: "The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure." I give breaks every 1:15-1:30, sometimes every hour, like right after lunch.

-- Bill Stainton

  • This is an idea I got from some of the professional comedians I've worked with. I know EXACTLY how long my close is. I've also practiced jumping to my close from pretty much anywhere in the keynote. And, of course, I always have a small presentation clock nearby where I can see it easily. So here's how it works: Let's say, for example, that my close is 1:30 (one minute thirty seconds), and that I'm on from noon to 1:00. No matter when I actually start, or what happens during the keynote, I know that, when I see the time is 12:58, I have thirty seconds to finish the point I'm on and move to my close.
  • My presentations, like many speakers', are made up of chunks. The audience isn't aware of this (hopefully), but I am, because I planned the structure. I know pretty accurately how long each chunk takes to deliver. And I also know which are the really important ones, and which ones are secondary. So I have kind of a running hierarchy of what is "most droppable," "second most droppable," etc. (Of course, ALL my stuff is solid gold, but some is more solid than other.) So if the CEO babbles on for 12 extra minutes, I look at my more droppable stuff, and subtract in order until I've bought 12 minutes back.
  • This one I got from Tom Antion. For each example story you're planning on using, also find one good, pithy quote that says the same thing. So if all of a sudden you have to drop time, you simply substitute the quote for the story. The audience never knows, and you end up being a hero!

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