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Presentations 201: Stay Within Your Time Limit

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There are many presentation worst practices well-documented on the Internet, especially concerning the use of PowerPoint slides. However, a top five worst practice employed by some marketing professionals is the overtime presentation, or more succinctly, the presentation that never ends. If given a 30-minute time slot for a presentation, why is it so important to “stay in time”?

Perhaps it’s a  stereotype, but most marketing professionals tend to be gregarious folk that enjoy communication and conversation. It’s no surprise that a fair portion of marketing presentations to sales teams, customers, and conference audiences tend to run over the intended time slot. Thirty-minute presentations sometimes morph into forty- and sixty-minute presentations cheat over into breaks and lunch.

At this point, perhaps you are thinking, “Who cares if a presentation runs five to 10 minutes over the time limit?” Here's why the never-ending (overtime) presentation is a worst practice for speakers:

Going over time limits is disrespectful to your audience. Your audience most likely has a printed agenda and they expect you to stick to it. Moreover, audience members may have other presentations they want to attend after your talk, a pending conference call or scheduled break. Be on time! An exception is: If you ask permission from your audience to go over time (and your audience and conference organizer agree), then spend a few more minutes to summarize and close.

Going over time limits is disrespectful to other presenters. When the first and second speaker go over time, then usually conference organizers have to “make up time” by cutting into breaks or other presenter sessions. Be cognizant of the other speakers on the agenda and use your own time effectively.

Going over time limits is disrespectful to conference organizers. Most conferences have a room monitor to introduce speakers and monitor time constraints. If you choose to ignore the room monitor when time cards are flashed, then it’s pretty likely you won’t be invited back as a speaker.

Assuming the conference is running long and your speaking session is closer to the end of the day, prepare accordingly.

First, locate your conference organizer and ask him or her if your presentation will need to be shorter or if they plan on making up time elsewhere. Your conference organizer probably already has a plan in mind.

Second, adjust your presentation to the time limit. If you have 60 minutes of content and now just 40 minutes to present, start trimming slides if possible. Sometimes conference organizers make slides available prior to the conference, so this strategy may not work. If trimming slides isn’t an option, explore where you might spend one minute per slide instead of the usual two.

Third, monitor time during your presentation. It’s a difficult challenge to present 60 minutes of content in 30 minutes, especially if you cannot remove slides. If the conference organizer has not offered a room monitor to help you stay on time, you may wish to employ a presenter remote with built in vibration to alert you at the five minutes remaining mark.

Finally, if constrained for time, the master presenter remembers the adage of “never let them see you sweat.” Don’t apologize to your audience about your limited time together and most certainly don’t make remarks about previous speakers and/or your conference organizer. It’s much better to leave your audience with the impression that everything went as planned.


What other strategies might you suggest for speakers when a conference is not running on schedule?

When giving a speech, what tips can you share on how you “stay in time”?

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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.

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  • by Ted Mininni Mon Jun 21, 2010 via blog

    Good post, Paul. As a design consultancy principal, I'm always on the road meeting with current and prospective clients. That necessitates preparing and delivering quite a few presentations. We've refined our process and honed in on what we know to be most important to our clients, using our pre-talk conversations to get these insights. We find it important to leave adequate time for questions and conversation about specific needs the clients have, as well as specific portions of our presentations. This overall approach to is most effective for us and for our clients.

  • by Michael E. Rubin Mon Jun 21, 2010 via blog


    As a part-time conference organizer, I cannot tell you enough how much I appreciate this post. I've been both a moderator and the one with the time cards in the back and I can't tell you how many times a flustered speaker would say, "Just one minute!" and then blow through it without a second's hesitation.

    In the end, the other speakers got short-changed, the audience was left wanting more from the others, and the offender came off looking like a self-glorifying asshat. And yes, they didn't get invited back. And yes, conference organizers talk with one another about poor speakers (they're in the word of mouth business, after all).


  • by Paul Barsch Mon Jun 21, 2010 via blog

    Michael, I appreciate that you've shared your sentiments as a former conference organizer. "And the offender came off looking like a self-glorifying asshat." Whew, much more substance than I could have offered Michael!

    Much like you, I've attended countless presentations and seen more than my fair share go grossly over time limits. That's just poor time management, and a softer skill set that's often lacking in presenters.

  • by Paul Barsch Mon Jun 21, 2010 via blog

    Ted, good point about allotting enough time for Q&A and something I failed to mention in this column.

    The best presentations I've seen offer compelling content, but also offer opportunities for feedback and questions - not just at the end, but throughout. I find these types of presentations to be much more engaging than, "I'll push content to you for 55 minutes and then I'll graciously give you just five minutes at the end" for questions.

    Thanks for commenting Ted!

  • by Claire Ratushny Mon Jun 21, 2010 via blog

    Hi Paul,

    I've not spoken at conferences, but I have attended many. In my marketing work over the years, I've done numerous presentations. It didn't take me long to figure a couple of things out: first, that many presenters before me routinely went over their time allotments. Second, in observing the audience, it was obvious that long, rambling let-me-show-you-the-depth-of-my-knowledge presentations were tuned out after the first five minutes. The cure was simple: I learned to plan a full presentation for less than the time allotted by a good five minutes and then solicited feedback if there was time left over. Simultaneously, I planned a presentation with only the most central, core material that was 15 minutes shorter than the time allotted to accommodate the time overruns by others. I usually ended up delivering the shorter of the two. Both hosts of events as well as audience members appreciate less long-winded presentations that offer more substance. And they tend to remember it.

  • by Elaine Fogel Mon Jun 21, 2010 via blog

    Hi, Paul. I believe that there's a difference between those who make presentations as part of their business' lead generation and business development strategies, and those who use PowerPoint as a tool in their professional speaking business.

    For example, you mention that the norm for talking per slide is two minutes, yet many pro speakers will use the slide illustration as a visual cue of interest while they tell a story that illustrates a specific point, or for interaction with the audience. Slides will not always have bullet points on them, allowing the speaker to "talk" the points instead.

    Another difference is that professional speakers practice and practice to ensure that their allocated time is respected. I admit, that's a difficult thing to do especially when presenting a new topic for the first time. There are excellent resources available from the National Speakers Association of which I am a member.

    Cliff Atkinson, who authored Beyond Bullet Points and the new one, The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever has great resources on his blog: If I'm not mistaken, he used to write for MarketingProfs.

  • by Paul Barsch Mon Jun 21, 2010 via blog

    Claire, I appreciate your insights and best practices!

    I love your scenario planning-- where a full and much shorter presentation is ready to go depending on time constraints. My personal preference for presentations is more conversation and less content, but I realize that each presenter has their own style and method of conveying information.

  • by Paul Barsch Mon Jun 21, 2010 via blog

    Elaine, thank you for commenting! As a business owner, you certainly understand the differences in presenting for business development reasons and also presenting at conferences.

    I will say that the use of bullets vs. predominately visuals is a matter of preference for speakers--I tend to incorporate both. An important criterion to determine which works best is whether your content will be made available for download after the presentation. I have attended many conferences with competing tracks where I wanted to attend two really good presentations. Later I would download the presentation materials for the session I missed. If the slides did not have bullets or lacked speaker notes, it was often hard to assimilate the content. Some - but certainly not all conferences make an audio replay of a session available.

    I really appreciated your point about "practice". This is an under utilized best-in-class technique for “staying in time” that many presenters overlook. However, I've also seen speakers that know their content so well they don't need to practice.

    Readers, your take?

  • by Zack Pike Mon Jun 21, 2010 via blog

    Paul - Thanks for writing this article... Very relevant to what I deal with on a daily basis. I work in a corporate environment where everyone loves meetings (ugh...) and if a meeting is scheduled for an hour then the presenter is going to take 100% of that hour, if not more.

    I give a lot of presentations myself and I thought I'd add a couple of tips I've learned along the way that really help enhance my presentations and keep me on-time.

    1) Define the single purpose of your presentation and take the time you need to achieve that purpose. Don't include information that doesn't directly help you meet the goal for the presentation, and don't include information presented previously (for some reason this is a common occurrence at many corporate presentations). If you don't have enough time to meet the goal of the presentation then ask for more time, or restructure the goal.

    2) Practice, practice, practice. This took me a while to do on a regular basis, but when I started practicing my presentations twice (or more), it greatly improved my timing but also the presentation itself. Some of the best keynotes where practiced for weeks prior to the event. When you know your material inside and out it makes it a lot easier to reduce the time of the presentation on fly if needed.

  • by Paul Barsch Tue Jun 22, 2010 via blog

    Zack, thank you for the solid advice! As to the need for practice, there are some individuals that know their material so well that they don't need to rehearse, but they are exceptions to the rule. The rest of us mortals can benefit from your advice on defining the purpose of the presentation and rehearsing material, transitions, and timing. Appreciate your comments!

  • by Elaine Fogel Tue Jun 22, 2010 via blog

    Paul, because my content and layout are proprietary, I have created simple Word documents that I convert to PDF with notes from my presentations. They are easier to understand, especially if you haven't attended the session. That way, I can also include links to relevant resources.

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