Running over time

Running over time in a presentation is unforgivable. There is no presentation ever that has been made better by going longer. Worse it steals time from the audience and potentially from following speakers as organisers struggle to maintain their schedules. Failing to keep to time is virtually always due to a lack of effective preparation. What should The Good presenter do when the preceding speaker is running over time?

The most important thing is to seek advice from the session chairperson or better, the event organiser if there are multiple streams running. The decision is theirs and there may be many options. Get a fixed answer as this will affect what to do. It is best for a conference overall that it runs to time despite the rudeness and ignorance of a previous speaker. It is often possible to regain lost time by the helpfulness of successive speakers, curtailing breaks and even moving a talk. Find out before you make changes. Make sure the audience know the result of this deliberating.

The Good Presenter should, by preparation, be able to edit on the fly their presentation. Practise, and a sound understanding of the structure and flow of a presentation allows the presenter to trim content without losing meaning and message. This will necessarily be by being more succinct in each section not by dropping sections. (If one can drop a session, it should have already been dropped) The presentation can be delivered in the same package with less exposition on each point. The only unchanging parts will be the opening and closing sections; these contain all that is required for the shortest of presentations. Never, ever rush.

As a presenter, the time immediately before your piece is a period of steadily increasing tension. The point in time for your delivery may have been fixed in your diary potentially months earlier. It is important to marshal a sense of calm as soon as it becomes clear that the previous speaker is running over time. It is essential to remain calm. Try to avoid directing any emotion at the previous speaker and their behaviour, instead maintain focus on your upcoming delivery. Running through your opening lines will return you to your place of practise and this will help. Focus on the chairperson as theirs will be the decision about how to proceed. If necessary, make a point of clarifying their decision on your time keeping before you begin. Offering brevity will always be valued by both chair and audience but do not accept ridiculous suggestions; your message is important. It can be deferred if necessary, never cancelled.

The reasons for running over time are a lack of understanding of the flow of a piece and this is virtually always due to lack of practise. To my eternal shame and frequent reminding by some, I overran a presentation at SMACC Dublin. My mistake was the audience interaction at the beginning that I had not accounted for as well as a lack of attention to the countdown clock. When it read 5 minutes I was clear regarding my run into the close. Re-checking a minute later I found I was then at 6 minutes. The chairman was most gracious as we cut into the coffee break. Running over time is just rude.

If the previous speaker is running over time, compose yourself. Be prepared to give a stripped down version of your talk, sticking to the same structure but spending less time on each step. Check with the chairperson their decision regarding time. Compose yourself and deliver a great presentation. And don’t run over time.


1 Comment

  1. Jeff Riddell

    thank you Ross!


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