You’re in the middle of presenting to an audience, you just glanced at your watch, and you realize your presentation is running way behind.
Never, ever say “I’m running low on time.” The instant the audience hears this, they’re going to assume that you’re taking shortcuts and giving them a bad product. Yes, you have a problem, but with a few simple actions, you’ll be fine.
Take a breather and reset your pulse. The instant you have a slide with multiple bullet points, say to the audience, “Now think about this for a second.” Let the audience read the slides while you take a deep breath and a drink of water. Count to ten. Seriously, it’s not as long as you think.
This trick doesn’t work early in the session when the audience is just getting into your topic, but by the time you realize that you’re behind – which is typically halfway into your allotted time – they’re already thinking in pace with you. They can probably read the slide and generate their own internal discussion. Plus, the sudden silence from the podium is a refreshing change of pace from your urgent fast-talking that you’ve been doing in an attempt to catch up. Believe it or not, audiences love it – it suddenly demands a different kind of thinking on their part, and they show a renewed sense of focus and respect.
Then, summarize the slide in a sentence and move on. Assume that the audience is pretty smart. They are.
If you haven’t published the deck, skip a whole section. In PowerPoint presenter mode, simply pull your mouse to the bottom of the screen, and you’ll see your list of slides. Skip an entire section and only show the takeaway slide for that part of the presentation. If you don’t have one, only show the title page for that section, and spend 30 seconds max talking through the most important parts of that section. It’s better to do a crappy job on a single section, and do justice to the rest, as opposed to doing a crappy rushed job of the entire rest of your presentation.
If you HAVE published the deck, skip a section by saying, “I’ve included this section of slides for you to read later as a reference.” For example, in one of my locking & blocking sessions, I have about 30 slides with screenshots about interpreting deadlock graphs. If I’m behind at that point, I say, “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to interpret a deadlock graph. I could spend an entire session on that, so what I’ve done is I’ve included about 30 slides in here to help you do that. I’m not going to cover it here in the class, but as you go through the resources later, you’ll be able to dig into these.” This tactic is especially useful in day-long classes where I can read through the next deck during a break, and figure out which section I want to skip.
Hold questions without holding questions. Normally, when you take a breath or pause between slides, you give off subtle indications that it’s time for the audience to ask questions. Instead of pausing, keep right on talking as you change between slides. Use transitional lines like, “And what I just said is important because…” and keep right on trucking into the next slide’s bullet points. If someone raises their hand, take the question – but regardless of the question’s contents, say, “That’s a great question! I’m going to address part of it in a few slides.”
Yes, you may be lying – but I’d rather have you give a small lie than give the entire audience notice that you screwed up the timing. You can address the lie at the end.
If someone insists on a question, get excited. Say, “That is SUCH a good question, and I wanna talk to you afterwards. Let’s get together and talk in more detail.” Don’t apologize about the time – embrace the question, because you want to have a longer discussion with them when the pressure is off.
If you have wall-of-text slides, pick just one bullet point. Talk through the one that matters the most to you. I’m not saying to rush it – do the full justice to that bullet point – but simply ignore the rest. The audience is fully capable of reading while you’re talking.
In a perfect world, don’t include slides that say “Demo.” When you’re running behind and you hit a “Demo” slide, you’re going to be tempted to say, “I’m going to skip this demo,” and you’re making the attendees aware that you’re behind. Just don’t have “Demo” section slides. You can break for a demo whenever you want – no need to put this contract in writing. This way, with no “Demo” section slides, the attendees have no idea you skipped something.
When your slides finish, give an anti-question closing. Finish by saying, “Thanks so much for hanging out with me today, and I hope you enjoy the rest of today’s sessions!” That gives the audience the clue to clap and leave. Bow for a few seconds while they clap, and immediately pull the video cable out of your laptop. You want to give a clear clue that you’re done. Some people will still want to ask questions, and that’s awesome, but you have another mission you need to achieve very quickly before those people get to the podium, which is…
Pack your bag fast. If you’re running late, the next presenter is worried that she’ll have to pay the price. Ignore the audience and focus on closing your laptop, throwing it in your bag, and grabbing your clicker, power cord, and gadgets. You have a single mission – you need to get off the podium as fast as possible so the next presenter can set up. Don’t gracefully shut down your apps – CLOSE YOUR LAPTOP. You can recover later.
Even if attendees show up, keep packing up. Let them ask questions, but do not let that stop you from your mission of vacating the podium. Answer while you’re packing up your gear. If it’s an answer you can’t give quickly, say, “Hold that thought for a second – I need to pack my bag to respect the next presenter, just give me a second.”
Like the Pied Piper, take your questioners out of the room. As soon as you’ve got your bags packed, start walking, and beckon the questioning attendees with you. Get away from the podium, and keep right on walking out into the hallway. Encourage them to ask questions – you want the discussion – but it needs to happen away from the next presenter.
If you liked this, check out my other posts on the logistics of presenting.
Great advice. At a recent SQL Saturday, I watched three separate speakers all give some variation of “Well, this is a 75 minute presentation, but I’ll try to cram it into 60”. It happened so often that I started to wonder if the event organizers gave the speakers the wrong session length. That one little line did so much harm to the my attitude towards the presentation and the speaker. I was writing a negative review in my head before they even started the material.
Joe – thanks! Yeah, that’s a common refrain I hear from presenters, apologizing for the length before they even start. That’s a bummer.
They are just trying to let you know you are getting 25% more for free!
But seriously, I like these tips. Even though the fly in the face of a book on presenting that I have that tells you the magic is gone once people realize you are a regular person and have a bag to pack up. You are supposed to just walk off the stage and let your roadies take care of the equipment.
AHHH, that explains why I keep having to buy new laptops after every presentation. I forgot the roadies part. I just walk off the stage.
These are great suggestions. Along the lines of the comment above, I think many presenters simply try to pack 2 hours of material into a single 60 minutes session. (And some of those try to pack it all into 3 slides…)
Do you have any tips for how to “budget” for your allotted presentation time? For example, I know I spend up to 5 minutes just ramping up. That includes the time I spend waiting for the previous presenter to finish closing his apps and disconnecting his laptop… Then I know that my demo will take xx minutes, etc.
Thanks! This sounds goofy, but over time, with my own delivery style, I know that I pretty consistently do one slide per minute.
When I do demos, I try to rehearse them ahead of time, and take one screenshot for each thing I need to show. I put each of those screenshots as a separate slide in the deck, and I mark them as hidden slides. This accomplishes 3 things:
That one slide per minute rule isn’t for everybody – for example, Paul Randal tends to go with much more dense slides (more text, lots of bullet points) so he spends longer per slide. You end up learning your own style over time.
Thanks for sharing the PowerPoint tip. That’s gold. I had no idea that existed, and when I need to skip slides I always flip through ’em — which is especially awkward because I use half second fade transitions on my decks.
You bet! That’s one of my favorite tips.
Great advice. It is highly irksome when presenters are unable effectively to marshall questioners. In my experience there are certain types of questioner who really aren’t interested in answers, more interested in a platform [with an audience] from which they can opine or (attempt to) display their expertise by talking in an inappropriate amount of detail about problems they work on. This lack of effectiveness on the presenter’s part only exacerbates the over-running issue.
Brent, very good advice. What would you do if you were near the end of your presentation, you had exactly the right amount of time to finish and the ORGANISER said “Sorry, to interrupt but you are nearly out of time, let’s wrap this up.” Asking for a friend.
I’ve actually had that happen! I’ve had a room chaperone say that I was low on time when actually I was right on schedule. I said, “I apologize – I thought this session ran until 11:15. It’s 10:55 now, and I have 20 minutes left. Is that right?”
Then the folks in the room can double check us.