Have you ever attended an event where you thought the speaker would never stop talking? Not long ago, my father attended a funeral. His comment on the afternoon? “Two of the three speakers spoke well and for an appropriate length of time, but one man went on and on and on!” Now, Dad is 92 and has a bad back. You can bet he was pretty uncomfortable sitting in a church pew for what turned out to be an hour and a half! Since memory is closely associated with emotion, Dad’s strongest memory of that speaker was not the gentleman’s fluency or his humour, but how uncomfortable Dad felt because he went on for so long. That’s hardly the impression we want to leave with our audience!
Rather than jump to the conclusion that the speaker simply loved to hear himself talk, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he had a great deal of respect for the deceased and wanted to give a really good send-off. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that he forgot the foundation premise of presenting. A speaking event is about the audience, not the speaker. “Oh, I have to say this, and I simply must tell them that” is more about what the speaker wants to say than about what the audience needs to hear.
Speaking longer than your time is counter-productive on two fronts. First, the audience is expecting you to speak for a given length of time (and even at a funeral, there is an unspoken plus-or-minus expectation.) If you exceed that time, you overstep your boundaries and violate what I think of as a tacit speaker/audience agreement. At an unconscious level, it’s a kind of breach of the audience’s trust. They begin to feel restless and uncomfortable with you. You’d have to be pretty fascinating to keep their attention after that!
Second, the audience will only be able to remember a portion of your speech, anyway. Indeed, the more you say, the less they will recall. You’d be better off to make the three most important points, illustrate them with stories and quit while you’re ahead!
It’s especially important to stick to your time limit when there are other speakers following you. At a conference last year, my workshop was scheduled for the last slot of the morning. The keynote speaker, who was a “big name” but not an experienced speaker, went nearly 40 minutes over his time, throwing the schedule badly out of whack right from the start. Later, the woman presenting before me in the room I was to use – again, an expert in her field but not in speaking at conferences – went 15 minutes beyond her time. I ended up with barely 20 minutes for what should have been a 50-minute session, thereby depriving the participants of the material they had signed up for.
These two speakers did not realize that exceeding their time limit would adversely affect others. Event organizers can reduce scheduling upsets by clearly informing their presenters, before the event, of the length of their time slot and the requirement to stay within it. Silent signals help to remind the speaker. For example, someone stands up at the back of the room as a three-minute warning, then walks to the front for a non-negotiable cut-off.
Make sure your presentation fits into the time you have been given. Practice it at home and leave something out if you have to. No audience minds if you finish a few minutes early, but they sure won’t like it if you go too long. It’s better to leave them wanting more than wishing you had stopped sooner!