I occasionally give talks on programming topics at user groups and conferences. I’m no expert at this, but having sat through hundreds of talks and having delivered a few of them myself, I’ve come to view time management a one of the most important aspects of a presentation. Here are some recommendations that have worked for me.
Set a time limit for the presentation and plan accordingly. If you do this one thing you’ll be head and shoulders above most other speakers. Forty five minutes is the ideal length for speaking in my opinion. I’ve found it’s hard to keep people engaged for longer. This may in part be my own bias because I tend to get, “Information fatigue” in sessions that last longer. Maybe I just have a short attention span. I suspect I’m not alone.
Announce the time limit to your audience and tell them you’re going to make every effort to keep to that schedule. Announcing a time limit gives you permission to shorten discussions if they start to affect the schedule.
Announcing a time limit also tells your audience when the show will be over. Using the TV metaphor, “With only 5 minutes left, you know the hero is going to have to save the day soon and wrap things up.” Be a hero and finish on time.
Inform your audience several times during the talk that you’re still on schedule. Audiences can become anxious or disinterested if they sense you’re off schedule. Reassuring the audience that you’re on schedule encourages them to stay engaged. You’re audience has made an investment of time. Reward them with a good return on their investment.
Consider that it takes energy to listen with intent. Even at the end of a long day of conferencing, I can summon the energy to listen well if I have a clear target as to how long I’ll need to “sprint”.
Knowing when the presentation ends works both ways. It allows me as the presenter to meter my energy so I don’t, “Expire” before the presentation ends. When I present, I try to come into it excited. I move back and forth across the stage. I jump up and down. I try to exude passion about the subject matter. Now that may not be your style but I will say, if you’re not energetic, it’s likely your audience won’t be either. Excitement takes energy. You have limited energy. Plan accordingly.
So now that you have committed to a time limit, how do you stick to it? It’s easier than you might think. Limit the content. You’re not going to be able to present everything and you shouldn’t. Less really is more.
In a 45 minute talk, I aim for 35 minutes of me talking. That gives 10 minutes of slack for questions, detours, equipment malfunctions, nerves, whatever. I’ve never heard anyone complain of a presentation finishing early (well my presentations at least).
Another trick I use is to have a optional portion of the talk that I can discard without ill effect to the content. If I sense I’m not going to make it, I skip that portion. It’s better to communicate a few things well than many things poorly.
To keep track of time while presenting, I use a dedicated timing device. In my case, a wrist watch. Any simple timing device works. The point here is that the timing device be independent of the presenting device (a.k.a. laptop). Timers on laptops have a tendency to get covered up and forgotten.
Start on time. I don’t appreciate a speaker showing up at the start time and then spending 10 minutes getting things hooked up. I’m not there to watch someone fumble around with VGA connectors.
Rehearse your presentation and (of course) time it. Make sure you leave some slack time as mentioned above.
If all this focus on time seems obsessive it’s because of experience. Have you ever been in one of those presentations that runs long past its scheduled time? It just sucks the energy out of the room. I attended a conference a few years ago where the keynote ran a full half-hour over. It upset the schedule for the rest of the day. Worst still, I don’t remember what the keynote was about, only that I suffered through it. Don’t be that guy (or gal). Make the clock your friend. There’s always beer and pizza afterwards where the conversation can continue.