July 29

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Rule #3: Respect Your Time Limit

By jaime

July 29, 2020


Everyone knows that one person with whom you cannot have a short conversation. This is the person whom no one wants to talk to for fear of getting drawn into a lengthy conversation. You wind up standing there just nodding and hoping that someone you know will walk by so you can pretend you need to discuss something urgent with them and then run away. This is the person that, when you ask them the time of day, will proceed to explain to you how a clock works. Don’t be that guy.

Be Like TED

Have you ever wondered why TED talks are only 18 minutes long? According to this article by Carmine Gallo, scientists figured out that most people have an attention span from 10 to 18 minutes. So the TED organizers decided that all talks would be 18 minutes long and they made it a hard rule.

By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say.

Remember that some of the most watched speeches in the world are TED talks so you can definitely fit your message into that time slot. Speaking of TED, here is an excellent talk by Melissa Marshall on why it’s important that engineers learn how to speak in language that most people can understand.  And she does it in less than five minutes.

The Cure For A Long Speech Is Practice, Practice, Practice

When you are asked to give a presentation or speech you are usually given some parameters, one of which is your time limit. Now all you have to do is craft your presentation around that time. Prepare your material then practice it out loud. You can do this in front of a mirror. You can do it in front of a spouse. If you’re not married you can use your smartphone to record yourself. In any case, you will have a way to gauge just how well you are adhering to your allotted time. Don’t underestimate the power of practice.

Just In Case, Use A Timer

If you watch some TED talks you’ll sometimes see a large timer at the front of the stage. There’s a good reason for that. Even though we practice our speeches, we can get carried away. When you’re talking about a subject that fires you up it’s easy to lose track of time. So, to ensure speakers adhere to the 18 minute time limit, TED organizers put a huge time on stage in front of the speaker to help them stay on track. 

You can do the same when you practice. If you are practicing with someone else then just have them raise their hand when you are five minutes from your time limit. If you are practicing on your own then just use the timer on your smartphone. Use a kitchen timer if you have to. There are plenty of ways to ensure that you are meeting all your important points without going over time.

Be Respectful of Other People’s Time

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older but I’ve started to pay more attention to how I use my time. That also means that I’m more conscious of how other people use my time. If I have to sit and listen to someone who goes on and on about a topic when they could have made their point in 10 minutes, it makes me angry. Remember that your audience has other things they need to attend to. For you to just keep talking to them without checking your time is disrespectful. You are basically holding them hostage with your speech.

Now More Than Ever, Time Is Important

The pandemic we are experiencing has changed the world drastically. Where before you could deliver a presentation at a conference, social distancing demands that all conferences be held virtually. Understand that your audience now is sitting at home where they probably have the television turned on in the background. Or they have their kids and husband walking around them making all the normal noises they would if they were alone. Even if you are not giving a TED talk, you still probably only have the audience’s attention for 18 minutes. Try to think in those terms. Put yourself in their shoes. If you were at home and you had a thousand other things you could be doing, would you want to take time from your day to listen to your own speech?

Don’t Be Discouraged, Just Be Mindful

Please don’t use a time limit as an excuse to not even try public speaking. On the contrary, understand that judicial use of time is the best way to endear yourself to your audience. If you can learn to get your point across in a short period of time, you will be able to stand out from most other speakers. Your audience will react favorably to that and they will be more likely to listen to you again in the future.

Keep talking, the world wants to hear you!

About the author

I'm an engineer and, sometime, public speaker.  I believe technical presentations don't have to be boring.  I believe the world will benefit when engineers become better communicators.

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