March 7, 2011

Your time's been cut -- what do you do?

Here's an example of a typical speaking situation:

You prepare an hour-long presentation. You arrive at your venue, get set up, and are ready to go on time, but the meeting starts ten minutes late. Then there is business up front, and the discussion goes on longer than planned. Now your talk, which you had planned for an hour, is going to be cut down to 35 minutes.

What do you do?

Do you panic? Frantically try to get through everything you've planned, but step on the gas and gun it? Go long anyway? End your presentation 3/4 of the way through, and never actually reach the end?

Here's where two very important aspects of presenting come into play. One you can do right now. The other can only be accomplished with time.

1. Practice
2. Experience

First, let's talk about practice. The most common complaint I hear from speakers is not, "I'm nervous," but "I don't have time to practice." And time and time again I will say that, if you don't practice, you have only yourself to blame for the consequences.

In the scenario above, of which variations are extremely common (and just happened to me last week), the only thing that will carry you through is to absolutely know your content inside and out, to have a clear understanding of how much time each section of your presentation takes, and to be able to make changes on the fly.

Because my presentations tend to be interactive, I find it much easier to trim on the fly. After all, it's easier to skip an activity than it is to skip content.

If I have a question I want the audience to discuss, and I'm planning to write answers on the flip chart, I skip the flip chart and just have a general discussion. There, just saved a minute or two. If there's a handout I want to discuss, instead I give the handout and instructions to use it later. Some discussion I might have to skip altogether, but I'm still able to make my point while only removing a bit of interaction.

I've also quickly scanned my slide titles (which I use as printed notes), and jumped right to a slide 10 slides ahead (using the keyboard and typing in the number of the slide I want to skip to) without losing any momentum, and without the audience realizing I was skipping material.

How am I able to do this? I practice my presentation. I know what comes next. I know how much time things take. I build in a time cushion when practicing, so that an hour-long presentation never really goes an hour unless I want it to. There's room for questions, for interruptions, for unanticipated circumstances. And I don't panic or get flustered when running out of time. Instead, while the meeting is going on, or the speaker ahead of me is running over, I'm running through my presentation in my mind, thinking about what I might cut.

Now, let's talk about experience. This sense of calmness in a storm and the ability to be thinking ahead five minutes down the line does come with experience, no question. The more you put yourself in these kinds of situations where you're forced to roll with the unexpected, the better you'll do and the more confident you'll be. But you can't get experience if you don't speak.

You can read all the public speaking books and blogs out there. You can get coaching and training and go to Toastmasters. But if you don't make opportunities for yourself in the real world, (which is where these kinds of things are inevitably going to happen), you will not gain experience, and every time you speak it will feel like the first time.

You may avoid speaking exactly because you fear scenarios like this happening. But it's likely that you won't be able to avoid speaking forever. And it's likely that something like this will happen. So start getting practice and experience now so you can deal with it like a pro when it happens.

Practice: Don't make excuses, make time. If it's important to you to do this right, especially in times of chaos, you'll find ways to fit practice into your busy schedule (just like you find time for a manicure, a baseball game or a movie).

Experience: Make speaking opportunities happen. Here are some blog posts about that (and one about making excuses).

7 ways to practice public speaking at work

Public speaking practice for the self-employed

Every presentation is an opportunity to improve

What's your excuse?

Have you had an experience like this at a speaking engagement? How did you handle it?

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