Ajarn Mark Caldwell Blog

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Speakers, Please Check Your Time

Woodrow Wilson was once asked how long it would take him to prepare for a 10 minute speech. He replied "Two weeks". He was then asked how long it would take for a 1 hour speech. "One week", he replied. 2 hour speech? "I'm ready right now," he replied.  Whether that is a true story or an urban legend, I don’t really know, but either way, it is a poignant reminder for all speakers, and particularly apropos this week leading up to the PASS Community Summit.

(Cross-posted to the PASS Professional Development Virtual Chapter blog #PASSProfDev.)

What’s the point of that story?  Simply this…if you have plenty of time to do your presentation, you don’t need to prepare much because it is easy to throw in more and more material to stretch out to your allotted time.  But if you are on a tight time constraint, then it will take significant preparation to distill your talk down to only the essential points.

I have attended seven of the last eight North American Summit events, and every one of them has been fantastic.  The speakers are great, the material is timely and relevant, and the networking opportunities are awesome.  And every year, there is one little thing that just bugs me…speakers going over their allotted time.  Why does it bother me so?  Well, if you look at a typical schedule for a Summit, you’ll see that there are six or more sessions going on at the same time, and only 15 minutes to move from one to another.  If you’re trying to maximize your training dollar by attending something during every session time slot, and you don’t want to be the last guy trying to squeeze into the middle of the row, then those 15 minutes can be critical.  All the more so if you need to stop and use the bathroom or if you have to hike to the opposite end of the convention center.  It is really a bad position to find yourself having to choose between learning the last key points of Speaker A who is going over time, and getting over to Speaker B on time so you don’t miss her key opening remarks.

And frankly, I think it is just rude.  Yes, the speakers are the function, after all they are bringing the content that the rest of us are paying to learn.  But it is also an honor to be given the opportunity to speak at a conference like this, and no one speaker is so important that the conference would be a disaster without him.  Speakers know when they submit their abstract, long before the conference, how much time they will have.  It has been the same pattern at the Summit for at least the last eight years.  Program Sessions are 75 minutes long.  Some speakers who have a good track record, and meet other qualifying criteria, are extended an invitation to present a Spotlight Session which is 90 minutes (a 20% increase).  So there really is no excuse.  It’s not like you were promised a 2-hour segment and then discovered when you got here that it was only 75 minutes.  In fact, it’s not like PASS advertised 90-minute sessions for everyone and then a select few were cut back to only 75.  As a speaker, you know well before you get here which type of session you are doing and how long it is, so as a professional, you should plan accordingly.

Now you might think that this only happens to rookies, but I’ll tell you that some of the worst offenders are big-name veterans who draw huge attendance numbers for their sessions.  Some attendees blow this off as, “Hey, it’s so-and-so, and I’d stay here for hours and listen to him/her talk.”  To which I would reply, “Then they should have submitted for a pre- or post-conference day-long seminar instead, but don’t try to squeeze your day-long talk into a 90-minute session.”  Now I don’t really believe that these speakers are being malicious or just selfishly trying to extend their time in the spotlight.  I think that most of them are merely being undisciplined and did not trim their presentation sufficiently, or allowed themselves to get off-track (often in a generous attempt to help someone in the audience with a question or problem that really should have been noted for further discussion after the session).

So here is my recommendation…my plea, even.  TRIM THE FAT!  Now.  Before it’s too late.  Before you even get on the airplane, take a long, hard look at your presentation and eliminate some of the points that you originally thought you had to make, but in reality are not truly crucial to your main topic.  Delete a few slides.  Test your demos and have them already scripted rather than typing them during your talk.  It is better to cut out too much and end up with plenty of time at the end for Questions & Answers.  And you can always keep some notes on the stuff that you cut out so that you could fill it back in at the end as bonus material if you really do end up with a whole bunch of time on your hands.  But I don’t think you will.  And if you do, that will look even better to the audience as it will look like you’re giving them something extra that not every audience gets.  And they will thank you for that.

Legacy Comments

Gordon Hamilton
re: Speakers, Please Check Your Time
Great point Ajarn, and perfect timing as well. I just arrived at a conference on data quality where I will be speaking in 2 days. I will take your advice and "trim the fat" over the next 2 nights and give the gift of time to my audience, should anybody show up.

Interesting story about Woodrow Wilson, it may very well be urban myth as I have read the same story told about Winston Churchill.

re: Speakers, Please Check Your Time
That's funny because when I went looking online for a copy of the story to be sure I was relaying it properly, I first did a search on Winston Churchill quotes, but of course there were a whole lot of those. It seems that when people retell a story or a quote, they tend to credit Winston Churchill and Benjamin Franklin the most. I guess that is just a reflection of the high esteem we have for those men.