Having a good sense of time management is more than just being under the allotted time and allowing the audience to ask questions. It is about making sure the flow and meter of what you present connects with the audience. It is also about planning beforehand and making sure that you are covering your topic in an efficient manner. Being good at time management is more than just numbers, it is a formula that will make your presentation successful. In this post we explore some things you can do to improve your use of time while communicating.
The planning phase
In order for your presentation to flow well and make sense to the audience, you need to plan out the important parts ahead of time. Start by considering how much time you want to spend on each part of your presentation. Do this by making a list of all the topics you want to cover in the talk. Chances are there is not enough time to cover all of the things you want to and still be on time during the presentation. The reality is, that you are going to have to cut some of the things on your list and it could be as much as half of the things you wrote down. Consider how long (in minutes) it would take to explain each part and write down those times next to each topic on your list. If you are not sure how long it would take for a topic, get a stopwatch app on your phone and time yourself. Expect that you might speak a little faster on stage (about 10% or so) and add all the times together. This will give you a rough idea of what you are looking at for overall time. Even if you are able to cover everything in time, in context it still may be too much information for the audience. For a 15 minute presentation you should have one central idea with the rest of the material supporting the central idea. Longer presentations can have one maybe two central ideas, but if you are trying fit more than that it is probably too much info.
Next, it is time to consider what are the essential parts of the story that cannot be cut. You may feel that an in depth explanation of your PCR analysis of DNA is something you cannot cut out, however you need to think about the context of your talk. For example, you may not need to bring up the complexities of your methods when speaking to a audience composed of the general public. On the other hand you may want to go through the extensive detail of your methods when you are talking about something new that revolutionizes your field. The key is to be as concise as possible, while still creating an effective story line. Consider how most powerful stories follow and details or information that do not support the arc are not necessary.
Organizing your talk may seem like something that is already easy and doesn’t need to be examined in detail. However, sometimes the plan we have in our head doesn’t go as we expected when we are on stage. During the organizing step, it is time to take all the priority topics that you have written down and think about what order they should be presented in. Consider how these topics are going to flow from one to another. You don’t want to give the audience any jarring transitions that will cause difficulty to follow along. The trick is that you want you audience to be expectant of the logical progression in your story. For example, if your first attempt at an experiment failed then you want the audience to be thinking “well did you try method X?” right as you talk about the next experiment using method X. Anything that doesn’t fit well in the progression of the story, or add to the arc of your presentation should probably be cut. Only you can make the final decision on what and how you present, but don’t be afraid to rearrange and start over if things are not flowing from one succinct idea to the next.
Now is the time to take this presentation for a test ride and see how things go. Practice in front of friends, practice in front of strangers, practice in front of older people and practice in front younger people. Practice, practice, practice. You need data on how your presentation is received. It is time to see who “gets it” without you needing to repeat yourself and what common questions come up during your Q and A. You can imagine that you will probably use different language when you present to different groups, but now is also the time to find out what works and what doesn’t. Take notes or use a short survey to see where things could be clearer and more efficient. Be aware that most people will say nice things when asked directly like “you did great!” so an anonymous questionnaire can be helpful here. Try to figure out how to address the most common confusion and add it to your presentation. Rework the presentation until it is smooth, well rehearsed, and doesn’t get bogged down by any complex details. Make sure people are getting the “take home message”, and prepare your responses to any difficult questions you can think of.
It’s game day and there is no turning back now. Wake up early well before you go on stage and rehearse what you want to say. Ideally this is done at least a few hours before you speak. You want to prime your brain so that you don’t need to try to remember on stage what you are going to say. You presentation should feel like second nature by this point. Rehearse one more time with an hour to go and then do something to relax so that you are not stressed out just before it is your turn to speak. Once you are on stage try not to think too much about the exact details of what you are presenting but rather make sure you are getting the main points across. If you have prepared well up to this point then you should be on time with no problem. If you get tripped up don’t worry, just try to pickup where you made a mistake and move on, there is no sense in dwelling on something if it didn’t come out right. Stick to your plan and be prepared to answer questions you might not expect. You can use some stalling tactics if you get a question you were not quite ready for, by saying something like “thank you for an excellent question [long pause], I think that….”. Remember to do you best and let the story carry the presentation.
You did it, finally your presentation is over and now you can relax and enjoy the rest of the national meeting, right? Well there is still one more thing that needs to be done in order for you to keep improving at managing you time on stage. Once the presentation is done as soon as you can get to a quiet space, write out your thoughts on how everything went and where you think you could improve. Keep these notes for a few days but don’t look at them immediately. Check back once you have had some time to clear your head from the stress and pressure of needing to be on stage. You will be able to see more clearly then, and come up with ideas of how you can improve or fix problems. Remember, however, you never want to rehash old material for future presentations. Rather use your notes to try to improve the overall story and identify what does not work from this experience. Stay focused when you sit down to do this because it is easy to think “well this presentation is over I don’t need to worry about it anymore”. Keep in mind, that some of the best speakers spend literally hundreds of hours reviewing and refining their material, working out the best way to present. This type of constant refinement makes the presentation more efficient and easy to follow. Good luck! and remember being good at managing your time is a lot more about creating a coherent succinct story than it is about counting the minutes on stage.