How I make sure I keep time in presentations

I learned to present at the school of management consulting. My first experiences were in minor supporting roles at client presentations. Pitching a proposal, or walking through a prototype.

My brief would be something like this: “You have five minutes. You need to explain the technical architecture that we’re proposing. One or two slides should be enough. Don’t run over.”

We didn’t just get briefed. We got rehearsal and feedback. Over and over, until we could deliver the necessary points in the available time. The whole team only had a certain amount of time to present. If I ran over, it spoiled everyone's chances.

Like you, I’ve sat through my fair share of over-running presentations. But I still thought that most people in business understood this timing thing. I assumed it was just something you picked up, like how to manage your diary or write a to-do list.

Then I took a course at General Assembly in London. Every Friday we had to present our work to the tutors, within a time slot. And every week, most people failed to finish by the bell.

Why overrunning your slot is a habit worth breaking

Running to time is good manners. Taking more than your fair share is greedy. If you take more, other presenters will get less.

Good time-keeping shows your professionalism.If you’re asked to share your ideas at a conference, the organiser will expect you to stick to your spot. Failing to do this makes you look like an amateur. You may not get asked back.

Poor time-keeping in a presentation may signal poor time-keeping elsewhere. If you’re pitching to win some work, it’s especially important to get the timing right.

Is this the super power I didn’t know I had?

The students at General Assembly improved a lot over the 10 weeks, of course. Practice helps. But why was I one of the few students that could nail my timing from week one?

Have I got some magical super powers? I don’t think so.

I suspect it’s all down to my old-fashioned upbringing in a big consulting firm. In this article I’m sharing the lessons I learned, so you too can keep to time in your presentations.

Find out how long you’ve got

Conference or event organisers will usually tell you what your time slot is. I like to check if there will be questions from the audience, and how long to allow for that.

For less formal events, people might not mention a time. So ask. If they really have no idea how long you should get for your quarterly sales forecast, suggest a time yourself. And stick to it.

Plan time for non-slides

Now you know your time slot is, you can start filling it. I like to put the inflexible things in first.

If you’ve been told you need to allow time for questions, block that off. If you’re presenting something for review or approval, allow time for instant feedback. If you’re planning to show a video, check the length and block that time off too.

You may be planning a demo of some kind - maybe a click-through of your design as wireframes. Estimate the time for this, and block it off in your presentation.

I do this by writing a detailed script for the demo. I note what I’m going to say and what I will click. Then I time the performance.

If it’s taking way too long, you need to cut parts of the flow. Screens load as they load; you won’t be able to click faster. But demos are usually the highlight of a presentation, so I prefer to give them as much time as they need.

List out the points you need to cover in the remaining time

I start with a simple list, and note down the sections I want to include. As an example, let’s imagine I’m planning to present an initial design for a website. My outline might look something like this:

  • Intro - Who am I/what am I doing here?
  • Recap the brief/problem statement
  • Investigation - survey findings, user interviews, market research
  • Restate the problem (based on research findings)/lead into solution
  • Design highlights/key features
  • DEMO - 3 mins
  • Recap - problems & how I’ve solved them
  • FEEDBACK - 5 mins

If I have 20 minutes total, and I use 3 minutes for the demo and 5 minutes for feedback, I have 12 minutes to spend on everything else.

Storyboard the slides you need to make those points

I do this on paper or in an outliner like Workflowy.

I list out each slide, with a title, and what’s going to be on the slide - a diagram, a table, some bullets.

Then I note what I’m going to say about the slide as bullets nested underneath. I don't write a word-for-word script but I do note every point I want to make about each slide.

Estimate the time for each slide.

My estimate is based on the amount of stuff I’ve listed underneath each slide in my outline. 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.

Be realistic. If you’re skipping through a heap of statistics with limited comment, you might do a slide every 10 seconds. If you’ve got a whole page of notes about one diagram, you’re going to need a lot longer.

Do the maths

Add up your times for each slide. Add on the time you allocated for non-slide items. That’s your estimated running time.

If it’s over your time limit, cut something.

Don’t indulge in magical thinking. You can’t just talk faster or hope it will somehow work out fine on the day. It won’t.

Cutting slides is safer than cutting points from slides

Dropping a whole slide is quick and easy. You know exactly how much time you save on each cut.

It’s also painful, seeing your lovely ideas disappearing into the trash.

So it’s tempting to cut some of the points from some of the slides instead. This is risky. I catch myself adding those points back in when I actually deliver the presentation. So I prefer to cut whole slides.

Prioritise, and put your audience first

There’s usually parts of my presentation that I've put in because I think the audience will want them to be there. Or because the point on that slide is particularly important for the client.

And there are other bits that I’ve put in because I think they’re interesting. Or because the point is something I care about. These are the parts you cut. Drop the bits that matter more to you than to the audience.

For instance, in my outline above I have a placeholder for key features of the solution.

I might start with a list of five things to show, but only have time for three. I need to choose the ones that are most important for the client. Not the features I think are the cleverest bit of design. (I can save those for a design meetup.)

You see, there’s always more you could say. But you don’t have to say it all right now. Finishing on time means you’re more likely to get asked back another day to say it.

Use a timer for rehearsals and presentations

Now you know what slides will fit in the time, build them - at least roughly - and do a run through. Use a timer, and check if the slides are taking as long as you estimated.

Time yourself on every run through. Keep tweaking your presentation, and curb any tendencies to grow beyond your time slot. Over time, you’ll learn how long you take on certain kinds of slides, and your estimates will get better and better.

Use a timer when you present too. Know the milestones in your presentation and when you should hit them. If you’re running ahead of schedule, slow down. If you’re behind, speed up. Skip points. Don’t just talk faster.

I prefer a timer to a clock for this - the one on my iPhone works well. It’s easier to remember where you need to be ‘two minutes in’ than 'at 3:52'. If you start late (possibly because of some other pesky presenter running over) your times will be out. And not all presentation spaces have clocks.

What are your tips for keeping to time?

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