[Quick public speaking tip] Watch the clock

One of the secrets of great speakers is their use of time.

They know that if they have been given a time limit for their speech or presentation, that they will stick to that.


There are four very good reasons for us all to do the same, if we want to be successful.



Sticking to time forces you to  be very clear in your message – no waffling, no beating around the bush.  And that sort of focus really adds power to your message.  If you want an outcome – for your audience to do, be or think something as a result of your presentation, make that message very, very clear.

Someone may have been hired you to speak – an event organiser, the program co-ordinator for an organisation.  If you want to be re-hired, you need to keep that organiser confident that you can deliver the goods and make their job easier.  If they have to step in to haul you off the stage, or if their whole schedule is upset because you spoke too long, then – unless your content went through the roof in terms of outcomes -they will not be terribly enthusiastic about re-hiring you or recommending you to their colleagues.

Really this is just common courtesy, not just a selfish, calculated piece of behaviour.  You, me, us, extending courtesy, thinking of how we impact other people.  It should be part of our value system, deeper and stronger than any need to hustle or sell or manipulate.  It feels right.  And of course, how we treat people will be part of your brand, part of the impact you make, and part of the way you will be remembered, because the behaviour indicates the deeper values.  We are, after all, creating relationships which will bring in returns in multiples, far easier than trying to get business or results from every single stand-alone speaking gig.

Your audiences will form an opinion of  you as well.  As Stephen Keague said,  ‘No audience ever complained about a presentation or speech being too short‘, but they will complain if you speak for too long.

Cuban President Fidel Castro is known for having delivered the longest continuous speech ever given in the General Assembly of the United Nations.  Delivered in September 1960, it lasted for 4 hours and 29 minutes.  He also spoke in a New York church, at a gathering of supporters, people who supported Cuba and its policies and having a closer relationship with the United States.  He spoke for 4 hours and 16 minutes.  After three hours, and the presentation of statistics from wads of paper, some of his audience had fallen asleep in the pews.  Others walked out exhausted, leaving the church half full by the end of his speech.  And these were enthusiastic supporters!

None of us wants the audience falling asleep like that, or walking out; after all what we want (and need) is their attention.  Because something else that all speakers want (and need) from their audiences is to be remembered, to be reiterated around the water cooler the next day, quoted in memories of the event, and requested for the next conference or training day.  To be remembered.

At Gettysburg in 1863, Edward Everett delivered a 13,607 word speech, that clocked in at 2 hours. The world has forgotten those 13,607 words, but not the three-minute address given by  President Abraham Lincoln – famed and certainly not forgotten.

The value is not in how much you say but in what you say – your message.

And I know from experience that when you have not prepared properly, not honed your message to fit the time allowed, you find yourself racing through, speaking quickly just to fit it all in.  University professors might have wanted a display of all the knowledge I had, but my audiences just want what is relevant to them and what they need to learn or believe or use.   The curse of T.M.I.  (Too Much Information) is very real.  And if it results in a speedy delivery, then you will have lost the advantage of being able to add power to your words with a variety or pace, and the use of pause.  It can also result in having no flexibility, no space to answer unexpected question, deal with interruptions or change with changing time slots.  Knowing exactly the message and main points allows for all of those things.

It may be useful to you to time your speech.  Practise it beforehand and time it.  Or if you write it out beforehand,  (I’m not sure why you would do that, but there may be good reason), you can use the fact that people tend to speak at 110 to 140 words per minute.  That will allow you to work out how long the speech will take.  Of course if you speak faster or slower than that, you will need to adjust.  But be prepared enough to know how much time you have and how much time you will take.   Winston Churchill said, “I’m going to make a long speech because I’ve not had the time to prepare a short one” and undoubtedly that was not to his advantage.  Preparation counts!

I couldn’t resist reminding you of another famous quote of Winston Churchill’s  “A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt, long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

So while it may seem a cool, confident thing to be relaxed about the time you take, it’s better to build the habit of being aware of time and using it well.  You create a focussed powerful message, you increase the chances of building favourable outcomes for your event coordinator and audience and you are free to speak with flexibility and engaging, memorable power.  Watch the clock and you will have added another success tool to your speaking tool kit, and be a speaker who is remembered and rehired.