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5 The Critical Importance of Timing

If you are going to be a part of a conference or series of presentations, always ask to see the entire program. Brad was participating in a conference and the organizers only allowed for a 15-minute break in the afternoon. What they and all of the rest of the speakers didn't anticipate was that the ratio of female attendees to male attendees was about 10 to one. This meant that the washroom facilities were totally inadequate for the women who had attended. Breaks ended up being longer than scheduled. Add to that the fact that some presenters went over their time and Brad and the last speaker only had 30 minutes each to do their presentations. Among the lessons that Brad learned were to expect the unexpected, be prepared to be flexible, know what you can leave out, and audiences will forgive a number of things but going overtime is usually not one of them. In other words, you have to know and understand the structure of the presentation so well that you can change it on a dime so it will be just as seamless as the longer one would have been.

Ed Tate, the 2000 World Champion of Public Speaking, recommends preparing two versions of every presentation—a full-length version and a 10-minute version. This way, he says, if the time for the presentation is cut, you can go to the shorter version confident that you will still be able to make your most important point.

David: This is a lesson I learned the hard way. I was invited to deliver a 45-minute keynote address for a conference that was supposed to start at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. I arrived at the venue Friday night and met the conference organizer. I said, "I just want to verify that I will be speaking tomorrow from 8 to 8:45" She said, "Well, the opening session starts at 8." I said, "So what will take place before me?" She said, "There will be a flag processional, the pledge of allegiance, an invocation, a welcome from the district governor, a proclamation from the Mayor." At this point, I said, "So what time will I start?" She said, "About 8:35." I added 45 minutes to 8:35 and said, "So you want me to stop at 9:20?" She said, "Oh, no! We have to be out of here by 8:45!" My 45-minute presentation had suddenly shrunk to a 10-minute presentation.

A participant in a course of ours made one of the finest presentations we have ever seen. The presentation was a perfect summary of the importance of superior organization and timing to illustrate his message. Even more interesting, it was not a presentation by a nationally known speaker.

The participant, Sandy, purposely misled the audience as to the topic, which he said was time management. Sandy placed a Styrofoam cup on a table at the front of the room. He then asked a rhetorical question: "How long would it take to smash a Styrofoam cup?" The estimates lasted from three to seven seconds. Sandy then smashed the cup on the table, which made a loud explosion. The noise and the subsequent startled response was enough to make sure that everyone in the audience was fully alert when he announced that the time it took to completely destroy the cup was 0.7 seconds.

Sandy then took us through the anatomy of a car accident where he graphically explained what would happen to the car and its occupants during the 0.7 seconds it took for a high-speed impact. The organization of the presentation was chronological. Sandy showed seven slides, depicting what would happen at 0.1 seconds, at 0.2 seconds, at 0.3 seconds, all the way to 0.7 seconds. Each slide had a picture of what was happening to the car and its driver at each one-tenth of a second. The pictures were somewhat blurry so as not to be so gruesome that the audience would not be able to process the cognitive message Sandy was trying to get across. The pictures were further muted as the text appeared and he explained what was happening during each tenth of a second. Sandy then ended his presentation with a call to action, that all vehicle drivers and passengers should wear seat belts at all times.

Why was this presentation so powerful? First, it had the element of surprise—the smashing of the cup. Then it had the perfect segue: seven-tenths of a second to smash the cup being perfectly analogous to the seven-tenths of a second it takes to smash a car. Lastly, the presentation was perfectly timed and organized using one-tenth of a second increments to explain what happened to the car and its occupants at each tenth of a second, and it ended with a clear call to action—wear your seat belts at all times.

As this chapter illustrates, a good presentation begins with good content, but good content without good organization is nothing but a jumble of competing ideas, examples, and images. Once your content and organization are top-notch, you can move on to the finer points of dynamic delivery—which is the topic of our next chapter.


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