I remember hearing an Ice Breaker in my Toastmasters club that went on for 13 minutes. When the new member who gave the speech was told of this faux pas, she was so embarrassed she almost quit. How I have often wished other long-winded speakers were as sensitive.
Why does any speaker go too long?
Because "they didn't plan and rehearse," says Tim Bete, director of the University of Dayton's Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. "There's no reason to go long unless you ramble and get off topic.
"It's better to keep on schedule and allow time for attendees to ask questions at the end of your speech,"he adds.
Darren_LaCroix, a professional speaker and Toastmasters' 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking, says presenters need to know exactly what they want their speeches to accomplish.
"I think people are not taking time to edit their speeches for the audience," he says. "If you ask most speakers what their goal is, they will hem and haw. They can't clearly state what they would like the audience to do, think or feel."
What's so bad about going over the time limit?
If you're speaking at a conference, you can cause a whole host of problems.
"You put the meeting planner in a pickle," notes LaCroix. "You mess up the schedule for the rest of the conference. Say the speaker goes overtime by 30 minutes: The planner has to scramble to fix the whole day. Lunch will be late, the hotel is upset. You might think you're doing the audience a favor by giving them extra time, but you have ruined the whole schedule."
LaCroix says the meeting industry is a small one, so speakers who abuse their time limits earn a reputation. "[Meeting planners] know other people - their counterparts - at other conferences, and they talk."
Presenters who can't rein in their speeches lose out in other ways, too. Talks that are too long rarely impress the audience, and listeners may miss the point of the speech - or worse.
"The immediate effect is that the audience is irritated," says Max Dixon, a professional speaking coach and consultant. "They look at their watches. One of my favorite speakers wanted to end [his presentation] on time but waited until the last three or four minutes to wind down. He started talking faster about one of the more important things; everyone knew he wasn't going to make it.
"It's like someone running to jump across a 25-foot stream, and everyone is saying, 'He's not going to make it! He's going to land in the middle of the stream.' The audience doesn't want to hurt the speaker's feelings, yet we also don't want to sit there and not listen. We're not learning from it."
Dixon says the audience also loses trust. "We become suspicious. If the speaker doesn't pay attention to the time, we wonder if maybe he didn't do his research, either."
"Edit, edit, edit," says LaCroix, who writes out his speeches. After seeing the words on paper, he asks himself, "How can I say the same thing in fewer words?"
It's not easy. LaCroix has to force himself to scale back. On his world championship speech, he did a Herculean job of editing, chopping his presentation from its original length of 1,400 words.
"I had to get it down to 800," he remembers. "I asked myself, how can I say it in fewer words? I was constantly working on it and struggling. Rather than trying to shorten the whole speech, think about how you can take three sentences and combine them into one. If you do it in smaller pieces, it's a lot easier."
What are you trying to accomplish with the speech? Keep in mind that the audience is thinking "What's in it for me?"
Care enough about your message and your audience to edit your talk and give listeners the best information you have. Next, ask yourself, "What difference can I make in the allotted time I have?"
"Don't just cut the number of words, cut the number of ideas," suggests Bete, the University of Dayton instructor. "If you're trying to make 10 points, cut your speech down to the top five. You can always post the other points on your Web site, and tell attendees to visit it for more great information."
It's better to present sufficient information on a few selected topics, and inform your audience, than to touch inadequately on too many points, leaving your audience at a loss to understand what they just witnessed.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were told you'd have 30 minutes to speak - then when you arrived at the event, were asked to do it in 20 instead?
It may not happen at a Toastmasters gathering, but "it happens all the time in the 'real world,'" says LaCroix. "Quite often I'm asked to give an hour-long speech, then I get to the place and find I have only 35 minutes."
As a professional, you don't get angry. "You come prepared, knowing it will happen. [Time limits] will change - that is normal," LaCroix says. "Do the best with the allotted time. Our job as a speaker is to help accomplish something as part of a bigger event. We are not the event."
But how do you cut down a speech on the spot?
"I need to know what is most important to my audience," LaCroix says. "For example, I give a certain presentation: 'Four Habits Essential to Becoming a Great Speaker, and the Four Things I Learned From the Other World Champions.' If my time is cut, I tell 'The Three Habits and the Three Things I Learned.' If my time is cut more, I only talk about 'The Four Habits.' I can't cut down the story that makes the point; I have to know: If this is all the time I have, what is most important for the audience to understand when I leave?"
Bete says he always organizes his speeches into separate sections.
"So it would be relatively easy to drop a section to shorten a speech," he notes.
To cut a speech in a pinch, Bete adds, "You have to cut chunks quickly without sacrificing content. That's why writing a speech in sections is so critical."
"Be sure you pare the speech down to what is absolutely essential to make your point and yet retain interest," Dixon says. "You have to ration how many descriptive words you have. If you can cut off ten or fifteen seconds [by eliminating a few descriptive words], that helps."
He also says you should be over-prepared - yet ready to cut.
"Prepare yourself with stories," Dixon advises. "When you get up [to speak] with four or five stories, then knowing you can get by with three helps."
And, of course, make sure you practice.
"Lack of practice can lead to forgetting parts of the speech, or to long silent pauses that waste time," says Fred Price, Ph.D., who has taught many technical seminars as well as attending his fair share of them.
He suggests eliminating examples from a speech that are too complicated given the time limit. Also, avoid the tendency to use too many examples to make a single point.
In the end, it's clear that tightening your talk so you can deliver it within the time requested is a vital skill to master. As Price notes, "When a speaker uses time poorly, it shows a lack of respect for the listener's time."