CreativityEngaging Culture

Want to Be a Professional Speaker? Stick to the Time Limit!

Secret:  When I’m speaking to a conference, I hate to get scheduled behind time hogs. I spoke at a conference last year and a local leader was scheduled to do a 15-20 minute introduction to the conference. I was scheduled to do the keynote talk for 45 minutes right after him.  The problem was he ran on for 45+ minutes himself, cutting my time down to 30.  Because he couldn’t discipline himself as a speaker, he forced me to cut my talk by 1/3 on the fly.  It’s not a matter of me being a great speaker.  It’s simply a matter of courtesy.  Each of us plan our talks based on the time limits of the program, and to exceed yours at the expense of other people is incredibly inconsiderate.  Not to mention the conference host got ripped off because he’d paid for me to fly across country to be the keynote speaker, but I was forced to cut that short.

Pastors may be the worst time offenders, because they do the vast majority of speaking on their home turf, and control the playing field. So they don’t develop the discipline of speaking to a certain time.  Conference organizers hate it, because it throws off the rest of the schedule.  The problem is that too many people start to speak, and think the audience is really digging them and assume nobody minds if they run over.


First – learn to read the room. Trust me, in most cases, the audience isn’t digging you as much as you think.  I know from experience.  Learn to read the temperature of the audience and leave them at a high point – not with them wishing you would leave.  A famous opera singer said you should stop singing before the audience has stopped listening.  Good rule.

Second – practice at home. Hitting a time limit is a learned skill.  Don’t wing it and expect to hit the target – ever.

Third – Respect the other speakers! They have something important to share, and you’re taking that away from the audience.

Finally – If you really want to be invited back, learn to respect the schedule. No matter what the time limit, you should be able to nail it.  Even if it’s only scheduled for 10  minutes, if you can’t bring something compelling at that length, then don’t get up at all.

Any other suggestions worth including?

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  1. Concentrate on communicating your major point. Preparing a speech is just like writing….you prepare a draft, and then cut 2/3 of it.

    Communicate one point. It should engage the listeners. Avoid the trap of trying to say everything there is to know or say about the subject.

    Even if you did 15 hours of research for a 15-minute speech…

  2. Fave quote: “Just ’cause you can’t give a good speech, doesn’t mean you can’t give a short one!”

  3. PowerPoint is not a tele-prompter. It is not there to tell you word for word what to say next. Regardless it your slide is a graphic like Phil uses or some bullet points as I use, it is a launching pad instead.

  4. If thou canst not speak thy mind in 10 minutes or less on Youtube, God canst not answer thy prayers that thy ministry goest viral.

  5. When given a time limit, always come with a back up. Meaning be ready to give a talk half the time and promise to send them the presentation.

  6. Unfortunately most inconsiderate presenters remain inconsiderate. It’s a heart, not a skill issue. Here’s the take away. Great 45 minute presentations can be distilled down to 30, 15, or even 10 minutes. In fact the more we distill our presentations down to their core essence in advance, the more effective we’ll nail our objective when truly given 45 minutes. Frankly, Mr. Cooke, your flown across the country and compensated considerably because you know how to knock your keynote out of the ballpark when granted only 30 instead of 45 minutes on the fly. Just assume that you’ll always follow a time hog.

  7. Couldn’t agree more Phil, great post. In representing 100+ speakers, I always encourage each of them to respect the time given by the church and try to finish 5 minutes earlier. Leave them wanting more, so they’ll bring you back. This is a great reminder for all speakers as they plan and prepare their presentations.

  8. In our conferences we use time cards for our speakers: 10 min/ 5 min/ 1 min/ YOU SHOULD FINISH NOW.

    Personally I use the timer of my cell, if I am given 40 min, I set it to 35 min so that I can use those 5 left to conclude.

  9. Also… get someone to tape your speaking gig – it will change LOTS of things about how you present yourself! – 🙂

  10. If I have 3 hours to speak it takes me 3 minutes to prepare.
    If I have 3 minutes to speak, it takes me 3 hours to prepare.
    Winston Churchill

  11. If my students just dropped the word “like”, I’m convinced they would trim a solid 10-15% of time out of any speech.

  12. Be personable & real. Connect with those you are speaking to in such a way that they feel they are sitting in your living room. If you connect with them like this from the get go they will hear what you say with their heart & not just their head.

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