Supercompetent Speaking: Emergency Speech Surgery

How to cut (or stretch) your presentation at the last minute.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

You've prepared for weeks to dazzle an audience with your brilliant 45-minute speech at a big conference...and then…30 minutes before show time, an apologetic organizer approaches you. He explains that because they got a late start and an earlier speaker went on longer than expected (Mortal Speaker Sin), they can only spare you 20 minutes—so you’ll have to cut your speech short.

What do you do now? You can’t just toss your note cards in the air and stomp out. Well, you can;but if you do, you’ll never get an invitation to speak there again, and you may do your career irreparable harm as word spreads. Obviously, you have no choice but to remain professional, smile, and reply pleasantly, “Don’t worry—leave it to me.” And then conduct some emergency speech surgery!

On exceptional occasions (though rarely, in my experience), the opposite may occur: An organizer may ask you to stretch your speech further than expected to fill a time gap. Again, not an easy task; you have to fill the time with relevant information, not just fluff.

Since you can’t predict in advance the fate of any given speech, always be prepared to cut or stretch it—especially if you find yourself at or near the end of a session lineup. Here are a few tips to keep in mind for both cases. Let’s starting with stretching a talk, since it represents the rarer of the two possibilities.

Stretching Tips

  1. Over-prepare. If the organizers have promised you 30 minutes, don’t just do the minimum amount of research and preparation necessary. Prepare to speak as much as 25 percent longer than expected, just in case. Leave the least important points, extra stories and examples, and summing up for the end of the speech. If you don’t need to stretch, you can easily cut from the bottom up without decreasing the impact of your presentation.
  2. Add some extras. Have some reserve stats, quotes, anecdotes, and examples on hand, so you can drop them into the flow of your speech as necessary. Make sure they fit the topic and back up your points—don’t use just any old story to stretch your length. If you picked up anything during your pre-speech mingling that seems relevant, use it.
  3. Take questions during the speech. Before you begin, state your willingness to answer questions during the speech rather than just afterward. Let the audience do some of your stretching for you!
  4. Speak more deliberately.If you absolutely must, slow down your talking speed slightly and spend more time making eye contact with individual audience members. But don’t speak so slowly that you feel awkward, or your listeners might focus on that instead of your message.

Cutting Tips

  1. Start cutting right away. As soon as you get the news, accept that you can’t say everything you wanted to. In your head or on note cards (if you have them), start weeding out less important points, graphics, slides (if applicable), examples, and stories. At the very least, keep your opening and closing statements and emphasize your core message. You might only have time to open, make one really solid point, and close.
  2. Don’t panic. Just present your most relevant points in the time allowed. If you get the two-minute warning before you expect to, segue into your closing and wrap it up. Never just stop in the middle of your speech, or that’s what people will remember later—not your takeaway message.
  3. Don't force it. I’ve seen speakers kick it into overdrive and click frantically through their visuals in an attempt to cram the original speech into the time provided. Don’t be tempted to try this even for a second! You may get in too much of a hurry and flub it; and even if you don’t, you still need to speak slowly enough and remain coherent enough for listeners to absorb your message. Always cut rather than cram. If you’re running your slide show, you can simply type in the number of the slide you want to “jump” to and press enter (you don’t have to click through them). So always print an outline of your slides!
  4. Maintain your professionalism. Do your best with what you have. No matter how angry or frustrated you feel, accept the situation gracefully. Don’t become defensive,and never ever complain or make snide comments to the audience about the organizers’ poor planning if you ever want to be asked to speak there again.
  5. Ask the audience to hold all questions until the end. If any Q&A was planned, I’d cut it out altogether and invite the audience members to come up front to chat with you afterward, as you don’t want to leave out any important points. You can even provide your social media coordinates or contact information for later follow-up.

The Bottom Line

Whether you end up cutting or stretching your speech, strive to do so without damaging its effectiveness—either by diluting its impact with extras or by trimming it too much. Exercise flexibility and always have a Plan B ready. Use this unexpected situation as an opportunity to show how well-prepared and professional you are. The organizers will be both grateful and impressed, and if you do it right, your audience will never know your talk didn’t go precisely as planned.

Laura Stack is an expert in productivity. For more than20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe that help attendeesachieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack is theauthor of many books, most recently What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do.Connect with her at http://www.TheProductivityPro.com; http://www.facebook.com/productivitypro; or twitter.com/laurastack.

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