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May 2024
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The Short Version

Three ways to adapt your presentation to a shrinking time limit.

By John Zimmer, ACB, ALB

Red scissors

Has this ever happened to you? You’re asked to give a presentation outside your Toastmasters club, whether at your workplace, a conference or workshop. You’re told the preferred topic, where and when the presentation will be given and your time limit. You agree and prepare for it diligently.

After you arrive on time and at the right location, you’re told that because (a) there is a crisis at the manufacturing plant, or (b) the other speakers have gone over their time limits or (c) [insert your own reason here], your time has been cut (a) by 25 percent, or (b) by 50 percent or (c) almost entirely.

Unfortunately, this happens often. So, what can you do?

  • Cram the entire presentation into the reduced time? This rarely ends well.
  • Ask to reschedule? This is often not an option and conveys a bad impression.
  • Keep to your original time and ignore the request to shorten the presentation? (Rude.)
  • Slam your fist on the table, say that you refuse to work like this and storm out? Great if you’re in a movie but otherwise … no.

Quite simply, you must adapt. It might not be easy, but it will be easier if you planned for this possibility in advance. Below are three ideas on how to prepare your presentation to allow you to adjust quickly if your time is cut short.

1 Structure your presentation in sections and know your material so well that you can jump to any section at any time. When I practiced law in Canada, I frequently argued cases in court on behalf of my clients. Cases usually had several points and I would structure my argument accordingly. There was no guarantee, however, that the judges would hear me out in the order I had in mind. Often, they would have me skip points, or go through the points in a different order, or raise a question about an issue that I did not consider relevant. In all cases, I had to be ready to react. Having my legal argument clearly structured made it possible. If you design your presentation in sections, it will be easier to decide which sections to drop (if necessary) and which to keep.

“Creating a short version is an excellent exercise because it forces you to think about what is most important in your presentation.”

2 Give an executive summary that captures the essence of your presentation in less than a minute. Depending on the audience and the situation, ask them whether they would like to hear an abbreviated version of the entire presentation or whether they would like you to skip some parts and focus in detail on others. This tactic is useful when the audience is small (10 or fewer), but cumbersome if you must poll a large audience where getting consensus will be difficult, if not impossible. If it’s a large audience, make the call as to what is most important. You are the expert on your topic, after all.

3 Have a short version of your ¬≠presentation that you can swap in for the original. This will be particularly handy if you are using slides. Yes, you could use the original slide deck and skip slides with the remote. Or, if you have a few minutes, you could go through the original slide deck and hide the slides using the relevant function in PowerPoint or Keynote. However, it would be far easier to use a shorter slide deck that has been prepared in advance. In fact, if you have a presentation (with or without slides) that you give regularly, I strongly recommend that you have a short version. And the short version should be no more than half the length of the full version. Creating a short version is an excellent exercise because it forces you to think about what is most important in your presentation. And, as you create the short version, you might realize that there are things in the full version that you just don’t need.

It is never easy to react when your time to speak has been cut significantly. But it can happen. If you are prepared, you can turn the situation into an opportunity to impress your audience with your ability to adapt quickly, calmly and effectively. 

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