How do I finish on time if I get interrupted?

I get asked this a lot by people attending Speak With Impact courses. In this post I will share one simple trick with you that can help a lot.

Picture the typical scenario – you have been asked to speak for, say, 30 minutes at an important meeting or event. It starts well but then you get a question, which you answer. Then you get another equally good question but the answer requires a fair degree of explanation. Suddenly you are behind schedule by several minutes and you spend the rest of the talk chasing your tail and trying to catch up.

In another scenario you are speaking at a conference and the speaker before you (or several of them) have gone over their allotted time. This luxury is not available to you because you are the final speaker and people will simply leave to catch their trains if you go over.

If these scenarios have not happened to you yet, they almost certainly will at some point. As an observation I note that interruptions during talks seem more common than ever before.

The trick for dealing with these situations is to learn from the world of debating.

In inter-varsity debating you would typically get 5 minutes for your speech, or 7 minutes for a final. The timing was absolutely rigid – you would lose points if your timing was awry. In the Scottish Parliament it was the same – you were given exactly 6 minutes for a ‘middle speech.’ You did not lose points for being over time – it was worse than that – your microphone was simply cut off. Both Presiding Officers in my time there were pretty brutal about switching you off mid-flow! In inter-varsity debating and in Parliament you always got numerous interventions. Failure to take sufficient interventions looked weak and would be remarked upon by every other speaker.

So what do you do?

Prepare your material for a slightly shorter period of time. If I was in a debate final (where I got 7 minutes) I would prepare only 5 minutes worth of speaking material. That way I could comfortably take several interventions and finish exactly on time. In Parliament I would prepare only 4 minutes of material for a 6 minute debate. Again I could easily take interventions and finish on time.

Try this approach for your next presentation. If you are asked to speak for 30 minutes, then prepare 25 minutes of material. This allows you deal with questions effectively without feeling rushed thereafter. You have to anticipate roughly the level of intervention that is probable – although be aware it is not an exact science. Use all the information at your disposal (company culture, audience members, audience size, previous experience, temperature of the topic) to estimate the most likely volume of interruptions.

You will be surprised at how often you get it right and you will get a boost in confidence because you know you are ready to deal with the audience and the situation.

Of course, have a Plan B ready in case the interventions do not materialise. Usually this just means expanding upon one area or repeating (using different words) one key message.

In Parliament, I always had a number of contentious statements ready to generate interventions from opposition members if they were not forthcoming. However, in 9 years there, it very rarely happened!


Gavin Brown
Speak With Impact