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Lazy and Disrespectful: Don’t Run Over Time

“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

-- Mark Twain

Many of the leaders I coach have the problem of running over the allotted time in their presentations -- giving people way too much data, or carrying on with tangents and personal asides.

It’s a very common scenario: a leader and her team of five people are scheduled to do a 90-minute business review with the Head Honchos from Home Office. She will open up for ten minutes and each person has ten minutes to speak, leaving the mandatory 30 minutes for questions.

As it turns out, the first person runs five minutes over, the second person is right on at ten minutes, and the third person, and you know he always does this, goes 21 minutes! The last two speakers are rushed, confused and have to trim their talks on the fly. The team looks bad and even good numbers are tainted by this poor performance.

Coaching a group of leaders recently, I heard myself saying something rather harsh that I’d never said before: people who run past their allotted time for a presentation are lazy and disrespectful.

It may have been harsh, but I believe it’s true!

Here’s why:

You didn’t do the work -- lazy

Lazy, because you didn’t do the work: the hardest part of giving a presentation is the preparation. It’s not the delivery. If you’ve prepared properly and rehearsed, your delivery is much easier, your confidence is stronger and your anxiety is lower.

The hard part is not figuring out what to say, the hard part is figuring out what not to say. As Mark Twain noted in the quote above, it’s much easier to write a long letter than a short one. It takes hard work to condense and refine your message so it is just enough to help people understand, but not too much to bore them.

Many leaders will say that they were too busy to work on their presentations, sometimes saying they had “real” work to do. I take umbrage at that statement, noting that communications is “real” work. Communications is fundamental to leading people.  

Your job as a leader is to inspire and motivate people. In a chaotic, attention-deficit world, leaders rise or fall on their ability to clearly and concisely communicate with diverse audiences. Many careers have stalled or crashed because of the inability to effectively communicate.

But why “disrespectful”?

It’s disrespectful, because you’ve screwed your colleagues. The program might only be 90 minutes and will end on time. That means that you’ve robbed later speakers of time. They did the work and have ten minutes of content, but now they must rush or trim their presentations on the fly. That’s disrespectful of your team.

When I’m at dinner with clients, possibly after cocktails, I’ve heard terms other than “disrespectful” used for people who always run over time. People may not hate you, but they hate when you run over your allotted time.

It’s also disrespectful to your audience, whether it’s senior leaders or a larger audience you’re addressing. You decided that this presentation wasn’t a priority, that you wouldn’t put in the work to hone and rehearse your message, to make it tight. That’s disrespectful of their time and intellect.

The good news is there’s a better way.

Less is more

Some people believe that more information gives people more understanding. But that’s not true. Today, with information overload, less is truly more.

Consider the fact that TED Talks, which deal with many of the world’s most complicated ideas, come in at about 18 minutes. That is not an arbitrary number. Scientists have identified 10 to 18 minutes as the length of time people listen before tuning out.

TED curator Chris Anderson said the organization chose 18-minutes because “it is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention.” And at TED, no matter how rich or famous you are, you only speak for 18 minutes, just ask Bill Gates, Bono or Sheryl Sandberg, among hundreds of others.

A Two-minute Speech

And also consider that fact that one of the most enduring speeches of American history was only two minutes long.

As I wrote about Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, at 273 words was a model of a brief, focused message. In fact, at two-minutes, the speech is well suited for today’s YouTube attention span. And yet, it perfectly conveyed what needed to be said.

By contrast, it is reported that the official Gettysburg eulogizer, long forgotten, spoke for more than two hours.

The great news is when you’re ready to do the work, to create a clear, concise message to lead other people, giving your presentations will be a positive experience for you, and your listeners.

To get you started you can find some tips I offered here: 7 Habits of Highly Confident Speakers.


Photo Credit: Veri Ivanova

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