Marketing guru Seth Godin recently shared this familiar scene:
“I sat through an endless presentation by the CEO of a fast-growing company. He was doing fine for half an hour, but then, when his time was up, he chose to spend 45 minutes more on his final slide, haranguing and invecting, jumping from topic to topic and basically bringing the entire group to its knees in frustration.”
He’s not the only presenter who does this. I’ve got clients who can spend 15 minutes to two hours on a single slide; sometimes, they never get past the title slide before their time is up.
Some plan it that way, creating a graphic with just enough text to serve as one big cue card. It’s the presentation equivalent of hanging onto the slide as life preserver, except that it’s your audience doing the drowning.
Let me throw you a line and pull you out of this bad habit with these corrective steps:
1. Interrupt yourself: Hubert Humphrey once spoke so long that someone in the room called out, “Senator, if your watch has stopped, there’s a calendar behind you.” Before that happens to you, interrupt yourself when you feel you are going on too long on one slide. “Let me stop here and ask if there are any questions” is a great break in the action, no matter where you are in a presentation.
2. Take a TED-style approach to slides: TED presenters, if they use slides at all, don’t use them to repeat what’s coming out of their mouths. Slides are limited, rather than used in a one-slide-per-thought onslaught. After all, if you don’t have the life preserver to begin with, you might not hang on to it so long.
3. Get some structure: Organize your talk with a strong opening, three core points in the middle, and a strong close, a structure that can flex whether you are speaking for five minutes or an hour. Be ruthless in editing what must go into your main presentation. Memorize your outline, and you’re halfway there. And by all means, plan and practice your stopping point.
4. Use the Q&A time to advantage: Omit from your formal presentation anything you are certain will be asked when question time begins—that way, you’re saving space in the presentation and ensuring you’ll have answers ready for expected questions. Planning your Q&A is one of the best ways to keep your slides from turning into life preservers.
5. Start or end with a focused, planned story: If you get stuck on either the title slide or the final slide, replace them with a story you’ve planned with care and rehearsed. Keep it short, and make sure it makes your point or sets or closes the scene. The story becomes a path to move into or out of your three core points, setting the scene or drawing it to a close.
6. Time yourself: If you routinely spend 45 minutes or more on one slide, ask a friend to record your live presentation (audio or video). Use the recording or a transcript to see clearly how much time you are spending—overall and per slide. This may be the eye-opener you need to make a change.
7. Move to a black or white slide instead: If your long-winded speech has gone beyond the slide’s content, move to a black or white (blank) slide. Audiences do pay attention: If you’ve got a slide up that isn’t in keeping with what you’re saying, we’ll notice. Watch this short David Pogue TED talk, which includes a great tip for easily shifting to a black or a white slide.
Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 100 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.