Timely talks

I decided to attend INTECOL 2013 this year instead of ESA. And for certain reasons I was given a 30 minute slot instead of the usual conference 15 minute or the usual departmental seminar 60 minute slot. So thinking about how to plan the time for a talk you’ve never given before is on my mind.

First, lest there be any doubt you SHOULD be on time. If they say 15 minutes with a 12 minute talk and 3 minutes for questions you should be embarassed if you run over 12 minutes by more than 30 seconds. This is domain specific. When I was in the business world, and you got 20 minutes of time on the calendar of a busy Vice President and she was still listening at 20 minutes you kept right on going for as long as they were listening. VPs are very capable of telling you they’re busy and they’re time is up. I had to quickly relearn this approach though in academia. Usually the time keeper is some poor postdoc who is afraid to interrupt the professors (yes academia is unfortunately a rather feudally hierarchical world). And they don’t know how to interrupt you even if they would. The bottom line is if you overrun you are stealing time that belongs to somebody else. Just don’t. I have a great colleague at the University of Maine who is the only person I know who keeps talks on time. He uses his full 6 foot plus frame to clomp loudly and loom over the speaker who is running over to great effect (no polite hand waves). He has even been known to bring out a fishing gaff to make his point. I wish more moderators were like him. But they’re not. So the onus is on you.

OK – now assuming you are properly sincere about finishing on time, how do you do it? Here are my three main tips:

  1. Know your number – know exactly how many minutes per slide you average. And yes it is minutes per slide, not slides per minute! If you don’t know your number assume it is two minutes per slide. That is a lot more than most people plan for. Personally I use one minute per slide but I am regularly told my talks are too packed (and no that’ is not a good thing). I’d say a lot more people have a number of three minutes per slide than one minute per slide. So it’s pretty simple – if you have twelve minutes and your number is two minutes per slide, having anything other than 6 slides is planning for disaster! (in a 12 minute talk it is OK not to count the title slide and acknowledgement slide in those 6 – unless you plan to spend time on them), but it kind of comes out in the wash in longer talks.
  2. Time yourself – seminars always start late, and conference sessions are always behind schedule. Although nice, it is not incumbent on you to make up lost time. But if you start late it is even more incumbent on you to not use more than your allotted time. Because of slippage of schedules one is often starting 10:37 or 3:29. I don’t know about you but I can’t add 12 minutes to 10:37 and watch myself approach 10:49 while giving a talk full attention. So I use a stopwatch. Many modern watches have a built in stopwatch, but if your watch doesn’t have one, its easy to carry a stop watch from the lab equipment stores or borrow a watch with a stopwatch from a friend. Start the watch on your first word (have it already in stopwatch mode and zeroed before you go up and know which one button to press to start it and don’t stop until you’re off the stage and it can very unobtrusive). Then it is easy to look at the watch and see where you stand vs your allotted time. If you have 12 minutes and you’re approaching 11:15 you know you are in wrapup time.You shouldn’t actually ever need the moderator to signal. With a stop watch it is easy to glance and track yourself.
  3. Know your midpoint mark – This is something I’ve really gotten good at only in the last few years. Consider it a professional level tip if you will. After my talk is prepared, I’ll walk through it and decide what is exactly half way through. This will be approximately half way through the slides but may be a bit earlier later (for me it is often earlier because I spend more time on the introductory slides). Then memorize the half-way time. (i.e. 6 minutes for a 12 minute talk or 25 minutes for a 50 minute talk). Then just check in how you’re doing on your halfway slide mark vs your half-way time mark. I’ve found having this midway mark does wonders for me not trying to cram the last half of the talk into the final 10 minutes. It also lets me know if I need to speed up or slow down on the 2nd half. It looks much more polished to spread out this adjustment factor over the whole talk than the final 5 slides.

There is of course  a 4th way. Actually rehearse your talk out loud and time it. This is almost certainly a good idea. And its probably mandatory for your defense talk or your first job talk (which you will probably rehearse in front of your lab group who should time you and tell you how long it took because you will forget to do this). Personally, I just can’t get myself to do this for other talks. I will read through the slides multiple times, think about transitions and key points, etc. But I have never been able to get myself to actually stand in my hotel room and say the talk out loud the night before. If you can do it then that’s great and you probably should and you’ll know to the second how long your talk takes. But even if you don’t rehearse out loud, being mindful of the other 3 tips should make you more timely than most of the speakers out there.

Those are my keys to giving talks that stay on schedule (and I’m now petrified that I’ll run over on my next talks after writing this post). What are your tips?

As long as I’m on the topic, two more tips on talks that I’ve seen a lot. If you’re a Mac Powerpoint user, don’t rely on seeing the notes on your screen while you talk if you’re going to a conference. They will have windows machines and Windows Powerpoint doesn’t support this. I can’t tell you how many talks I’ve seen in my life when a bewildered person gets up and has to give their talk without a tool they came to rely on. Second – do not EVER read your talk. You will look right at home in a philosophy conference. But in an ecology or evolution conference every person in the room will roll their eyes and shut you off within 60 seconds. If its your first talk and you’re really nervous, rehearse it a lot. And give yourself crutches by cluttering up your slides more than normal to serve as memory aids. But don’t read your talk. It’s bad enough to read your slides, but reading a piece of paper nobody else can see is the kiss of death.

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About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

12 thoughts on “Timely talks

  1. Having just returned from an excellent conference, but one where the moderators applied varying levels of moderation, I wholeheartedly agree with Brians’ points about timing. Talks went over so far in one session that the panel discussion at the end was essentially cancelled, which is when all the good interaction was expected to happen. It takes practice and practice and practice to be on time as a speaker, but a firm moderator is essential.

    Tips I have picked up recently and used to help with my own timing include putting small font numbering in the bottom right of my slides so I can see where I am. I know how many slides I have, but the audience doesn’t. I also now use the timer of my phone and place it propped on the laptop so I can see it but the audience can’t. Set the screen display to remain on, and I can get another signal of whether my one minute per slide is putting me on time or behind (or ahead, if that never happens).

    I still need to work on leaving more time for questions…..

    • HI Isaac – I agree that inadequately forceful moderation is epidemic at conferences – including many here at INTECOL (of course the moderators are all volunteers so its hard to blame the moderator too much). But running over really ruins a session.

      As you say, it is I think an ongoing challenge and work in progress for all of us.

      Towards that end, I am noticing here at INTECOL that more senior speakers are much more likely to finish with time left for questions than junior speakers. I take two things out of that – it really is important to be timely and this is selected on over time, and 2nd this is a skill that improves over time.

      • Boy, it sounds like timing issues are much worse at INTECOL than at ESA. Is that your impression? In my experience ESA speakers generally stay on time (no matter what their level of experience), with the moderator rarely needing to step in. And moderators at ESA are conscientious about things like not starting the next talk early if the previous talk finishes early. But obviously, like everyone I see only a small and non-random sample of ESA talks, so maybe my experience isn’t representative?

      • I wouldn’t say INTECOL is worse than ESA. But my standard is to finish with leaving time for questions as one is asked to do. I would say a good 1/4-1/3 of talks that I’ve attended at ESA or INTECOL fail to do this in a meaningful way but that is a total off-the-top-of-my-head guess. Very few run minutes over their 15 minutes that I’ve seen.

      • Oh, ok. I was misunderstanding you. Yes, there is less time for questions at ESA than there used to be. When they first switched to 20 min. time slots from 15 min. slots, the announced purpose was to increase time for questions. Speakers were supposed to finish in 15 min. and the last 5 min. “belonged to the audience”. But moderators’ willingness to enforce this, and speakers’ willingness to stick to it, varied a lot those first couple of years. So that nowadays the speaker effectively is allowed the full 20 minutes before being kicked off. Moderators only use the “5 min. left” sign after 15 min. have already passed, rather than after 10 min. There’s usually time for questions at ESA talks, but only 2-3 minutes.

        I left a full 5 minutes for questions myself this year, but I confess that was a bit unusual for me, usually I aim for about 17 minutes. In future, I should probably think harder about sticking to 15, even if I’m allowed more than that. As you say, it’s nice to have some time for questions.

  2. Great points, that we should emphasize more, especially those of us who moderate.

    I do wish more people would leave time for questions rather than use the question time to make the talk as long as possible. Also, that 3-minute window is important for those room-hopping among different sessions.

    More importantly, the moderator shouldn’t be allowed to moderate unless they are wholly prepared to cut off the person at the end of their time slot. A visual signal with a couple minutes left, a 30-second warning, and then: “I’m sorry we’re out of time. Let me introduce our next speaker.”

    When I do moderate, I make sure to tell the speakers and announce at the start of the session just how serious I am about the schedule. It seems to work, though last time I did have to cut off one student, who at the end of ‘question time’ had only started to mention results, despite the usual warnings. I felt bad about it, but if I didn’t cut off the person, I’d feel even worse.

    If a talk doesn’t fit into the time window (by poor planning or because of extreme nervousness), the other speakers and the audience shouldn’t be punished by letting the schedule go awry.

  3. My ESEB talk ran long, which has never happened to me. Well, it almost ran long. When I got the “1 minute left” announcement, I was definitely more than 1 minute from wrapping up. I think I adjusted reasonably well, but I was really confused (and embarrassed!). I have never come even close to running long, and I had practiced my talk ahead of time and it was ~34 minutes (and my talk slot was 35 minutes long, followed by time for questions).

    Afterwards, I was told by one of the moderators afterwards that my talk had started several minutes late, which I hadn’t realized. So, in the future, I guess I will need to pay more attention to the start time. The timing of my talk itself was fine (and so, having just a stopwatch going to keep track of my time didn’t indicate a problem) — it was just that the talk slot inadvertently ended up being a few minutes shorter than expected. If I had realized this at the start, I would have been able to adjust a little more along the way.

    • Wow – as a moderator I would never put the onus of running behind on somebody else to make up (and most certainly not without telling them). If we’re running behind that is the previous speakers (and ultimately me as moderator’s) fault. Its totally not fair to steal your time and give you less than the allotted time. All of which gets back to why its just a matter of common courtesy not to run over.

      • I think the scientific organizers of the session would have given me the full time slot. But the person who was timing was a volunteer, and she was going based on clock time (not running time). So, really, the problem was that the whole session got started late (due to no fault of the scientific organizers) and my talk was first.

        The organizers were there on time and trying to get things going, but the computer folks were late getting to the room, and we couldn’t get the computers started without them. I’m not sure why they were late, but that got the whole session off to a late start. The scientific organizers would have given me more time — they didn’t realize that the person who was in charge of giving the “one minute warning” was going to go based on the clock, not running time. And that person was just doing her job (and, thanks to her, things stayed on time for the rest of the session). So, really, it was mostly just an unfortunate set of circumstances. But I do wish I had noticed that we were starting late, so I could have adjusted.

  4. Protip for making the timing of your talk easier to adjust on the fly: give your talk a “modular” structure. That is, include at least one discrete chunk of material, one to a few minutes long, that can be skipped without doing damage to the rest of the talk.

    I don’t mean including some “extra” material that you hope you’ll be able to cover but probably won’t given the time available. When you rehearse your talk, skippable chunks and all, it should fit in the available time without you having to rush. So that on the day, if you’re short of time for whatever reason, you can just skip the skippable chunk.

    One nice thing about structuring your talk this way is that it reduces the need to think on your feet if you do find yourself low on time. You’ve already planned what you’ll do if you run short on time.

    Note the the skippable chunk need not be at the end. For longer talks, I like to have a couple of skippable chunks scattered throughout the middle and end of the talk.

    • I was going to chime in with Jeremy’s “pro tip”. Especially in longer talks (like departmental seminars), and given my own propensity to add (or not, depending on mood) extra details, I often include a short section at the end that I can skip over (and jump to the conclusions) if I find I’m running late. And leaving time for questions is important because they are often interesting and therefore fun to answer.

  5. Nice discussion on timing of presentations. I just stumbled across your blog looking for something else. As a Mac user (and ecologist), I can empathize with those befuddled speakers who discover that the presenter tools do not exist on the conference computer. I have never read my talks because, as you point out, this is just not expected practice at ecology conferences, unlike some other professions (l have an attorney friend who reads hour-long papers on estate-planning law at conferences …yikes).

    The presenter tools available to Mac users can be useful, though, for prompting one’s memory during a presentation as well as staying within the time limit. It is possible to read a speech without sounding like it, as news anchors and politicians (using teleprompters) effectively demonstrate. But it takes a lot of practice and experience to sound natural.

    I’ve never used presenter tools during a talk mainly because I’ve never needed memory crutches during most of my career. As I’ve gotten older, however, my memory just isn’t what it used to be. I’ve blanked out a few times during talks (but mercifully recovered). Young, novice speakers who are nervous can have memory problems as well because of biochemical effects on the brain, slowing thinking. Slower recall of points to be made and inefficient wording adds to the length of a talk, increasing the probability of exceeding one’s time limit.

    I’ve never found it feasible to use hand-written notes or an iPad–just too many things to juggle and too easy to get lost. I preach to students about not cramming their slides with a lot of text, so I’m loath to use that memory crutch (although I’ve found other creative ways to insert memory jogs). I mainly use the presenter tools during preparation to get the timing right as well as the most concise wording. However, I eventually go “cold turkey” and practice without the presenter view because I know this won’t be available at most venues.

    Coincidentally, I’ve been writing a series on “presentation myths” on my blog (The Singular Scientist) that your readers might like.

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