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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.