A common problem in public speaking is having too much materiel to present and not enough time. As a consequence, speakers take more time than allowed. It annoys the audience and put pressure on the following speakers and on the organization. How can you avoid doing this?

I was a guest speaker last weekend at a Toastmaster Leadership Session for the District 61 (Quebec City, Canada). As some experienced speaker took more time than supposed, it gave me the idea for this post.

I had too much materiel myself, and I struggled to respect the time. I spoke for 47 minutes instead of 45. I know two minutes is not the end of the world, but it is a two minutes that I shouldn’t have used. Mea culpa.

It could have been worst, but I have a technique to manage my material and my time. As you can see, my technique is not perfect (remember the 2 minutes I took), but it gives me a lot of flexibility.

Crowd getting ready for Toastmasters Leadership Session - PRESENTability.com Denis Francois Gravel giving a Leadership Workshop session for Toastmasters (picture)


Preparation is an element of success in public speaking. While preparing your speech, you should cut the fat, get to the point, simplify your message and cut again. At the end, you will still have too much to say for the time allow.

The secret is to have materiel for less time than you are allowed.


While rehearsing, you have to consider two things for the timing.

  • Your speaking speed will be different on stage. Usually, speakers tend to speak faster, but they add words and sentences that were not in the preparation. Result: you will probably take more time than when you rehearsed.
  • You will interact with the audience (depend on the type of presentation). This interaction will take time that wasn’t planned in your rehearsing.

Again, you should plan to finish in advance of your time.

Fear: I have nothing else to say

One of the fears in public speaking is: not to have enough to say and be forced to end our speech before the time limit. Think about it. Where is the problem? Is there someone somewhere who have been beaten because he finished too early? Usually, attendees have difficulty to stay awake till the end of most of the speeches.

Seriously, I am the first one that want to give enough materiel to the audience. I want them to leave the venue satisfied. I always prepare more materiel than necessary.

More than necessary?

Isn’t this the opposite of what I said earlier? “The secret is to have materiel for less than the length of your allowed time.”

Yes! absolutely, but stay with me.

With more material than necessary, I have the flexibility to adjust my speech. I can develop more on a sub-matter and cut on something else.

I can adjust to the audience. If they have more interest or knowledge on a topic, I can go more or less deeper.

So, how do I manage to respect the time?

Hierarchical structure

I like to develop my speech using a hierarchical structure. This means that I have major topics to address. Each topic has some secondary topics. Secondary topics have a third level topics, and so on.

Hierarchical Structure for a Speech (time) - PRESENTability.com

During the preparation of the speech, I decide how much time to allow to each topic. This way, I know precisely where I should be at any given time.

It is easy during the speech to skip a third or fourth level subtopics to save 2-3 minutes.

Mind map

An excellent tool to build your presentation is the mind map. It is a natural way to give a hierarchical structure to your speech. We will go deeper on this another time. For now, you can use a simple list like the illustration above.


As you can see, the hierarchical structure of my speeches gives me the flexibility that I need to adjust to the audience and to respect the time. Usually, when I use this technique I am finishing exactly on time. Last weekend I let something distract me and forgot to check the time (shame on me, not on the technique).

Great people

Among the many things I love about those events, I particularly like the opportunity to meet great people.

Before the session begun, I was preparing my stuff in front of the room. Another speaker was beside me preparing for his presentation. He had a welcoming smile, I felt comfortable instantly. Of course, we chat together.

The man was Chris Ford, a retired military (he was a brigadier general). He is now a consultant in communication and leadership. He was also the president of Toastmasters International in 2007-2008.

From left to right: Denis Francois Gravel & Chris Ford at Toastmasters Leadership Session

From left to right: Denis Francois Gravel & Chris Ford
Toastmasters Leadership Session

This man reaches the highest level in the Canadian army, he was the top officer of the world’s Toastmasters organization and he had no pretension at all. He chats with me and make me feel “one of the gang”. Talk about accessibility.

Chris Ford is a great man. I am glad I had the opportunity to meet him.

Share with me: What do you do to respect the time?

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Posted by: Denis Francois Gravel

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