by Steve Adubato, PhD

As professionals, we often have to communicate in situations that don’t go exactly as we had planned. We work on our presentation for weeks, put together our PowerPoint slides, and rehearse several times. Then, the actual day of the business conference arrives and you have to shift gears. Consider the following real-life scenario that makes it clear that great communicators must have the ability to be flexible and adapt to changing situations in order to be effective.

Recently, I was moderating a panel discussion at a business conference, but things were running late. Earlier panel discussions had run over and as is often the case, traffic held up some participants, so the event did not get started on time. Conference organizers were adjusting to the situation as effectively as they could by cutting the morning break in half.

Instinctively, I asked each panelist how long he or she planned to speak and when I heard that each presentation was approximately 15 minutes, I knew that was going to be a problem. In response I said; “In the interest of time and in an effort to get the audience involved and engaged with questions, is it possible to shorten your presentation to no more than 10 minutes?”

Several panelists immediately agreed, with one saying; “Even though I have a prepared PowerPoint, some of these slides I can fly through because they are not particularly relevant and just provide background about our company. That will save us a lot of time.” However, one panelist wasn’t budging and said; “Cutting down to 10 minutes is going to be impossible. I have a prepared presentation and it is important I get out all of this information.”

I was a bit surprised, and reminded him that we were short on time and that he would have the opportunity to share the important information during the audience participation segment. But he wouldn’t budge.

We have all been in situations where our audience is tired and/or hungry and overwhelmed with information. Do they really want to hear ALL of your information? Or, just the information that is relevant to them? Are they going to be upset or lose sleep because you shortened your presentation by a few minutes to allow for more interactive discussion? Of course not.

In fact, most audiences appreciate when you make the effort to consider THEM and not simply what YOU as the presenter have done to prepare for this presentation. I’ve said it many times in this column, but GREAT communicators instinctively understand that it is not about THEM, but rather about their audience. It is not about how much information you get out to an audience that may be fatigued, hungry and on information overload. It is about how engaged, involved and enthused they are about the conversation taking place.

Predictably, the audience’s attention span was tested mightily even at 10 minutes, but every minute beyond that, just made no sense. It wasn’t necessary and was not effective. In fact, what the audience DID appreciate was their ability to ask challenging questions of the panel, which allowed each panelist to share relevant and important information in response to those questions. Once again, great communication is never a question of quantity, but rather of quality.

Next time you are in a meeting, conference or a sales pitch and you are told you have less time or instinctively realize that less time is required, don’t hesitate to edit yourself. Eliminate certain points of information that you can bring up in the more interactive part of your session. If you refuse to do this, you are only hurting yourself and your cause.