by Steve Adubato, PhD

Most of us have had to make a presentation as part of a larger meeting with other speakers. In most of these situations, the agenda is jam-packed. Too often meeting leaders confuse quantity with quality. Sometimes, one or more speakers will go over his or her allotted time, which in turn throws everyone and everything off.

Recently, I was asked to present at a strategic leadership session. The speaker before me was allotted 30 minutes. He blew by that and was approaching the one-hour mark. At an hour and 20 minutes, he finally looked at his watch and said, “Jeez, I didn’t realize I ran so far over…sorry about that, Steve.”

Again, it happens all the time, but the question is, when it happens to you, how do you handle it?

Q—What do you do if you are the “next presenter” and the previous speaker cuts heavily into your timeslot?

A—Give the audience a break. Forget that you have been inconvenienced and thrown a curve. What about them? They’ve been sitting there all that time. If possible, let them get up and leave the room for a few minutes. Let them stretch and maybe even get a cup of coffee. Use this valuable time to prioritize your presentation and cut out some information you originally planned to deliver. It’s not about how much information you get out, but rather, how valuable that information is to your audience. Instead of three points you want to communicate, just pick one or two.

Q—Why not use the original allotted time, since it wasn’t my fault that the previous speaker ran over?

A—This isn’t about fault and again, it is not about you, it is about your audience. One of the smartest things you can do as a communicator is to demonstrate your ability to think on your feet and accommodate your audience’s needs. Show them that you understand that sometimes less actually IS more. Fact is, many in your audience may already be peeved at the previous speaker for being so long-winded and inconsiderate. By comparison, you will look better if you communicate your message in a concise and compelling fashion.

Q—Why don’t most people know that they are losing or have totally lost their audience?

A—Too many people talk for themselves. They fall in love with the sound of their own voice. They don’t hear how monotonous they sound. They are oblivious to the yawns, the closed eyes and the distracted audience members fiddling with their Blackberry. Simply put, these are communicators who aren’t in touch with their audience and totally misunderstand the purpose of communication, which is to connect with other people.

Q—How can we avoid becoming the terrible speaker described here?

A—Appreciate what it feels like to be in the audience when a speaker is going on and on. Remember how painful and boring it is. Get in touch with how angry and frustrated you feel and the voice inside your head saying, “Will this guy just shut up already?!” Then take all of that and make sure that when your time comes to speak, you don’t replicate that speaker’s performance. The greatest communicators are the best students of communication. They see being in the audience as an opportunity to gain valuable insight into what it feels like to be on the other side.

What do you do when the speaker before you has sapped virtually all the energy and air out of an audience by going on too long? Write to me.