Give your audience time to react

One of the most common bits of advice in public speaking is to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

This is a good thing to do: saying the words aloud will help you get comfortable with your presentation, and it’s the best way to see how long it actually is. No measurement is as good a predictor of final talk length as actually rehearsing it from start to finish.

Getting the length of a talk right is important. If you have a time limit, it’s rude to finish significantly over or under the agreed time. If you’re in a series of talks, it could leave a gap in the schedule, or cut into the time of the next speaker.

But rehearsing isn’t the same as talking to a live, in-person audience. A good audience will have more energy than an empty room – and that energy affects the pace of your presentation.

If you make a funny joke, people need time to laugh. If you make a big point, you pause to let it sink in. If you say something particularly exciting, there might even be cheers or applause. These are all good things – they mean your audience is engaged with your presentation! These are things to encourage and embrace. These things also mean that you’ll take longer.

When I hear people rehearse, they usually speak continuously, leaving no time for these unexpected pauses. This means the length of their rehearsal is the minimum time they’ll be speaking in the real thing. If the rehearsal runs to the full length of the time slot, there’s no room to absorb this audience energy. If you want time for that, there needs to be slack in your timings.

Whenever I’m rehearsing something, I always aim to finish a few minutes under the time limit. That gives me some slack to play with. If people start laughing at something unexpectedly, I can let the laughter run for a few seconds before moving on – and I’m not worried about overrunning my time. If it’s a dry audience and I don’t use any of the slack, coming in slightly under the limit is never an issue.

Here’s an extreme example: for Monki Gras last year, I timed my presentation to 18 minutes in rehearsal. There was a real buzz in the room on the day, and I was actually on stage for more like 24 minutes. If I hadn’t left slack, I’d have seriously overrun.

Obviously this has changed in the era of video conferences and webinars. Now you really are speaking to an empty room, and you can’t tell how your audience is reacting. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to think about pacing – the difference is that you need to decide where the pauses go, rather than waiting for the audience to tell you.

I have more to say about managing audience excitement, but I’ll save that for another post.

For now, remember that rehearsing a presentation only tells you the minimum length of time you’ll take. If you’re speaking to a time limit, leave some slack for the audience to react.