21 seconds over the time 8 minute 30 second time limit.
Those are words I'll never forget as they taught me a valuable lesson.
I was participating in a comedic speech contest at my Toastmasters club. If you're not familiar with this fantastic organization, they're typically referred to as that organization that helps you get better at public speaking. It's really much more. They're about presenting. They're about leadership. Ultimately, they're about supporting you on your quest to be better.
Toastmasters holds contests regularly to encourage your improvement. These are opportunities to compete against your fellow Toastmasters in situations ranging from comedic speeches, such as the one I was participating in, to extended presentations and even extemporaneous debate. One aspect of the contests I find incredibly helpful is the laser-like focus on timing. There is a set amount of time designated to deliver your message.
Four years ago I was disqualified from a contest because my speech went 21 seconds over the 8 minutes and 30 seconds allotted for a speech. I was told by members of the audience, judges and even fellow contestants that I had this thing won. But I blew it because I decided to improvise just a bit - that put me over the time limit.
Why does this matter? Because EVERY SECOND COUNTS.
Individuals (a.k.a. your audience, prospects, funders, partners) have an extremely limited attention span. And it's getting worse. As a general rule, various sources note that the average attention span for adults (in 2013) was just 8 seconds, down from 12 in 2000. And since we're talking about speaking and presenting, interesting to note that in a study done by Lloyds Bank, when adults were tested on their ability to stay on task (i.e. household chores), average attention span has decreased from 12 minutes a decade ago to 5 minutes today.
As the modern day presenter of ideas seeking engagement or better yet action, you've got to make the most of every second you have in front of your audience. And at a certain point, stop talking. Because they're not listening. This goes for live presentations and pitches. This goes for phone calls or meetings. This goes for social media.
How can you be more effective at this?
1. Write and use a script. I can hear you groaning and saying how boring that is. Sorry but that's what works. And "works" goes beyond words. It's also how long it takes to deliver them, the right inflections and the right tone. If you're live, it's body language. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, developed the 7%-38%-55% Rule, to identify the relative impact of words, tone and body language respectively when speaking. All this can apply just as well to the tone of your email, the characters in your tweets or posts, and ultimately, the clarity of your message.
2. Stick to your script. No matter what! I hear you growling again. Often it becomes tempting to just "go with the flow" because a presentation is going so smoothly. That idea works well when you're on vacation or jamming to your favorite band. But not here. A few months ago, I was visiting with the president of a company we hoped would form a riding team for a cycling event. We knew so many of the same people that I decided to go with the flow as we drifted into an extended session of "who knows who." We got so far off message that it became nearly impossible - and rather awkward - to steer back to the business at hand. Don't let this happen to you no matter how comfortable it may seem.
3. Know when to Stop Talking and Start Listening. Give yourself set cues to allow for feedback throughout a presentation and of course, at the end. Be comfortable with the silence even if it's killing you. Ultimately where your script ends is where Rapport, Relationship and Real Communication begins. So let it happen.