by Peter Watts
Presenting involves a contract between audience and presenter, and clearly stated starting and ending times are a key part of that contract. Compliance with these requirements is an important indicator of the health of that contract and the respect that both sides have for each other.
Start on Time
As presenter you control the room. You are going to be that group’s leader for however long you keep the stage. As with all groups, there is an initial period of gentle testing where the group explores the behavioral boundaries around them. “How firm is the leader going to be?” “Do they stick to their promises?” “Who is in charge?”
Although frequently sub-conscious, these questions are all hanging around the room, and there is no truer way of testing out the answers than by testing the area of time! If members of the audience are late, and you wait for them, then you allow power to transfer from yourself, to them. If you stick to your guns however and start regardless, then you retain the power balance for yourself, and late-comers become merely that; late!
If you hold up proceedings till all the laggards have assembled then the individuals who did extend you the courtesy of an on-time arrival rapidly learn that there is no reward for being on schedule. Your priority is to those who were on time. Don’t keep them waiting for others.
Finish on time
As important as starting on time, is finishing on time. While the start time is all about the audience extending courtesy to the presenter, it is by respecting the stated finish time that the presenter repays that respect. If the presentation is to last 30 minutes, then keep it to 30 minutes! Presenters who over-run are rewarded with seat-shuffling and increasingly exaggerated watch-checking.
What about the VIP?
I started out this blog by talking about power, and how within the presentation environment you are the leader. Where does this leave VIP members of the audience and what to do if it’s the head-honcho who is the tardy one?
The subject of the power dynamic between presenters and VIP’s would take up a whole extra blog, so I will restrict this point purely to the area of time-keeping.
If you are presenting, and you know that there is an especially important person in the room who must be there to hear what you have to say, then it would be foolish to start without them. The mere fact that someone in authority is abusing that position by being late rather than setting a positive example by being on time already indicates that they have a powerful sense of ego, so it would be a mistake to deliberately attempt to deflate that ego, tempting as it might be.
There is however, a half-way house that will allow you to start on time, while still waiting for the late VIP. The technique is to start a discussion with your audience while you are waiting so that the awkward gap becomes productively filled.
- Welcome your audience as you would normally, thanking them for attending, and briefly outlining the presentation agenda and objectives.
- State that you are going to wait a few more moments for Mr or Ms X to arrive, and then immediately tell the audience that in order to use this time productively, you would like to go around the table and find something out from them.
- Use the ensuing discussion time to find out something relevant to your presentation. You have full control of what this subject will be; It could be their past experience with a product or process, their key objectives for the presentation, or their opinions about key challenges and opportunities faced.
- Select a subject area that supports the thrust of your presentation, and avoid contentious areas that might detract from your message.
- As you facilitate the discussion, capture key points onto a flip-chart so that they then remain visible for the rest of the session.
When the late VIP does then arrive, you can welcome them cordially, gently close down the discussion, and move into the planned body of your presentation. What has happened though is that you are now starting from a position of vastly increased strength. By being late, the VIP has given you the chance to work the room and develop a rapport with their team. You now have comments and people that you can refer back to for support as you present.
Above all, you kept control of the process, and without inflaming anyone’s egos, remained in charge of the room!