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Don’t Say Too Much

Knowing when to stop talking can be just as important as what you say.

By Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP

If you’re giving a seminar, speaking before a community group or a meeting of your colleagues, knowing when to stop talking can be just as important as what you say. An audience of glaze-eyed individuals glancing at their watches is bad for your self-esteem, and your bottom line. So the next time you perform a seminar or give a presentation, keep in mind Mark Twain’s adage, “One word may be effective, but no word is as effective as the rightly timed pause.”

Don’t unnecessarily lengthen your seminar by using too many visuals. One or two slides per five minutes is a good measuring stick.

The general principle for seminars or speeches is to stop when audience interest is at its peak. In telling a story, the speaker should have a sense of direction. Never take too long to describe a scene, and don’t take too long to get to the point of the story. The story has to be exceptional to take more than two minutes of speaking time. When you get to the point of a story, stop. Don’t explain and review the story after the punchline. Let the point of the story be what you leave the audience to think about. If you feel a need to explain the story, you probably have not done a good job of telling it in the first place.

Get to the point
Don’t spend 10 minutes on the introduction even if it’s a long seminar. Two to three minutes is enough to get you into the body of your presentation. An audience decides in the opening minutes whether to listen or not, so if you take too long to get into the heart of your message, the audience will lose interest. In the opening, get the attention of the audience with a startling statement, quotation, story or question. Humor can also work well as an opening. Next, give a preview of what you plan to cover in the seminar. Then move directly into the heart of your speech.

Avoid talking about the weather, the audience members, or the person who introduced you. Say only those things that will get the audience with you before you move into the content of the seminar.

Handling stats, humor and visuals
In providing statistical evidence, stop with the most significant statistic. Divide statistics into threes if you have several to give; that is all the audience can assimilate at one time.

If you are telling a funny story, and the audience doesn’t respond the way you think it should, do not explain what you think they may have missed—just move on to your next point. To save time and awkwardness, don’t predict that you are about to tell a funny story; this way if no one laughs you can move on to your next point.

When you are using multiple graphs and charts as visuals, don’t spend much time explaining them; this negates the reason for using visuals, which is to simplify the complex. If you can’t explain the chart or graph in 30 seconds, you probably should revise the visual to make it simpler. Don’t unnecessarily lengthen your seminar by using too many visuals. One or two slides per five minutes is a good measuring stick.

Know when to say when
Knowing when to stop at the end of a presentation is key. Know before you begin how much time you have to speak and then stop a couple of minutes before time is up. Also, be sure to include time for questions. Time your speech so there is a five- or 10-minute question-and-answer period and tell the audience at that point how much time they have for questions. Answer each question as concisely as possible—your goal should be 30 seconds or less. Possibly the only person really interested in knowing the answer is the person who asked the question, and the rest will lose interest quickly.

Deliver your conclusion after the questions. This allows you to control the end so that you can stay within the timeframe and leave your audience with the message you want them to go home with. Our culture is very time-conscious, and even with a great presentation, if you go over time, the audience will lose patience. It is much better to stay under the time limit.

The key to giving a seminar or speech is not just to share information with the audience, it is also knowing when to stop sharing information. Leave the audience wanting to hear more. This is especially important when giving a seminar, when you’ll want clients to contact you for a follow-up appointment. You’ll know you have succeeded when you hear departing audiences say, “Time went so fast. I could have listened for another hour!”

© Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, used with permission.

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is a professor of speech communication at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Ky. He is a trainer in communication and presents seminars and workshops to corporations and associations. He can be contacted through his website, at or at 800-727-6520.


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