When you're up on stage, timing can be everything. Beginning your speech at just the right moment as the applause dies down. Giving the audience a moment to let an important idea sink in. Letting laughter run just long enough for everyone to enjoy it, but not so long it fades and gets awkward. Timing is crucial, but many speakers forget the most important aspect of timing: using the time you have been allocated effectively, by going neither over, nor significantly under time.
There are three main reasons why keeping to time is crucial, affecting you, your audience and your host.
You: Leaner, cleaner speeches
Making sure your speech is well-timed requires rehearsal, and that will force you to think in detail about what parts of your script are critical to making your point. Why make three jokes about the merits of tabs over spaces (or vice versa) when just one will suffice? Not only that, but it will be the best of the three.
The Audience: Keep them focused
Particularly for shorter presentations, if the audience senses you're about to run over, then they're going to get restless. Back when I was running an open mic night, we had a comedian drag a 5 minute spot out to 10 minutes, ignoring every signal that it was time for him to wrap up. Suffice to say that for the last few minutes nobody was really listening to his material, we were all just willing him to get off the stage.
Which brings me to my final reason.
Your host: Make their job easy
I'll freely admit that I'm terrible at confrontation, and could never bring myself to swoop in and chase an over-running act off stage. Nobody really likes doing that, and nobody in the audience really wants to see it.
There is a finite amount of time for all the speakers or events scheduled around you, and the venue is often only booked until a certain hour. As such, if you go over by a lot you're more than likely to cause a headache. There may also be problems if you run significantly under time as well, since whoever is following you might not be ready.
A good rule of thumb is to aim to be no more than 5-10% under time, and certainly never more than 30 seconds over time.
How to get it right
The first place you can work out your timing is during the writing phase. If you're the sort that likes to write out your speech in full beforehand, you can judge the length of your written speech based on the average speaking rate of 110-150 words per minute. When I'm writing speeches, I like to write out each sentence or phrase as a separate, double-spaced line. In which case, 2 A4 pages is typically good for a 5 minute speech.
As I advocated in a previous article, running through your speech out loud a few times is a great way to work out the wrinkles, and that includes making sure it's of the right length.
Of course, practicing a speech is very different from actually giving one. You may find that you speed up due to nerves, slowed down for raucous laughs, or distracted by an unexpected aardvark escape on the front row. As such, you'll need a way of keeping track of time while you're actually speaking. Many events will have timing signals provided, but it's good to have your own backup just in case.
It's for this reason that I wrote Speaker Alert, an iOS app that lets you know how much time you have left through easy-to-recognize lighting cues (based on the traffic-light model used by Toastmasters), or discreet vibration alerts on your phone or Apple Watch. For practicing, you can also see your current elapsed time on-screen.
Speaker Alert is 100% free and available today for iOS 8 and higher.