How To Calculate The Length Of A Speech Or Presentation

Knowing about how long a speech or presentation will take to deliver should go without saying as a crucial component of presenting one.

Yet it’s actually quite easy to understand…

Many people ignore a number of elements that can impact how long a speech or presentation is.

Also take note of the fact that I tend to lean toward entertainment when discussing how to perform speeches and presentations, especially comedy and humor…

You come under the category of “simply another lecture to suffer through” if you don’t engage the audiences you address.

With that said, let’s just get started.

This Is Important

Knowing how long any speech or presentation you deliver is important because:

1. There are usually specific time periods allotted for speeches or presentations, especially if there are multiple presenters involved.

If you ( or anyone else) goes over time, it can adversely impact the speakers scheduled for later in the program who may be forced to shorten their presentations.

2. Most of the time, the time allotted for a speech or presentation is provided as a requirement of the engagement. It is always considered professional to stay within the time limits provided by the host.

3. Some presentations may warrant a question and answer period at the end. If so, then this needs to be factored into the overall time of the presentation.

4. If your speech or presentation is highly entertaining, you’ll need to factor in the time that may be consumed with laughter and applause. I will address this a bit later in this article.

Do let me say that if you fail to calculate your allotted time as speaker and you go over your time, you are automatically viewed as an unprofessional jerk by both the host and other speakers if there are any. They might not say it to you, but I can assure that’s what they will think.

Secret: In addition to ending your speech or presentation on time (within a minute or two of the allotted time), whenever possible, you should always try to leave with your audience wanting more.

This is a powerful means of helping to secure repeat engagements and causing off stage audience interactions, particularly if the talk you provided was interesting and/or highly entertaining.

Now let’s look at a simple example on how to calculate the time for any speech or presentation.

Speech Time Calculation Examples

Let’s say you are in a Toastmasters group and you are challenged to deliver a 3 minute presentation at the next meeting.

While some people speak faster and some speak slower, a fairly good average speech rate is 120 words per minute.

So, for a 3 minute speech, you would use approximately 360 words.

Note: In order to get a more accurate calculation of the number of words you will need for any speech or presentation, you will need to do this calculation using a more accurate speech rate by counting the number of words you use at your normal speaking rate.

For a 15 minute graduation or wedding speech, the calculation would be (using 120 words per minute speech rate):

15 x 120 = 1800 words

Here are some important notes:

1. The type of speeches I have described above won’t usually have any sort of question and answer period. So that aspect does not need to be factored in.

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2. You will also note that there is no time factored in for laughter or applause during these speeches.

Unless your speech or presentation is wildly entertaining and generating copious amounts of laughter and/or applause, this doesn’t need to be factored in.

Author’s Note: I want your speech or presentation to be wildly entertaining and generating copious amounts of laughter and applause! And unless a speech or presentation you need to deliver does not lend itself to the addition of comedy and humor…

You should also know how many punchlines you will be using and the approximate size of the audience that you will be addressing in order to calculate that into you delivery time. I discuss this a bit more shortly.

Factoring In A Q&A Period

If a question and answer period is warranted at the end of your presentation, here is a flexible guideline you can use:

For every 15-20 minutes of presentation provided, allot 3-5 minutes for questions and answers.

The important thing to remember is to subtract the amount of Q&A time that you allot from the speech time FIRST before making the calculation of approximately how many words you will need for your speech or presentation.

Now here is something you need to be prepared for if you really want to look like a pro…

Let’s say you are tasked to give a 30 minute presentation. You factor in a 6 minute Q&A period at the end, which means your presentation will be 24 minutes long (24 x 120 = approximately 2,880 words).

You finish your presentation, ask if there are any questions and then…

Crickets. Nobody has any questions. What do you do? You have two options:

1. Thank everyone and leave. This is most likely the best choice because it tends to indicate that your presentation wasn’t moving, engaging or entertaining enough and the audience desires to LEAVE ASAP.

2. Be prepared with brief supplemental presentation material. Even if a presentation is wildly entertaining, engaging or enthralling there still may be no questions at the juncture of the Q&A period.

At this point you have the option of adding just one more thing that you would like your audience to know.

If you decide to go this route, however  and you decide to use this “leftover time” – it needs to be GOOD because you do not want to deflate any momentum you had from a killer presentation.

3. Be prepared with short and powerful comedy material. The “one last thing” that you share during a Q&A period with no questions could easily be a street joke, funny quote or brief funny story – it does not have to necessarily be related to your presentation.

For example, a clean street joke that has been selected and/or edited for brevity can be a fabulous “closer” for a Q&A period where there are no questions.

Always Talk It Out

What I have provided so far are a few guidelines for getting an estimate on how long a speech or presentation is based on an average speech rate (in this case I used 120 wpm) multiplied by the number of minutes allotted for it.

That is by using a word processor word count. But you will ALWAYS want to talk it out — say your speech or presentation out loud and record it (you can do this using your phone) and here’s why:

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1. When you speak, you actually talk at a fluctuating pace. Depending upon what you are saying and how you say it, the number of words that you actually use in any overall time period can vary.

The longer the speech or presentation, the greater these overall variances can be with regard to determining how long your speech or presentation actually is when spoken aloud.

2. The written word version does not always line up with the spoken word version. Unless you plan on reading your speech or presentation word for word (NOT recommended for reasons I will cover in a different article)…

You will want to read your material outload in order to identify “stumbling points” – indicators that you have “written” the material to be read and not spoken the way you naturally talk. When that happens, edits with be needed that can affect the overall delivery time.

3. You will need to purposefully add pause time for punchlines. You cannot do this in a meaningful way on paper — you MUST do this when saying (or rehearsing) your material out loud.

If you don’t add purposeful 2-3 second pauses after punchlines, you can end up doing what’s called “running over laughs” in stand-up comedy. It basically means that you start talking before the audience starts laughing or has just started laughing.

Why is this important? It is important because an audience cannot hear the speaker and laugh at the same time. So they will abruptly stop laughing to continue listening which by default reduces the speaker’s laughter impact and entertainment value.

Depending upon the frequency (number) of punchlines used and the size of the audience (bigger audience = longer laughter), audience laughter can last 4 or more seconds per episode.

This can add up the longer the speech or presentation time required may be and shorten the amount of speech content that can be provided.

Wrap Up

If you do an online search you will find a number of speech calculators that can help you calculate how long your speech or presentation is based on speaking wpm (word per minute).

Obviously, your speech needs to be written down in order to use one of these speech calculators.

Also keep in mind that there are important aspects that were covered in this article that a speech calculator or word process word count won’t account for when it comes to determining the true length of your speech or presentation.

If your audience is being entertained (meaning that you are generating laughter at great frequency, you have much more leeway with the audience (not necessarily the host of the event) when it comes to going longer than the allotted time for your speech.

Steve Roye is one of the world's foremost experts in the field of spoken word comedy development and delivery for stand-up comedians and public speaking professionals alike. For details about Steve's diverse background and extensive experience, click here.

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