May 14, 2013 1:01 pm


Q. When is a second not a second?

A. When it’s the last second of the millennium.

Here’s a fact. Did you know that the last second of the last millennium wasn’t 1 second long?

It was 1.001 seconds long.

As the clock struck midnight on December 31st 1999 and you burst open the bubbly you may not have noticed, but the physicists and astronomers did.

Back in the late 1960s, a physicist at MIT was helping the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.  The team had been working out how to send satellites to distant planets by skimming them off the gravitational field of other planets – the ‘slingshot’ effect. A satellite’s arrival needs to be timed incredibly accurately otherwise, at the crucial moment, the planet might not be there.

arrow flying towards a dartboard on a moving truckIt’s just as if you were throwing a dart.  Except you’re in the UK and the dartboard is in Australia.  And the dartboard is on the back of a moving truck.  And it takes several years for the dart to get there.

You have to be really, really accurate.

This drive for accuracy led to the physicist’s realisation that the millennium was going to be a little too short for his liking which led, ultimately, to the addition of 0.001 seconds to the last millennium.

The physicist in question was called Professor Raymond Hide and although he didn’t predict this fact, he would eventually become my father-in-law.


Q. When is a minute not a minute?

A. When you’re waiting for an underground train.

As I stood on the platform at Tottenham Court Road station yesterday, the indicator panel said the next train would be in one minute. Two minutes later it arrived. It’s amazing how London Underground is able to bend time like this.


Q. When is fifteen minutes not fifteen minutes?

A. When you’re presenting.

The 1998 advertising campaign which launched the Heathrow Express rail service was based on Andy Warhol’s idea that everyone will have ’fifteen minutes of fame’, fifteen minutes being the journey time between Heathrow and central London.

You might have your fifteen minutes to impress the world during a presentation but it’s amazing how much time can ‘bend’ both before and during that presentation.

Before, as you are waiting to present, fifteen minutes might seem like half an hour.  But when you’re on your feet, it flies by in what seems like five minutes.

Here’s a fact.  Most presentations overrun.

We have fifteen minutes to fill. We stand up and start. But guess what?  Before long, we’re running out of time and rushing to squeeze in everything we need to say.  And because we’re rushing, our audience misses a lot of our points and our presentation loses its punch.

So what can we do to ensure we stick to time and deliver a powerful presentation?

1. Rehearse out loud.  Very often we think it’s ok to rehearse presentations in our head instead of out loud. But we think four times faster than we speak, so it’s crucial to do it out loud if you’re going to get your timing right.   If it’s an important presentation, rehearse four or five times times. Don’t be afraid to edit if it’s clear you’ll overrun. Remember, less is more, so you mustn’t fall into the trap of speeding up in an attempt to cram it all in.

2.  Get comfortable with silence.  Your audience needs that time to take in and process information.  Pause for a few seconds every 2-3 sentences.  It not only helps to ensure your information is absorbed, but it also gives you more gravitas.  Then you need to allow for those pauses in your timing.

Learning to cope with silence in front of an audience is a real time bender. In one of our advanced level presentation training courses we ask a presenter to look at their audience, in silence, for what they judge to be a minute.  They usually underestimate it and stop at around forty seconds.  Time flies when you’re having fun, but it can really drag if there’s silence and everyone in the room is looking at you.

3.  Allow enough time for questions. Interacting with your audience takes time. This might be in the form of a question that needs an answer, an obvious time stealer, but just the simple act of interacting through eye contact adds time. If you’re not sure how many questions you’ll get (or if you think there’s a chance you’ll have your timeslot cut), build flexibility into your presentations. Work out which bits you could drop if you had to.

4.  Big rooms need more time.  And theatres need even more.  It’s just physics, especially if you’re using a microphone. The time taken to allow the sound and the reverberations to die away before you speak adds time.  Working the audience in a big room takes longer too – the movement, the eye contact.

5. Pace yourself.  There’s nothing worse than being thrown off course by seeing a hand frantically waving from the back of the room trying to get you to wrap it up.  Feeling in control of your time keeps your confidence levels high.  PowerPoint and Keynote presenter’s tools show a clock, or you can use a stopwatch or countdown app on your phone that’s easily visible from a distance.  Or even put the time in small, light type at the bottom of your slide and check it against a clock on the wall or on your phone.

In the heat of the moment it’s easy to lose track of time.  If you can master presentation timing, you’re more likely to deliver a memorable presentation, and, you might just become famous for longer than those fifteen minutes.