Cut It Short: Strategies for Emergency Speech Surgery

               Speaking concisely is tough for everyone. That is why I enjoy examples of brevity and conciseness. For example, here’s my favorite “shortest ghost story.”

He opened the closet,

checked under the bed,         

locked the window,

and threw the deadbolt on the door.

Then he got into bed and blew out the


A voice from the darkness said, "Now

we're both locked in for the night.” 

    My favorite short movie title is “Snakes on a Plane.”  That says all you need to know about the movie!

              One of the toughest challenges in speaking is when you are told a day or an hour before you speak that because of extenuating circumstances you must cut your 30-minute presentation to 20 minutes. You have prepared carefully and you know you have at least 30 minutes of important material. What do you do? 

    Don’t rush through the speech. Don’t tell the audience at the beginning of your presentation that you have to cut it short and you do not know how you are going to do it. Don’t go ahead and take your 30 minutes you had originally been promised. Don’t panic!

              Instead, look at the structure of your presentation and determine a point and support to omit. Prioritize the content of your presentation in order to make the decision. If you have three main points, decide which is the least important section and leave it out. You can do that easily if your points and evidence for each point are clearly defined. As a regular part of preparation for any presentation, you should develop your structure so that you have a point and support for each section of the body of your presentation. Having done that will facilitate your ability to cut from the original length of the presentation if necessary.

               If you have slides, consider omitting them. Most visuals take extra time. Remember, your audience will not feel slighted because they don’t know what you planned to do in the first place. Avoid statements such as, “If I had more time I would have included slides or props….” 

              After eliminating the least important point and support, your next source of shortening your presentation is to omit multiple pieces of evidence. Examine which point would be least likely to require as much explanation or evidence for that particular audience and cut out the less important and less interesting.

              Minimize your introduction and conclusion. For example, use a quotation instead of a story to get the attention of the audience. Preview by simply stating the main idea you want them to gain from the presentation. In the conclusion, summarize in a couple of sentences and move them to action with one sentence of admonition.

    Do not let the mental pressure of trying to include everything in a much shorter time frustrate you and create unnecessary anxiety and tension. Simply rethink what is most important and what is less important and be a skilled surgeon before you are the accomplished speaker.

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University in the Cincinnati area. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at He can be reached at 800-727-6520 or at

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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