Questions to Ask When Dealing With Word and Time Limits

When you're dealing with limits, you've got to plan for them.

Constraints come in many forms, but the most common ones we run into in science and engineering are time limits (for presentations) and word limits (for written documents). As wonderful as these constraints can be for encouraging creativity, dealing with them requires some planning. Here are a few questions I like to ask myself when I’m preparing a constrained presentation or document:

  • How do these constraints shape my options for telling this story?
    Maybe I’m giving a talk without slides. Maybe there aren’t good visuals available for my video. Maybe I’m operating within a strict time limit. Each of these constraints affects how I can tell a story — whether I can rely on images to help me tell the story, how much backstory I can afford to include, and so forth. Before I dive into writing, I like to think about my options within the constraints I have. For a no-slides talk, I might start with an in medias res depiction of my main event. If I’m lacking visuals, I’ll spend some time searching for royalty-free options I can use to bulk up my talk or video. And if I have a tight time limit, I’ll think about what the most important thing my audience should know is. Which brings us to:
  • What is the one thing I want my audience to know at the end?
    Every time I prepare a talk, paper, or video, I start with a key message — the idea that I want every member of my audience to walk away with. I sometimes like to think of this in terms of an old-school, 140-character tweet. Consolidating my entire talk or paper into a 1-2 sentence message helps me hone every word, sentence, and image around conveying a singular message. Everything else flows from this message because I can evaluate every subsequent choice based on whether X helps me get my message to the audience.
  • What questions will my audience have?
    Chances are that I know far more about my topic than my audience does. So it’s a good idea — especially when limited in time and words — to think about the kinds of questions the audience will have. Will they have a baseline understanding of the subject? Have they heard of this phenomenon before or is it all-new? What kinds of questions did I have when I first learned about this topic? By placing myself in my audience’s shoes, I can arrange my talk or paper in a way that makes sense for someone on the outside.
  • Does this sentence/paragraph/topic support my message?
    The tighter the time or word limit in a piece, the more critical this question becomes. With strict limits, every word and second has to count. There simply isn’t room for rambling or tangents. And sometimes those constraints force us into hard choices. In these moments, I turn back to my key message to help me decide. Any parts of the story that don’t directly help me convey that message will go on the chopping block. I can’t afford to distract my audience from my key message.
  • Does my audience really need to know this? Am I including this for me or them?
    You might think this question is just a re-wording of the previous one, but there are some subtle differences. Sometimes I’m just so constrained that I can’t possibly include everything I want to, even if it does contribute to my message. In moments like these, it can be incredibly difficult to figure out what to cut, especially if there’s something — a story, aside, sentence, or even phrase — that I really love. In fiction, these beloved tidbits are known as “darlings” and the prevailing advice when it comes to revision is that you must “murder your darlings.” The same idea holds true for those of us in nonfiction. Any part of the story that isn’t necessary to help our audience understand the key message is ripe for deletion. If that feels too harsh, I recommend cutting that text and pasting it into a separate back-up document, where it can serve as a seed for future talks or papers. That lets you simultaneously streamline your current constrained communication while saving good text and ideas for later.

Bottom Line

Writing and speaking with constraints can feel frustrating — especially in an academic culture where we often want to show off how much we know — but with a little planning, you can deliver a talk or paper that interests and excites your audience, leaves them wanting more, and lets them know just how well you know the topic. These questions help me when I’m designing within constraints, and I hope they’ll help you, too.

Do you have other questions you use to guide a talk or paper with strict limits? If so, share them in the comments below!

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(Image credit: A. Todov)

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