Blog Post

Keeping speakers to time at conferences

Posted to Gurteen Knowledge-Log by David Gurteen on 19 February 2008



Keeping speakers to time at conferences
WeblogGurteen Knowledge Log
Knowledge LetterAppears in the Gurteen Knowledge Letter issue: 92
Posted DateTuesday 19 February 2008 12:27 GMT
Posted ByDavid Gurteen

I was at a conference recently where I heard that a speaker in one of the streams had so over run their allocated time that a subsequent speaker whose time had been eaten in to protested by refusing to give his talk. Now although I felt this churlish I had a lot of sympathy with him.

At the same conference in a 3 speaker stream in which I was the first speaker, the second speaker although scheduled to speak for only 20 minutes ran to 40 minutes. This not only reduced the time that the third speaker had available to talk but ensured that there was no time for discussion or questions.

It easy to blame the speakers for overrunning their time but many speakers do not have a lot of experience of talking on stage and are nervous and simply lose all track of time. I have seen even experienced speakers do this.

To my mind, the responsibility for keeping the speakers on time rests firmly with the chairperson. As a chairperson myself I have a simple method: I give the speaker time warnings; maybe a card; maybe just a verbal reminder (my preference) but when they come to the end of their allocated time I simply stand up and if need be walk over and stand close to them. If they still don't get the message and stop of their own volition - I intervene to stop them.

It may seem a little harsh and controlling and may annoy the speaker but the alternative is far worse.

Here is the email template I use to brief speakers.
Hello Everyone,

May I introduce myself - my name is David Gurteen and I am chairing the upcoming XXXX conference

I would like to explain the format of the event as it is a little different from other conferences. You each have 40 minutes in total; 25 minutes for your actual talk and then a FULL 15 minutes allocated to discussion and to Q&A.

A few things for you to note:
  • Please keep strictly to your 25 minutes. This is really important. It is totally unfair on the audience and the speakers that follow you if you take your full 40 mins or more and leave no time for discussion and questions. I emphasize this as at every conference I chair as there are at least two or three people who over run - how ever much they agree not to!!

    I will give you a warning as your end time approaches but after 25 mins I will stand up. This will be my signal to you to STOP.

  • Twenty-five minutes is not long - if you can manage it without Powerpoint slides (or keep to just a handful) and make your talk more informal and 'entertaining' that would be great!!!

  • Don't worry about whether there will be enough questions to fill the time or not - that is my problem :-) I will facilitate the discussion.

  • At the end of each session I will ask the participants to turn to each other at their tables and discuss the talk for 5 mins before opening things up to questions to you and a wider conversation within the room.

  • I do not plan to read out your FULL bio as many chairmen do. My intro will be brief and I am much more likely to ask you a question or two i.e. to make the introduction conversational. So be prepared!
My aim is to make the 2 days as informal, interactive, engaging and as conversational as possible. Anything that you can do to help me facilitate this would be welcome.

Please drop me a line or give me a call if you have any thoughts or comments.

I look forward to meeting you and helping to make it a great conference!!

Regards David

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership
David Gurteen

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