Keeping public speakers on time is a common challenge for event organizers: even when just a few presentations run over a couple minutes, the whole day becomes mayhem. Getting back on track is nearly impossible. Many speakers may feel that it is normal to run over their time slot or even worse, they cannot control their timing, without realizing the consequences it can have for the whole conference. An enthusiastic speaker can get carried away and even the most experienced speaker can lose track of their timing.
So, what are some foolproof ways to make sure your speakers stay on time?
1. Clearly communicate timeframes
How long you expect them to talk: you need to clearly communicate to your speakers how the schedule of the event will works, and how long you need their presentation to be.
Do not be vague here, give very specific time frames. Instead of saying they are scheduled to talk for 20 minutes, give the exact times you would like them to start and finish their presentation. For example, “Your presentation will start at 10:05 and must end at 10:25.”
Review the timing: when the speaker arrives, review the timing with them again. This is also the perfect time to go over cues and signals with them. If there have been any changes to the time frames: clearly express it here and make sure that they are flexible to make any needed changes to adapt.
Consequence of going over: right before the speaker gets on stage, review with them a final time how much time they have. Warn them what will happen when they go over their time frame (e.g. you gently knock a glass) - but remember to be professional.
2. Leave yourself buffer room
Transition Times: leave time for speakers to get on stage and get set up, for people to move to different rooms and time for questions and feedback after a talk.
Some event organizers find it helpful to tell the speaker less time than they have planed on the agenda to make sure that there is a bit of extra room for transitions.
No one is ever upset if a day finishes a little early but people can quickly become irritated if a day runs over!
Speakers Who Go Over: always build extra time in the agenda for speakers who go over. It can be used as valuable networking time.
Be Clear With Experienced Speakers: most seasoned speakers will automatically add in their own buffer room unless you clearly tell them otherwise. If you are positive your conference or training will run exactly on time, make sure to tell your speaker so they can adjust.
3. Timekeeping devices
Make a clock visible: make sure the room where the talk is taking place has some sort of timekeeping device. Whenever possible, put one right on the stage or pulpit where the speaker can see it clearly.
Check-in with the Speaker: talk with the speaker beforehand about how they plan to keep their talk on time. Ask them what techniques they plan to use, like whether they have a watch, or an alarm.
Give the speaker a timekeeping device if they don’t have one and there isn’t one on view: have an extra timekeeping device (like a watch or small timer) available in case your speaker does not have one and there isn’t a clock on the room or on stage.
4. Use signals
Eye Contact: even the most experienced speakers can run over or forget the time. For lower key events, try to catch the eye of your speaker and let them know by tapping your wrist (this is universal!) that their time is running out or up.
Predetermined Cues: some event organizers use cue cards to signal to the speaker that their time is up. Ensure that you communicate to the speaker before they get on stage what the cue card means, and that they should be looking out for it. Avoid using cues that make noise (like bells, alarms or buzzer) because they can be disruptive to the audience.
Use two signals: for flawlessly smooth transitions, you can give your speaker two signals, one for when they should start to wrap up their talk and a second for when they need to end the talk. The time difference between these two cues is up to you, but most speakers find at least a five-minute warning to wrap up their ideas very helpful.
5. Get up on the stage
In the worst case scenario, a speaker will ignore the timeframes, ignore the signals, and keep talking well past the “safe-zone” (added extra time) of their presentation time. As uncomfortable as it may seem, as the event organizer, you need to take action.
Start by standing up and slowly moving towards the stage, completely visible to the speaker. Then, if the speaker does not finish their talk immediately you will need to go directly up and stand next to the speaker. Most speakers will take the hint and stop talking.
However, if they still do not, the most polite and courteous way to end the presentation is to thank the speaker and inform the audience that the discussion will have to continue at a later time.
You can even soften this by suggesting another place and time, such as “after today’s last session in the main concourse hall.”
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