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Managing Time at a Conference

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 14 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Managing Time At A Conference

Keeping a conference to a timetable is an intangible art that requires time management, planning, contingency, perseverance, diplomacy, tact and firmness, depending on what's happening and who you are trying to keep in line. It's a racing certainty that things won’t go exactly according to the schedule – the skill is to be able to keep people happy despite this and recover lost time as you go along.

One of the most obvious ways of achieving this is to build contingency time into your schedule. This comprises blocks of time that are there purely to cover for speakers over-running, people with poor time management being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and any other disruptive elements.

Time Management in Different Threads

With a complex conference, one with multiple sessions in different seminar rooms or lecture theatres, make sure that one person or team is assigned with sole responsibility for the time management of the thread of the events at each location. They should make sure speakers are on time, brief them as to how long they have and make sure that they understand the importance of keeping to the schedule.

Time management of individual sessions can be diplomatically tricky. Some speakers may ramble on, and question and answer sessions after a presentation can go on for far too long. Those situations are difficult to control and, with a commercial conference at least, it's important for paying customers to get answers to their questions.

Set Time Limits

Part of planning the conference timing should be the setting of absolute limits for sessions over-running in these situations. The overall conference organiser should make sure that individual event managers know what those limits are. The staff in charge of each seminar location should be empowered to bring proceedings to a halt, and conference speakers should be made aware that they will be wound up if they over-run excessively.

In many cases the speakers at a conference are there because they are experts in their filed and not because they are born presenters. They may need more hand-holding with regard to time management and one option is to agree hand signals that can be given to indicate the passage of time and to help the speaker stay on track.

Political Stalling at a Conference

In some circumstances speakers may deliberately over-run in order to prevent the next speaker getting their allotted time on the podium. This usually only happens if the two speakers are commercial competitors or hold opposing views on a sensitive subject. It is very rare but organising staff need to be aware of the risk. Peer pressure from the audience may well resolve the problem – the audience are likely to work out what is going on and put pressure on the maverick speaker to quit.

Cater for Change

Finally make sure that caterers are kept up to speed with time management changes. Professional caters will know that the refreshment breaks and meals will be truncated to make room for conference events. They will be able to deal with those changes but the more they are kept up to date the easier it will be for them to provide good service.

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