How to Ensure Your Conference Speakers Don’t Overrun

Juraj Holub

Maintaining control over an event agenda seems to be a straightforward task. But even with a well-planned timeline, controlling session timings onsite is one of the most pressing challenges while conducting events.

Since we are often asked this question at workshops, I was curious to learn how other event professionals handle this delicate situation. I posted my question on LinkedIn and Quora, and received a number of valuable comments, which gave me the idea of collating them into an article and sharing with the rest of the community.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading the insights. Thank you, everyone, for sharing your advice.

Inform speakers how much time they have

As with everything in life, prevention is better than correction, and working closely with speakers is the key to ensuring that they stay within the allotted time.

Therefore in addition to briefing your speakers on the topic of their presentation, make sure to inform them exactly how much time they can spend on the actual talk and how many minutes will be allocated to the Q&A session.

TEDx Stockholm Coach Andrew Hennigan explains, “People often confuse slot times for speaking times and forget that there are introductions and questions. Tell everyone that they have M minutes of talk time and that it will be rigidly enforced.”

Andrew shared more great ideas on how to coach speakers to prevent overruns here.

Use a timer and other visual cues

One of the most effective and widespread methods of keeping speakers on time is to use a timer. By placing the timer on stage, you will effectively help your speakers track the remaining minutes so they can adjust the pace of their talk and (hopefully) finish on time.

Moreover, it is common practice for a moderator to track time too and give a speaker a signal toward the end of his or her session, usually 5 minutes before the time is up.

You don’t need to rent expensive equipment to set up a timer. There is a number of free options that you can use on your own computer or tablet – the official TED talk timer (up to 20 minutes of talk), CountdownKingsTimer or simply go to Google and search for “timer.”

As an alternative, you can use other visual cues that work equally efficiently. For instance, Cheryl A. Smith, J.D., says that at her events, she has “3 feet x 3 feet signs so your speakers can see from a distance indicating remaining time – 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and 2 minutes. The last sign is a photo of a stop sign.”

Have a moderator to keep a sharp eye on the agenda

But even with visual cues, your speakers can get carried away.

Therefore, session management should be in the hands of an experienced chairperson who can control the timings “directly by adapting the length of their introductions and Q&A sessions and indirectly by giving cues to the speakers,” as Andrew Hennigan noted.

Synchronizing with speakers is essential too. According to Global Meeting Planner at IACCM Laura Newbery: “[chairperson] needs to speak to the presenters before the session, discuss the format and let them know how he or she will manage the time.”

While the chairperson needs to be firm, handling overruns requires a certain amount of delicacy. Andrew suggests that: “[Chairperson] should start to move closer to the speaker as the time runs out and be prepared to jump in and say “Thank you” at a suitable gap, bringing the talk to a conclusion early.”

Include buffer-time breaks

Including buffer times, such as coffee breaks, in the agenda allows you some flexibility. Try to plan these breaks with some extra time in mind for absorbing any potential overruns. So in case none of the above-mentioned remedies work and you need to cut off a part of the break, the “shortened” break will be actually as long as you planned or even longer.

Adam Kofinas, the Manager of Facilities & Meetings at USCJ, described his approach to planning buffer times:

“If you plan for a 10-minute speech from your CEO, tell him 8 and factor 15 into the schedule. That way, just like when we build in the transition time in moving from plenaries to breakouts and vice versa, you have built-in buffer time and even if they run over, your program isn’t hurt. Best/worst case scenario, he actually sticks to 9 minutes and everyone has an extra 5 minutes added to their break.”

In summary

So in a nutshell, to mitigate the likelihood that your speakers will overrun their allotted slot, make sure to:

  • tell them exactly how much time they have for the presentation
  • use a timer or visual cues to indicate the end of the session
  • brief your moderator to track time and cut in when appropriate

In case, none of the above work, make sure to add some buffer times to your agenda to absorb any overruns.

How do you cope when speakers overrun their allotted times at your event? Please share your tips with us.

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