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How To Keep Conference Programs Running On Schedule

Keeping Your Conference Running On TimeWhen managing a conference, one of our key responsibilities is to make sure that the program runs on time. After all, it’s not fair to the last speaker of the day to go on stage late, and find that most of the audience has left to avoid missing flights home since the conference is running behind schedule. Nor is it fair to the audience, who may have made appointments for phone calls or personal meetings during a scheduled break.

I always emphasize to speakers and moderators how important it is to stay on time. I make sure they note the countdown clock, which counts down the time left in their session, and which only they can see on stage. And I let them know that when the clock gets down to zero, it’s time to get off the stage – not time to begin audience Q&A, as some moderators seem to think. At many conferences I have my laptop cabled to a confidence monitor facing the speakers, which lets me send them notes, including reminders about ending on time.

With really recalcitrant speakers, I will send the conference host onto the stage to end a session. If the host is reluctant, I have been known to take on the job.

With all of these tricks and preparation, I have a built a great reputation for keeping to the published program schedule — but sometimes it’s impossible. My worst experience was with a conference where the company CEO insisted on letting many speakers and panels run long – way, way long – because he found them interesting. At one point we were almost 90 minutes behind schedule, which caused havoc among the scheduled speakers, audience and especially the poor caterers, who were trying in vain not to ruin the lunch they had prepared.

Guy Kawasaki at TWTRCON SF09 - Photo credit Jerad Hill

Guy Kawasaki at TWTRCON SF09 (which ran smoothly and on-time!)

My other big conference time management defeat came at the hands of Guy Kawasaki, who was leading a breakout session at an event we produced a few years ago. Because we had three simultaneous breakouts occurring, it was very important to end on time — so the people in this audience could get up and go to another breakout if they chose, and so that those in other rooms could get in for the next session in his room.

I had already held up signs at the front of the stage indicating his time was about up, then that it was time to end, and finally that he was five minutes late. Because Guy was not responding, I finally walked on stage to the lectern microphone and told him over the PA system that we had to end his session to get back on schedule.

But Guy was not ready to finish. Instead, he turned to the audience and asked them to vote: how many wanted him to get off the stage — and how many wanted me to get off the stage. I lost the vote and glumly walked off stage, sulking in defeat until Guy finished.

I’ve had Guy speak at conferences since without a problem. Most speakers and moderators are very good about ending on time – especially if you work closely with them ahead of time to make sure they understand why it’s so important.