Best Practices for Timekeeping at Conference Panels

stopwatchI’m writing this post as I travel home from the North American Victorian Studies Association meeting, one of the professional conferences I regularly attend. Thinking over the panels I attended at the conference, I was pleased that almost all the presenters I saw kept within the allotted 20-minute time frame for individual papers, which allowed for substantial time for questions from the audience. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Maybe you’re the third speaker on a panel at a conference, sitting there listening to the other papers, and you start to realize that (one or both) of the speakers is running so far over time that you will have to either cut your presentation short or cut into the time allotted for discussion.

Or maybe you’re a panel moderator and when you signal to a speaker that he is nearing the cutoff time for his talk, he says “oh, I’m almost done,” but your heart sinks as he gestures at five more page of typescript.

As an audience member, too, it can be really frustrating to witness one speaker taking up more than their fair share of presentation time, particularly since that can influence the kind of discussion that follows.

Although individual presenters bear a lot of responsibility in designing and delivering talks that fit within the allotted timeframe, there are also things that panel moderators and conference organizers can do to help ensure that panels run smoothly and fairly.

As a conference organizer, you can:

  • inform presenters of the time limit for individual presentations with the acceptance notification
  • remind presenters again 1-2 weeks before the conference of the time limit
  • remind moderators of the session time limits and encourage them to firmly enforce individual presenter’s limits
  • provide timers in each room for use by the panel moderator
  • provide signs that moderators can use to silently signal to presenters when they are nearing the time limit. (For example, some conferences use differently-colored sheets of paper for five, two, and zero minutes remaining.)

As a panel moderator, you can:

  • email the presenters before the conference to remind them of the time limit
  • decide how you will keep track of time during the session
  • decide how you will cue speakers when they are nearing the time limit (holding up a paper sign, a hand gesture, or the audible chime of a timer)
  • clearly communicate to both the presenters and the audience about the time limits and structure of the session

As a presenter, you can:

  • practice delivering your talk to discover and smooth out any difficult spots
  • use a stopwatch to find out how long your practice delivery takes and cut material if necessary
  • use your own timer during your talk to keep track of how well you’re sticking to your prepared pace
  • decide in advance a jump point in your sequence of slides or prepared remarks so that if you are, say, five minutes before the end of your time, you know where you can skip to in your materials to wrap up your presentation
  • be alert to cues from your panel moderator

For many of us, academic conferences provide a rare opportunity to speak about our research to the specialized audience who is most likely to give us useful feedback. It’s easy to get carried away by enthusiasm for your subject and run over time during your presentation. (I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself on occasion.) But thinking carefully about how much material you can honestly present in 10, 15, or 20 minutes and preparing your presentation accordingly can greatly contribute to a more equitable and more interesting conference experience for all involved.

What other tips do you have for timekeeping at academic conferences? Let us know in the comments!

[CC licensed image from flickr user wwarby]

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