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7 Ways to Stop Speakers from Going Overtime

Everyone loses when speakers run long. It’s up to you to rein them in.

Fair warning: Rant ahead!

Recently I watched a talented speaker (and friend) Patrick Henry deliver a fantastic presentation called “Be Re-memorable.” He’d worked on it for nine months, and he absolutely blew the audience away! He owned the stage because of his creative and carefully crafted content and the customized songs that he wrote for the occasion. He made us laugh and he made us cry.

So what’s there to rant about? He was the fifth speaker that morning (way too many—right?), and my friend didn’t start…until he was supposed to finish. That’s crazy.

The poor audience was tired. Biology was reminding us we needed a break. Our attention spans were close to fried. It wasn’t his fault the program was running late, but he was the last speaker of the day, and it could have been easy to blame him for the discomfort.

It’s easy to blame the speaker. It’s easy to blame the meeting planner. It’s easy to blame the lack of an emcee. The blame is with all of us.

We’re All in this Together
Hosting events is a partnership. It’s an agreement between meeting professionals, main-stage speakers, AV crew, audience members, emcees, breakout speakers, and hotel staff. Everyone needs to be focused on creating a memorable experience that keeps audiences coming back year after year.  

As a professional speaker, I have often offered to shorten my presentation when things start running long. Whether the meeting planner took me up on it or not, everyone appreciates the offer.

Here’s what I believe are the responsibilities each of the main event constituents:

• The emcee’s major responsibility is to keep the event flowing (and warn your speakers what will happen if they go over).

• The event organizer needs to have—and communicate—contingency plans in case the event starts running late.

• The speaker needs to know it is never OK to go overtime. Period. End of story. It’s unprofessional, selfish, and arrogant.

• If the program is running long and meeting planner tells the speaker to take the originally allocated time, the speaker should inform the audience that the end of the presentation is going to be later than indicated on the agenda.

• Audience members need to complete surveys to share feedback with meeting planners about their experiences.

7 Solutions (Besides a Hook)
What can you do if your speakers go overtime? I asked a group of other professional speakers, and got some great solutions. If you aren’t allowed to use a big hook (I am in favor of this), here are tactics to consider:

1.   Use a professional emcee who is responsible for meeting flow and timing.

2.   Ask the emcee to brief every speaker on what will happen if they go overtime.

3.   Instruct the AV crew to silence the microphones if someone goes over the allocated time.

4.   Ask the AV crew to start playing music... hey it works at the Oscars!

5.   Use a timer the speaker can see.

6.   Use a timer the audience can see. (This is controversial and powerful for short talks.)

7.   Walk on stage and asking your audience to give the speaker a round of applause—yes, even if they aren’t finished.

I implore meeting professionals to reconsider scheduling so many speakers in a row, and to remember when building their agendas that audiences need that biology break. A better event plan takes a less-is-more approach that considers the audience’s attention span and desire to get up and move.

An idea to put into play: Before you finalize your next speaker contract, can you add a clause about staying on time? Can you empower your emcee to remove someone if necessary? Can you brief your AV crew on what you want them to do if instructed by you or the emcee when a speaker goes overtime? Let’s keep all our events on time and stop stealing minutes from each other.

Time is one of the most valuable commodities we have. Everyone wins when we honor it at the highest level.

Rant over.

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