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How to avoid annoying your audience at a Conference 19 October 2017

You’re busy, I’m busy.  So I keep these tips, all nicked from the newsroom, to five pithy paragraphs.  I hope you enjoy them. 

I was recently reporting for the BBC from a big conference about the state of the south-east’s rail industry.  And I couldn’t get over the irony.  It began on time, but was soon running horribly late.

All the big noises were there in Hastings, pulled in by the undoubted clout of the local MP (and Home Secretary) Amber Rudd.  She was banging heads together as part of her campaign to get a high-speed rail link from London to the East Sussex coast.  There were to be ten guest speakers in two hours.  I knew that because the organisers had provided us all with a printed timetable of who was speaking, and when.

As with so many rail journeys, it began on time — 10am in this case.  But then the delays piled up as the speeches began to overrun.  We reached the 10.25 speaker at 10.34.  He took thirteen minutes instead of the ten he’d been given.  Things chugged along.  The 11am speaker didn’t get underway until 11.16.  We were running really late now.  The final speaker, the Rail Minister no less, was scheduled for 11.05, but didn’t stand up at 11.21.  His ten minute speech took 16.

It’s a problem I often see at events I attend as a BBC journalist.  When I’m hosting them for a client myself, though, I make sure everything runs sweetly to time, and here’s one of my tips.  Decide how much time you want to leave for questions at the end, and then treble it — because the chances are that the speakers will have used half of it anyway.  The Question and Answer session is when you regain the power to get things back on track.  They’d left ages for questions at Amber Rudd’s event so, in spite of the abandoned timetable, the destination end-time was in fact reached punctually.

We adopt a similar little trick when we’re putting together our TV news programmes.  There’s a reason the weather forecast is always at the end.  It’s live — so if the preceding pre-recorded news reports have all been longer than planned, the editor has the power to tell the hapless weather presenter — with very little notice — ‘you’ve got 90 seconds tonight instead of two and a half minutes.’  It’s maddening for the weather presenter, of course, but it does make sure our programmes always begin and end bang on time.  That keeps our viewers happy.  If you want happy delegates at the end of your conference, give yourself plenty of power at the end.

Of course, another way to keep things on time is to invite me to host your event for you.  I love deadlines, and am really strict, in a really nice way, about timekeeping.  And I’ve always got the time to take a call. 

Picture: megankatenelson.com

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