Great content, inspiring speakers, a beautiful location, perfect catering and of course the most suitable moderator ... they are all meaningless if the program is poorly designed.
A good meeting design consists of a number of elements. We will discuss them one by one in a series of articles. This article is about: the timing.
When designing the program, be aware of the importance of time. A few things to keep in mind:
Build in extra space in the program to run overtime or to win some minutes. Of course a schedule is important and you want to determine in advance how much time you want to spend on each part. But please don't set it all in stone and allow yourself to be flexible in the execution, decide in the moment and trust your gutt feeling.
There is nothing more deadly to a meeting than a moderator who just looks at his watch all the time and who only manages the planning. That will distract your audience from the content. After all, a successful meeting is about achieving a goal and time is only a means to an end.
Travel through time
Time is a fixed and linear given, they say: a minute always lasts 60 seconds. And you can only use your time once. Yet you can make a crowd feel like time is an endless resource.
Try to program (not too economically) so-called white space: time that is there, but that's not fully programmed.
For a speaker (18 minutes) and Q&A (10 minutes), put 35 minutes in the agenda. Then you suddenly have 7 minutes extra. In case the speaker is running late, or in case there are more questions than expected. Or for that one time when a very interesting side path suddenly presents itself.
Be on time (or rather: a little too early)
There’s nothing more annoying than an event that runs late. Every minute of extension feels like a quarter of an hour. Conversely, no audience has ever revolted if a meeting ended fifteen minutes earlier.
This seems to contradict with what I wrote earlier in ‘be timeless’. Note that this is not about a tight schedule, it’s about being on time for a number of benchmarks like breaks (especially if people want to work for a while), lunch, parallel sessions and the closing.
Often programs have several sessions running at the same time. Try to make sure that start and end are at least simultaneous, so that you prevent part of your participants just walking around waiting and doing nothing.
In plenary sessions, participants may also have a different feeling about time: one might find that a session takes forever, the other finds that time is flying.
The moderator must have a good feeling for that. And in the program design you can take this into account. For example, by keeping a plenary Q&A short, but later in the program offering an in-depth session for the happy few who want more.
Let people partially be in charge of their own schedule. Offer time and physical space to do other things: work, network, relax, or just skip a round of workshops.
Make sure there are always options, but allow participants to cherry pick or even to (hopefully temporarily) drop out. It is pointless to lock people up endlessly in a room.
Participants spend their valuable time at your event. Make sure it feels worthwhile.
For starters, most programs are completely packed from the first to the last minute. Your client prefers to set as many goals as possible, which must all be achieved in one day.
But the participant probably doesn’t want that. The solution is simple: limit yourself to one, clear goal.
Once you've done that, the advice "cut the crap" applies! A lot of program parts can really be shorter and more to the point. That might even mean finishing a speaker a little earlier if you notice that his point has landed and people are getting bored.
Take your time
Don’t be too optimistic about a five minute break. Moving from one workshop to the other, going to the toilet and get something to drink cannot be done in just five minutes. Rather bring some 'air' into the program. Give contestants a little more time between workshops by deleting 20% of the program: it forces you to make sharper substantive choices and it gives you room to actually achieve something.
Confucius once said, "He who is in a hurry, needs to sit down." Chasing through an overcrowded program at a constant maximum pace means that nothing will stick. Participants need time to do nothing, reflect, digest, etc.
Before a Q&A, give a few minutes to think about what else you want to know. After a program part, give people space to take notes or think about how to apply this new knowledge.
Design with creativitime
A day that drags on in the same rhythm is deadly for the involvement and concentration of your participants. People need variety and surprise. A meeting is like a good symphony; not every part requires the same amount of time to be effective. One speaker is shown to advantage in a short, pointed interview. The other has added value telling a nice, somewhat longer story.
Too short is a pity and does not give enough room for learning or change. Too long is atrocious and drains all the energy from the meeting. So dare to work with time slots of different lengths. And dare to acknowledge, when something is ready: if an interview is at its peak after 5 minutes, why continue because there is 10 minutes on the program (see also: be timeless).
When a program crashes, interaction often becomes the victim. During the design of the meeting more and more speakers are added to the program. Because that one professor really shouldn't be missing, there are suddenly just five minutes left for questions. Or the breaks are reduced to 10 minutes for coffee and half an hour for lunch, while networking is crucial for the participants; a missed opportunity!
Therefore, dare to choose: if there is a good reason for that extra speaker, remove the possibility of questions altogether. Better yet: give all the space to the people in the room, and rather delete a speaker. After all: if you as a participant are allowed to participate actively, running out of time feels much less like running out time.
Time is precious. Spend it well. Start in time and stop in time. It's time for better designed timetables.
Jan-Jaap In der Maur