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Booed for Keeping Speakers on Time

February 3, 2013 Filed under Blog, Featured, Presentations 

I was session chair at a recent meeting. The meeting was running behind, and they crammed a speaker from the morning session into mine, effectively taking away my 15 minutes of free discussion time at the end. Each slot was 20 minutes long, which as most experienced speakers would infer means that you get 15 minutes for presenting and 5 minutes for questions. The first speaker started. As I pointed out at 10 minutes that he had five minutes to go, he objected. At 16 minutes I stood up, and he continued talking to just shy of 20 minutes. When I told him that there would be no time for questions, the speaker objected by saying that he had 10 seconds. Some members of the audience objected again. So, I allowed one question, noting that it had to be negative 8 seconds in duration.

Some people do not know or use proper etiquette at scientific meetings.

If you are a speaker and are told how much time you have to talk, assume that this does not include time for questions and answers.

If you have a 10-15 minutes talk, allow for 2-3 minutes for questions. If you have a 20-50 minute talk, allow for 5-10 minutes. That is the polite thing to do if you desire to have discussion of your paper afterward.

If you speak for the entire time, do not expect session chairs to do you the honor of allowing questions and answers. You have already caused the meeting to run behind and have either taken time away from the other speakers or have taken time away from the audience for having coffee or lunch. Neither of these groups are usually very forgiving.

You are a session chair at a meeting. A speaker is given a 20-minute slot and talks for 20 minutes, leaving no time in the published agenda for questions. What do you do?

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3 Responses to “Booed for Keeping Speakers on Time”
  1. Matt Bunkers says:

    I agree Dave, speakers need to respect the time constraints. This is courteous to all others involved, and not following it shows great disrespect and arrogance. Related to this, I’ve seen session chairs who have been too timid, and thus allow the speaker to go way over their time limit (or fail to prevent them from doing so).

  2. I agree with the blog post in the context of how most conferences are constructed. However, this points to the dire need to construct conferences in different ways. The normal 15min with 5min for questions is based on flawed assumptions – 1. that knowledge is created via one-way transmission of information and 2. speakers have something significant to transmit at a conference.

    There are other ways to create interactions that allow for ideas to be discussed and there are good examples from which the larger conference world can learn. What is the point of having keynote/major speakers who ramble on about their book or main ideas that they have published about and talked about in multiple places? I can read! How about facilitated roundtables? Currently most poster sessions are not used as well as they could, but surely we could envision using posters as a way to spark useful interaction for all, not just “junior” researchers. I have created conferences, chaired and presented and it is possible to do things differently. Yes, it is easier when the conference is small, but hey, if we can be creative with research questions and funding proposals, can we not figure out how to make conferences more worthwhile?
    cheers, Alison

  3. Prof. David M. Schultz says:

    Hi Alison,

    You raise excellent points. I am not sure that conferences are fit for purpose today. The idea that someone yakking in front of 20-500 other people about the minute details of their research doesn’t seem ideal. Maybe more talks should focus on big-picture issues and more time given to discussion of those issues?

    Inspiring speakers overcome the difficulties you raise through presenting interesting twists on stuff we already know or challenge our lack of understanding with new insights from their research. If you’ve ever seen a really good public speaker, you know what I mean.

    Details can be read in the paper, as you point out. They should not be used to bore the audience.

    I have made the argument before that if we were to construct a method by which scientists would get together to share with each other new research ideas, the scientific conference is probably not what we would develop. Nevertheless, I am hard pressed to think of creative ways to fundamentally change conference format. I am intrigued by your idea of roundtables and better use of poster presentations. Tell us more!


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