Talk Scheduling At Conferences

I’m at FOSDEM this weekend; it’s a large conference. They seem to find one or two new rooms to use every year, and it now sprawls across most of the ULB campus in Brussels.

It has rather surprised me that several otherwise experienced and excellent devroom organizers (naming no names) have organized their rooms on the mistaken belief that switching between speakers, and having people exit and enter the room, happens instantaneously. It doesn’t.

If you schedule your talks in 25 or 55 minute slots (including Q&A) instead of 30 or 60 minute slots, you benefit yourselves, your audiences, and the whole conference in the following ways:

  • Attendees don’t feel they have to leave the talk in your room before the end in order to be sure of catching the beginning of the next talk somewhere else, thereby disrupting the talk, missing the last bits of content (perhaps the all-important summary) and missing the chance to thank the speaker.
  • Attendees can enter and leave the room without feeling they are being rushed or have to be totally silent. (“Please be quiet while entering and leaving/during the Q&A” really doesn’t work.)
  • Room organizers have time to encourage people to move to the middle, or other compression strategies, and pack their rooms for maximum benefit.
  • Whoever is helping you with audio-visual can switch over laptops and get microphones moved over without disrupting the end of the previous talk or making the next speaker start late.
  • Attendees released from your room do not turn up at a different room 5 minutes after the start, thereby disrupting their talks. Love your neighbour.

If you don’t do this, and schedule in 30 minute slots, what happens is that people actually still get 25 minutes or less to speak, as changeovers still have to happen, but the speaker ends up starting late, rushed and grumpy and no-one really knows when they need to finish. 30 minute slots are an illusion. 10 minute/5 minute/2 minute/Time’s Up! cards are a very useful addition to this system, so the speaker knows exactly where they are. If they don’t finish in time and have to be cut off, then they need to be gently encouraged to prepare better next time.

It may be that 5 minutes is not long enough for people to get from one side of the conference campus to the other, and so the issues are not totally suppressed. But there’s only so much you can do, and giving people 5 minutes is much better than giving them 0 minutes.