Needed Rule for Symposia: The Time-Keeper Speaks Last (and has only the remaining time)

My father gave me these hints on speech-making: «Be sincere … be brief … be seated.»
James Roosevelt

During the past few days I have been thinking quite frequently about negative events of the past. And yeah, some of it is suppressed anger bubbling up into rants and bitching, like failed group projects. Not fun, but an opportunity to try to come up with possible solutions to annoying situations. And if they can be prevented in the future, it’s worth facing them.

One such an event concerns speaking at scientific conferences. It happened to me, and I’ve frequently seen it happen to other speakers: There is a symposium with four or five speakers, and one or more of them go over the allotted time. Even worse, no-one stops them, even the moderator/time-keeper/chair is unable to enforce adherence to the time. The result is shortened talks of the later speakers, or going over the time for the entire symposium.

Worst case last year was an aged female speaker. She visibly noticed the time-keeper signaling her that her time was up, but she kept on going … and going. Like a cliché academic, she was completely oblivious to the mood of the audience, incl. the others speakers. To make matters worse, the time keeper even allowed questions after she had already gone over her time.

It’s not that difficult to stop a speaker if you are the designated moderator/symposium chair — all you have to do is to get in her face. Stand up, walk to the stage, and just interrupt that person. You can offer her to use her question period for the talk, but when the time is up, it’s up.

Last time I was responsible for the time-keeping during a symposium, I did exactly that. The speaker was pissed, but that was her problem. She knew how much time she had available, and she decided to use her discussion time for her presentation, and still wanted to continue. I might seem like an asshole move to stop a speaker, but I think it’s even worse when a speaker disrespects not only the other speakers, but also the audience members who want to listen to those other speakers.

During the last course with student presentations I used a “Time Timer” — which worked really well. Granted, it’s an overpriced egg-timer, but it was highly visible in the course and clearly signaled when the time was up. Only a few students ran out of time, and those were stopped when I got up and opened the discussion.

In both cases the rules were clear and they were enforced. Both is needed. So, I think one way to enforce time-keeping is having the time-keeper be one of the speakers — and having this person speak last, using only what is left of the scheduled time. This way, there is a strong incentive for the time-keeper to both clearly communicate and enforce the rules.

E.g., five speakers with 15 minutes each, if the first speaker talks for 20 minutes, the time-keeper has 10 minutes for her presentation left, not 15. If the seconds speaker crosses the 25 minutes mark, the fourth speaker has to step in, because the time-keeper is out.

And yeah, in a way, these kindergarten rules are childish. But on the other hand, the behavior of some academics necessitate them.