On Conferences, Speaker Time Allocation, and Simple Division (Warning: Trivial, Non-Substantive, and Snarky)

So I’m very excited to have the opportunity to attend tomorrow’s “Tackling Corruption Together” conference in London (a civil society event to precede the government-organized Anticorruption Summit on Thursday). It looks like a great program, and I’m looking forward to doing some substantive posts on the conference discussion after I return home. And given how grateful I am to be included, I probably shouldn’t say anything critical about the conference program in advance. But I just can’t stop myself from pointing out that for the opening session has allocated a total of 45 minutes total for: a welcome address by the Rt. Hon. Patricia Southland (Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations), a keynote speech by President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, and opening remarks from three additional speakers (Jose Ugaz, Mo Ibrahim, and Jan Coos Gessink). That comes out to nine minutes per speaker, on average (assuming a punctual start, no delays between presentations, and no time allocated for remarks from the session chair, Axel Threlfall). And while perhaps President Buhari will prove unusually succinct, I’ve never seen a head-of-state manage to keep his or her remarks under half an hour. This strikes me as absurdly unrealistic time allocation.

The rest of the conference program suffers from similar problems, generally allocating around 9-11 minutes per speaker, on average (not including the session chairs, and again assuming no delays or dead time). And I strongly suspect that the most of these speakers will want to take at least 15 minutes for their presentations. So, what will happen (I predict) is that sessions later in the day will be rushed, there will be no time for Q&A or meaningful exchanges among the panelists, and the coffee breaks and lunch hour–often the most productive times of these meetings, because that’s when people really get a chance to interact–will be drastically compressed.

I’m hoping that I’ll be proven wrong, and if I am, I’ll post a mea culpa. But otherwise, we can add this to my litany of complaints about anticorruption conferences (and other conferences, for that matter): Overcrowded programs, with too many speakers and too little time–and perhaps an over-emphasis on getting “fancy” speakers giving prepared remarks, rather than creating opportunities for genuine dialogue. But, again, I fully expect some useful material to come out of this meeting, given the great lineup of speakers. This is hardly an unusual problem. Consider this not so much a criticism as a plea, for future conference organizers, to think carefully about what’s a realistic allocation of minutes-per-speaker.

11 thoughts on “On Conferences, Speaker Time Allocation, and Simple Division (Warning: Trivial, Non-Substantive, and Snarky)

  1. The most important part of conferences like the one you are attending is the breaks. That is where participants meet others with common interests, share information, and network. Sad to say it doesn’t look like much thought has been put into that part of the gathering.

    • I agree that discussions during the breaks are critical, and more attention should be paid to allocating enough time for them and structuring them in a way to promote interactions. However, unless questioners at anti corruption conferences are far more insightful than questioners I’ve seen almost anywhere else, I typically find Q&A the most boring part of any conferences. The panelists typically have substantial expertise, while the questioners are frequently either clueless or care deeply about a pet issue that is of less relevance to the rest of the audience. I can probably count on a single hand — at most, two hands — the number of events I have gone to where the Q&A portion was more meaningful than the speakers’ portion.

      It is possible that things are different at a conference where almost everyone present has significant subject matter expertise in the topic being discussed; if so it would be a welcome change of pace to other conferences. If it is not different, however, I would not worry when speaker time crowds out Q&A time.

    • I’m not sure I agree with you that’s this is troubling. No government has a perfect record on these issues, and sometimes these events can be an opportunity for civil society representatives to challenge government officials, in a public forum, on precisely the sorts of issues you raise. (For example, at last September’s International Anti-Corruption Conference in Malaysia, several civil society representatives aggressively challenged the Malaysian government officials who spoke.) I also tend to think that dialogue and debate are good things, and that we shouldn’t automatically assume that those holding a different veiw have nothing legitimate or useful to say. We need to be careful that we don’t allow our passionate advocacy to tip over into self-righteousness. My preferred way of addressing the sorts of concerns you raise would not be to not invite government representatives to speak, but rather to invite them to speak, but make sure that there’s an opportunity for others (other speakers or audience members) to challenge them (and give the govt reps an opportunity to respond).

      • I agree that all stakeholders including government representatives should be given the opportunity to speak and for others to challenge their actions and views. This is why I think the time allocated for Q&A in conferences are rather too short. I think this is the best opportunity for attendees to challenges speakers on their thoughts allowring for productive exchanges and outcomes. Conference organisers should think along these lines and to provide a reasonable amount of time for Q&A sessions.

      • Fair point, and thanks for the reply. My only concern is that it may be more a forum for propaganda than debate (which, judging by the Mexican press coverage of this event, seems to be the case). But maybe you’re right and I’m too close to the fire: it’s frustrating to see the government’s double discourse on this topic.

  2. So, as predicted, the opening session ended about 45 minutes later than it was supposed to. But, credit where credit is due: The folks managing the conference ran a tight ship after that and managed to get caught up with the schedule by the afternoon (while still leaving reasonable time for coffee breaks and lunch)! Alas, the only way to do that was to run the sessions on a super-tight schedule, without much time for each speaker to go into any depth, or for more than a few short exchanges with the audience. Which in some ways goes to my larger point: Even with excellent (and aggressive) time management by the conference hosts, it’s just too hard to do these things effectively when there are so many speakers and sessions. But, still, I tip my cap to the conference managers for cracking the whip and getting us through the day.

    • See my comment above: the first session went way over the allotted time, but the good folks running the conference did a very good job getting everything back on track. Alas, that came at the cost of really rushing some of the presentations and Q&A — which really underscores my larger point that even with the most competent of organizers, it’s hard to get really good exchanges going when there are so many presentations. The organizers did a nice job trying to keep presentations short, in attempt to make time for more discussion and interaction, but often there just wasn’t enough time.

      But I’ve probably wasted too much blog/comment space on this trivial matter. There was indeed a lot of interesting substance discussed at the meeting, which I’ll try to discuss in upcoming posts.

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