How to run Workshops to Time And Why It's Worth Doing

At the end of November, I ran a 2 day workshop, something I've done 8 times since June 2012. The most recent was typical, comprising 12 parallel sessions, 11 plenary talks and a bar camp. An aspect of 'my' workshops that always leads to comment is that they run to time, that is, sessions begin on time and end on time.

This is unusual, but it doesn't need to be, nor should it be in my view.

I remember very well the occasion when I decided to make a point of sticking to the schedule. I was asked to speak at an event in Utrecht and I was the second of two speakers in a one hour session. I got 10 minutes. That is, the session started late, the first speaker talked and took questions for too long and neither the speaker nor the chair made any effort to keep to time. Clearly his talk was very good and went down well – but I did wonder why I'd bothered to come.

Anyone speaking or facilitating at any workshop will have spent time preparing their talk. They'll have thought about what they're going to say, how they're going to say it, all tailored to the specific audience. Not giving them the expected time to deliver their talk is simply rude.

one person standing at the podium, 3 more lined up behind ready to speak. A large timer shows 1 minute on the wall behind them
Keep people to time and add theatre to the occasion by putting a big timer on the screen. Here, I'm giving three speakers one minute to convince attendees to come to their parallel session. This was at the Share-PSI workshop in Timişoara, March 2015. In the picture are Daniel Pop, Peter Winstanley and Vasile Crăciunescu.

It was with this unpleasant experience very much in mind that I headed to Brussels a couple of weeks later to run Using Open Data: policy modelling, citizen empowerment, data journalism. I began the first day by asking Luca Barbeni to stand up. Who was he? He was the last person on the agenda of the first day, and I wanted to let everyone know that the time allotted to him would be the time he would get, and that what he had to say was going to be just as interesting as everyone else.

This set the expectation for the day and did indeed make sure that the day ran to time but I soon realised that I had made a mistake. The second speaker that day was Noël Van Herreweghe and he had prepared a much longer talk than he had time for and therefore he struggled to rush through his presentation. This was my fault and I've made sure since then that speakers know well in advance how long they'll get.

My tips:

Following these rules will ensure that there will be time for questions and, critically, that you won't need to try and cut into the most important part of any workshop: the coffee breaks.