Adding Interaction Concern #2: Losing Control Of the Clock

Presenters should be concerned about clock management when adding interaction to a session or talk.  You can rehearse, time, edit, and somewhat control the pace of your speaking segments. This is not possible when you invite participants to engage with each other.

Or is it?

The timing of interactive elements is definitely manageable albeit less tightly than your speaking segments. You only lose control of the clock when you don't plan (1) an initial approach for managing it, and (2) alternative tactics to adopt based on what happens in real-time.

Providing structure enables the desired learning from an interactive segment (see my previous post) and it helps manage time for interactive segments.  And as you use interactive formats repeatedly, you hone in on the length and structure that groups of different dispositions require to have the intended learning experience.

So how does this work in action?  Let's look at two examples where I have previously lost control of the clock: (1) introductions, and (2) small group reporting out. I'm not alone here, right?

Introductions: Getting to Know You

You've decided that introductions are needed to break the ice. Let's imagine you're asking individuals to share their name, title, organization and tenure, and one unique or interesting thing about themselves ... in 60 seconds.  If you simply offer that instruction and then let someone begin, invariably the first person will exceed your allotted time and others who follow will do the same. Your session just started and you're already behind the clock.

Here's an approach providing more structure to help manage the time:
  • Explain you want to do quick introductions so people can get a sense of who else is present, but you don't want to spend the entire session doing so.  Tell participants you need their help to make this happen.
  • Describe (I would use a slide to engage people visually as well) the way you want people to introduce themselves, taking only 60 seconds to do so.
  • Give people 2-3 minutes to identify and note their unique characteristic.  This honors introverted learners as well as increases the odds that everyone will listen to others' intros.
  • Point out that we often don't talk in 60-second increments (heads will nod). Then either (1) model the way and do your own intro, asking someone else to time you; or (2) ask for a volunteer who thinks he can do a nice introduction in 50-60 seconds and you time.
Two key elements make this process work: (1) participants are engaged in managing the time; and (2) an appropriate intro is modeled for them to emulate.

Why do I suggest 50-60 seconds as the starting example? Because otherwise people rush through their intro as fast as they can and it defeats the purpose of the entire process. If you want to provide further structure, have a 60-second hourglass available that participants can opt to flip as they begin their introductions, enabling them to monitor themselves.

Capturing the Wisdom of Others: Small Group Reporting Out

Things can really go amiss here if you don't plan optional approaches and provide upfront structure.  The key question to initially answer is: does every group need to be heard from, and if so, to what degree? Your response provides the constraints for calibrating the time you'll use and the format that it will allow or comparably, the format you decide to use and the time it will require.

In general, I find workshop participants can listen to 3-5 groups reporting and/or about 15 minutes of total reporting out no matter how many groups.  After that they disengage and lose interest.  So even if you have time to hear from many more groups, it may be ineffective to do so.  This changes for a group of colleagues working together on a project or to set strategy. They are likely to have a longer attention span and a more active commitment to hear from others.

Here are some possible ways I might structure and introduce 15 minutes of small group reporting out to participants in a conference session I am leading:
  1. We'll do some quick reporting out after your discussions. We've got 15 minutes and 10 groups, so that will be 90 seconds/group. Note: The rapid reporting out might maintain attention spans for so many groups, but it is risky.
  2. We'll have 15 minutes for some small group reporting out. I'll initially ask each group to take about 45 seconds to share its most powerful takeaway. We'll then use the remaining time for groups to share any additional insights they think other participants really need to hear until the clock runs out.
  3. I'd like each group to record their top three takeaways in large legible print on a flipchart and post them when time is called.  I'll give you a two-minute warning when it is time for you to stop discussing and to capture what you want to share. You'll then have 7-8 minutes on your own ("gallery walk") to scan the output from other groups prior to about 5 minutes of large group discussion.
  4. We'll have about 15 minutes to capture some of the wisdom generated in your small group discussions. With more than 30 groups in the room there is no way we can do that verbally.  I'm asking you to Tweet your discussion takeaways in real-time using this special hashtag.  When we reconvene, you'll first quickly scroll through these Tweets with your small group colleagues prior some facilitated large group discussion.
  5. When we reconvene I want to gather 4-6 great takeaways from different groups, but won't be calling on each one to report out. So if you have an insight to share, I'll look to you to volunteer.
  6. Do #4 except use a Google doc.
And I always invite groups to efficiently report out that they simply "ditto" what another group has already said instead of repeating and chewing up more time: In our discussions we came to the same conclusions as group #3.  Finally, when inviting groups to report another takeaway during a second round, it helps with time management if you do so by saying: "Who has a new insight we haven't already heard that you would like to share?"

Alternatives to traditional reporting out

Instead of having individuals report out to the large group, you could use the Ambassador approach I've previously written about, sending a small group representative to another table to share takeaways more intimately. This can be repeated with rotation and sharing with a second table, time permitting.  Or instead of having the initial small group conversation generate takeaways to share, you could use my Prospector approach. Here participants first mix freely with others, collecting ideas in response to a topic or question you provide.  Subsequent small group conversation passes on the best of individuals' prospecting finds.

These are just a few of the possibilities you could consider, weighing (1) the learning goals for the overall session, (2) the potential value of the content small groups are generating, (3) participants' need to hear from others, and (4) the time available for doing so. Ideally, you structure any interactive elements to give yourself the flexibility to recalibrate the format based on real-time clock management.  This means that you identify possible options as you design your session and prepare the necessary slides and other materials to give you flexibility to modify formats on the fly. Example: if groups are deeply engaged in their discussions, I might allow a bit more time for them to continue and then opt for a faster reporting method.

The clock is your friend, but only if you build a relationship with it. Plan on how you will effectively manage time in order to address the content of your session with the interaction you want to create.

I've added interaction to a 10-minute TEDx talk for 600 people seated in an auditorium and used multiple engagement formats in a 60-minute session for a couple of hundred people seated at more than 30 rounds in a convention center ballroom. It isn't always easy, but it most definitely can always be done.

Previously in this series:   
Adding Interaction Concern #1: Losing Control of the Content
"You've Got to Make Your Presentation Interactive"

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