End Meetings On Time With Some Stand-Up Techniques


One of the cardinal rules of stand-up comedy is to never go over your time.  If you are told you’ve got 5 minutes, then you have 5 minutes.  Not 7 minutes, not 6, not even 5 1/2–it means you have 300 seconds.

So naturally I’ve become accustomed to people respecting that… but that doesn’t always happen at work.  It seems like every meeting I’m in goes long because one topic took more time than it was supposed to according to the agenda (and you should have an agenda).  There are times when it’s “necessary” to go long and delay other things, but most of the time it’s the result of someone talking too much.  To me, even “necessary” discussions should be parked (put in the “parking lot” to be discussed in a follow-up meeting) until the appropriate time (i.e. when you’re not delaying a meeting).

I’ve noticed that this is especially irritating if I’m either the agenda owner for the meeting, or have an agenda topic.  Going over your time is a sign of disrespect saying “I don’t care what else we have to cover in the rest of this meeting, what I have to say is more important.”  What makes it “fun” is that some (often?) times the person delaying everything is the senior person at the meeting.

So what can we do about these long-winded talkers delaying our meetings?  This is where you can apply some a few techniques from the stand-up comedy world:

  1. Make it clear how much time they have. Let everyone (especially the presenters) know how much time has been allotted for the current topic.
  2. Have a signal. Decide, before-hand, how you are going to signal to the person that they need to wrap up.  In stand-up, the common practice is to use a flashlight at the back of the room.  If the comedian gets 15 minutes of stage time, they get a light with 5 minutes remaining, and then again with 1 minute.  Tell the presenters what your signal will be and when you will give it to them (e.g. “2 minutes left”).
  3. Stick to your guns. Be willing to stop people when they’ve gone over their time.  Comedians generally get a grace period of 30 seconds to 1 minute.  After that, the sound guy cuts the mic.  You won’t always have a mic, or control of it, so just speak up and move the meeting along (yes it’s rude to interrupt, but it’s also rude to go over your time).

One important thing to keep in mind is that being firm doesn’t mean being impolite.  As long as everyone is clear of the expectations up front, and you approach this in a nice manner, most people will appreciate that you value their time and end the meeting on schedule.  It’s also smart to note the topics that you cut off, and review them at the end of the meeting suggesting follow up discussions should take place to adequately cover them.

And if this terrifies you, don’t worry.  You’ll only have to do it once or twice before Pavlov takes over and everyone knows that they must end on time.  Not only does this make your job easier, but people learn to truly respect the time on the agenda, and you for running efficient meetings.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Drew March 30, 2009, 11:57 am

    Thanks for the Toastmasters perspective, Willis, it’s cool to know it’s being used successfully elsewhere.

  • Willis PR March 24, 2009, 2:58 pm

    That is great advice using stand-up techs to end meetings, I’ve seen it practiced in associations such as Toastmasters International with great accuracy.

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