If event planners could see the future, they'd never have to worry about keynote addresses dragging on or expert panels running too short. They would know exactly how to time their events for maximum audience engagement.
Alas, there is no crystal ball for event pros to consult. But New York City-based event pros Laura Mignott, CEO of event marketing and production company DFlash, and Melissa Blazejewski, a longtime events planner and owner of production firm BlazeEvents, have some recommendations for how to time common event session types so they don't feel rushed—or, perhaps worse, endless.
How long should a keynote speaker speak?
Recommended Duration: 20-35 minutes
“Many people think scheduling 30 minutes for a keynote address is best practice. But I believe a keynote shouldn't be more than 20 minutes long— unless you have the world's best speaker,” says Blazejewski. She believes that you lose people quickly if they aren't engaged by a speaker within the first three to five minutes.
Blazejewski advises that "twenty minutes is long enough for those who are engaged to learn something—and short enough to keep the attention of the people who aren't.”
If you do happen to have an amazing keynote speaker on tap, to keep the programming short and sweet, then limit the talk to 35 minutes max.
How long should a panel discussion last?
Recommended Duration: 20-45 minutes
The length of a panel discussion depends on the number of speakers, and Mignott pegs that “magic number” at five. “If you have more speakers than that, no one will get a chance to talk,” she says. But what’s the ideal breakdown?
Consider this timeline with five speakers:
- Brief introduction from the moderator (5 minutes)
- Each speaker gets five minutes on the mic (25 minutes total)
- Short wrap-up (5 minutes)
- Audience Q&A after the panel (5-10 minutes)
Blazejewski recommends making panel discussions even shorter—just 20 minutes, if possible—because, in her experience, the format often falls flat with audiences. “Panels tend to rank lowest on attendee feedback surveys,” she says. “I think fireside chats are a better approach.”
Mignott likes the fireside chat format because “it just invites a more free-flowing discussion,” she says. "And because there are only one or two speakers, people have more time to talk and share their point of view.
"That’s not to say panel discussions can’t be effective. The trick, Blazejewski and Mignott agree, is to put together a rock-star panel of speakers who can share different perspectives. In addition to making panels more lively and engaging, thoughtful speaker planning by event pros also lessens the risk that the session will run short, Mignott says.
How long should Q&A sessions last?
Recommended Duration: 10-15 Minutes
Mignott is not a fan of the traditional audience Q&A format—that is, waiting until the very end of the presentation to let the audience ask the speaker questions. Instead, she urges speakers to “take a more interactive approach” allowing attendees to ask questions digitally or aloud, before they wrap up sections of the discussion.
“Audience members can engage with the speakers when their questions are top of mind and relevant to the topic being discussed at the moment.” Mignott says.
Blazejewski says event planners should not feel pressure to set aside time for a Q&A after every event session. She suggests making a “game-time decision” based on the mood in the room. If you are using an event app, you can gauge the sentiment and engagement in the room by seeing if people have asked questions in the session channel or are offering any feedback. You can also prompt attendees to ask questions ahead of time in the app for the Q&A session so you’ll know whether it makes sense to dive into Q&A or not.