Timing, Seriously

Giza - 2003

Giza – 2003

Timing may or may not be Everything. Without a strong sense and control of it, however, you have Nothing.

We’ve talked a bit about this, before, in a post, distantly past. In the wake of a recent meeting I attended at which program timing and the commitment to it was discussed, I thought it might be helpful to go into the subject a little deeper.

As Director, as Producer, our job is the integrity of the show or program; seeing that the message is delivered sans distraction or obstruction and as evocatively or compellingly as possible. The experience of the Audience is the single, most important criterion.

Yes. More important than the happiness of the speaker, the performer, the sponsors, the caterer: above all, you want the audience happy and receptive.

Now, that being said; if any of the above are not happy, chances are you are risking the quality of experience you most want for your audience. So, yes, it’s a tightrope. No one needs to be unhappy to protect the audience experience.

What it takes is commitment to the best delivery of the message or experience on the part of the creators, and a Stage Manager who appreciates that s/he is responsible for seeing to it that plans are appreciated, understood, accepted, kept.

Now (and, I am generalizing, here…), more often than not, a microphone can be like crystal meth. Once a performer has a grasp on one, it can be as though it and the performer are one. That mic can become remarkably difficult to wrest out of a grip. For politicians and Social Leaders, this dynamic is exacerbated by the genetic predisposition to meld the molecules of one’s hand to the handle of the microphone such that the Jaws of Life are often necessary to relieve the audience of the speaker’s burden…or the burden of that speaker.

So, lightheartedness aside, How…?

First, a pair of anecdotes from which I learned in a practical way how important adherence to program timing – and the value of brief, tight, pithy programs:

  • adds value to and keeps the integrity of an experience,
  • is greatly appreciated by one’s (often pleasantly surprised) audience and
  • is most usually embraced by the Professionals with whom one might be working.

Audience Appreciation

Way back in the dark ages, post-television but pre-web, I was producing an event for a high-end group of political donors in Northern California. The only speech that stood in the way of progress from cocktails to dinner was that of a State Representative from the area, known behind-the-scenes as a tad long-winded. His speech was slated for 5 minutes. In pre-show conversation, I raised that time constraint and he nodded. I was young and relatively inexperienced; I thought we had an Agreement and didn’t worry about it.

Later, as he passed the ten-minute mark with no signs of slowing down; I took things into my own hands. On headset, I said to my stage managers who were holding-closed the doors to dinner, “hm….I think I might be having trouble with the sound, here…somethings funky…be prepared to respond to me, just in case…”

I then turned off his microphone.

He began smacking the mic and gesticulating to me that he was having sound trouble. I nodded, held up my hand in the “wait” signal and looked to be fiddling with the board as I said into my clearcom, “open the doors.”

The doors opened as I looked back across the room to him and held up my hands in the “wow, I have no idea why you don’t have sound” gesture as the audience rapidly flooded into the dining room. That anteroom was cleared within about two minutes. Happy audience, mood and energy preserved.

The client came over to me to commiserate; “Damn, too bad about the sound…but I don’t know if he’d ever have stopped speaking, otherwise…”

[Note: “It is always easier to apologize than to ask permission.”]


When Directing the Candle Light Vigil for the National AIDS Memorial Quilt at the Lincoln Memorial in 1992, Joel Grey offered me an experience that taught me much in moments.

When he arrived for Sound Check, the day before the event, it was the first I’d met him. He arrived and walked onto the set. We’d never met, and I was just some young guy from LA while he was pretty-much my first, A-Level celebrity performer. I introduced myself. He said, “Are you the Director?” “Yes, I am.” “What would you like me to do?”

Of course, the piece he was to perform had already been agreed. So, respectfully and clearly, I said, “Well, Mr. Grey, here’s how I had envisioned this piece, this Moment, unfolding…” and proceeded to walk him through where I’d like him to stand, to move, to time the verses and explained the giant, absolutely silent skyrocket that was to punctuate the end of his performance and close the show.

“What do you think, Mr. Grey?”

I was ready for him. And, I was ready to compromise, to submit and be told how he would do it. That is not what happened.

What he said was, “Great; then, that’s what I’ll do!” One rehearsal and we were done.

What I learned from that encounter (and, btw, that performance remains at the apex of the litany of Experiences I have been vested with creating. I have seldom since heard or felt an audience go as palpably quiet as during the final moment of his song, “Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Junior” and that extraordinary, silent skyrocket over the Potomac) was this:

  • A true professional looks to the Director to understand the vision, and trusts that the Director knows the Big Picture and how each performance plays into that.

So. Be confident. Don’t act confident; be confident. Know your show, know why you have made the decisions you have made, placed components where you’ve placed them, written entrances in the manner and position(s) in which you have done so.

It is only the insecure artist who will make trouble and insist on things that may not work inside your vision. Ergo, a Heads Up; beware of making any artists insecure through communicating doubt, through not knowing an answer, or for simply being obsequious.

Frankly, a Director who is starstruck should be in some other business, not dealing with Talent. A Pro can sniff an amateur a mile away; then you’ll see who calls your shots!

Be Confident; be patient, ask for advice and listen to your talent if they are compelled to offer suggestions. Talent may well know how they might look their best; but you are in charge of the show. A pro will collaborate; you may have to take a hard line on someone who’s ego might supercede their entertainment value or compellingness quotient. Take that line or open your show to sacrifice.

Getting Down To It.

So, How to Build a Program that is Pithy & Compelling & Entertaining…and make sure that it remains that way…

Step One: Take a deep breath. Hold it for one, full minute.

Step Two: Okay, nice try. Try it again. Deep Breath. Keep it in! ONE FULL MINUTE!

Step Three: Yeah, right? Not so easy, is it? One Minute is a loooong time.

So, there’s your reference, your Building Block. As you build or write a show, remember how long a minute is. So, as you tell your performers or speakers that they have three minutes, two minutes, even as seemingly brief as a one minute introduction; you are not limiting them. Rather, you are offering them an opportunity to deliver something powerful, direct and memorable. Your audiences will appreciate this restraint and discipline.

Step Four: Delivery is Key. Tell your performers and speakers how much time they have, don’t “ask” them. Set their expectations and share the importance of respecting the overall Experience. There is a marked difference between…

  • “Could you please try to keep your comments to about 3…3 and a half minutes? You know, we want to keep the program tight and if you could keep yours short, that’d be great. If you go to 4, no big deal, just keep it under 5, okay…?”


  • “We are very tight for time on this program and you are the main part of it. It is important that we keep your segment to 3 minutes. Will you do that? 3 Minutes, I’ll give you a signal at 2:30.”

Can you see the difference? If not, I hope someone else in your home does the cooking…

The moment you offer leeway is the moment that your speaker / performer thinks s/he’s Bill Clinton or Barbra Streisand (and even then…just sayin’).

There is nothing wrong with a one-minute intro or a three-minute speech.

  • Most pop songs are under three minutes
  • Operatic Arias
  • The Pledge of Allegiance
  • Late-night monologues are usually about 3 minutes…(and when they’re not….)
  • Marriage Proposals
  • Wedding Vows
  • Even multi-million dollar television commercials are 30 seconds

Singers will always want to perform one more song than the one you’ve requested, comics another joke or character, speakers another minute or ten… Do not accept this.

Make it Fun and Make it HAPPEN

So, after all that; you want to know how easy it actually is to do this? Very easy.

From the outset, one must be confident, definite and respectful of the parameters of time to which you are committed to adhere. Communicate fully and completely and with a smile and even offer to help with speechwriting if that is in your skill set. Most people (again, the pro’s) will respect you and your position and adhere.

Some may find themselves incapable of keeping themselves within a given time constraint. This, too, is easily addressed.

My basic approach, which I again communicate from First Meeting, is:

  • A light or some signal from the back of the House at 30-seconds to wrap.
  • At 15-seconds to wrap, I (or my trusty stage manager )appear at the edge of the stage, offstage, or just below the stage in very plain sight of the speaker.
  • At 5-seconds, I (or said trusty stage manager) am clearly approaching the lectern, ready to take the mic, thank the speaker and introduce the next act or component of the show.

I have rarely had to actually step in and take the mic. (Though, I have always been clearly and obviously ready to do so.) More often than not, it becomes a joke that is shared with the audience, “…I see my time is about up…,” or, “uh-oh, here comes Kile with the Hook…” and all continues swimmingly.

You, one, Producer, Director, Stage Manager, simply must be confident and not intimidated by or afraid of your talent or speakers. They are depending on you to deliver an experience as designed, envisioned. An ego or two may occasionally be ruffled, though with the mitigating upside that you’ll be appreciated by your audience and ultimately thanked by your audience.

…and probably develop a reputation for running tight shows.

That’s worth money.

Exceptions? Certainly.

You have a singer who brings down the house? Give her an encore. Maybe bring her back at the end of the program in response to a perhaps unarticulated, audience-wide wish for more. This exceeds expectation in a way that still respects the integrity of the show or story arc you have created, while offering the proverbial “more” in an unexpected way.

All of this should be flexible, given the specifics and particulars. But you keep on top of it. The moments in shows that to this day continue to give me chagrin and regret are those times I caved to another song, a third recital, one more speech that resulted in dragging down the experience of the entire program.

Do not cave (though, always consider). Your job is the result.

“Always leave ‘em wanting more…” is not fiction. Build that into your experience. Inspire them to return.


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