Expressing time zones for events

Expressing time zones for events

Decorative image: four clocks with times for London, New York, Tokyo, Moscow

As events have gone online since 2020, we’ve become more conscious of time zones. If your event targets an international audience, express the event time in a way that makes it easier for your audience. It’ll show that you care and may encourage more people to join.

Since 2020, many of us have learned how to work and meet online. I love that events are no longer restricted to people who can physically go to the venue, and I’ve certainly attended more events than I ever would have in person.

However, one limitation that we can’t get around is time zones.

If you want to attract attendees from around the world to your online event, you need to make it as easy as possible for viewers to figure out what time the event is in their own time zone.

How you express time can even signal that you, as an organizer, care (or don’t care) about audiences living in different parts of the world.

So what can you do? Here are some things to consider. (If you’re in a rush, you can also skip to the best option.)

** A big acknowledgement to the brilliant Dr. Danau Tanu for (as always) showing why this is an issue and what to do about it. **

▶ Specify the time zone

This is a no-brainer but you’d be surprised how many events (like alumni events…) still don’t bother to put in a time zone. That might be fine for an in-person event targeting only people in your area, but it’s user-unfriendly if you want to attract a broader online audience.

I was frankly astonished to find this example below for an online conference run by an international organization, targeting professionals (presumably) from around the world:

Example event programme: Monday 6 September (morning)
This is for an online conference organized by an international organization!

The organizers don’t say anywhere what time zone they are talking about. I had to look up where the organization was headquartered and assume that that’s the time zone they were using.

▶ Time zone abbreviations are ok

One common way organizers list event times are with the time zone name, such as AEDT, EST, GST, JST, WIB.

   AEDT = Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time
   EST = Eastern Standard Time
   GST = Gulf Standard Time
   JST = Japan Standard Time
   WIB = Western Indonesian Time

These are ok…but it raises some questions:

Do you know your own? Would your audience members know?

I thought my time zone was Indochina Standard Time, so the abbreviation would be something like IST — but IST is Indian Standard Time. I’m in ICT. Oops!

And here’s something else I just learned:

CSTCentral Standard Time (North America)UTC−06
CSTChina Standard TimeUTC+08
CSTCuba Standard TimeUTC−05
Source: List of time zone abbreviations, Wikipedia

That’s pretty confusing.

I also didn’t know until recently that Eastern Time (North America) had two abbreviations: EST (Eastern Standard Time ) and EDT (Eastern Daylight Savings Time). And if I see someone use EST, I’m not sure whether to trust that they really mean EST or it’s a mistake for EDT.

Better than nothing but not ideal.

So these time zone names are better than nothing but still not easy to navigate.

Some organizers offer a link to time zone converters (like TheTimeZoneConverter.com, WorldTimeBuddy.com, and TimeAndDate.com), which is helpful. But that’s still an extra step for your potential audience who may just be scanning to see if your event is one they could attend.

✓ Ok if your target audience is in your time zone or country.

Using the time zone names could be sufficient if you’re targeting a local audience in your time zone or in your country that has multiple time zones.

For example, if you’re targeting a US audience, people would probably be familiar with EST/CST/PST. In that case, it’s fine to use these abbreviations. (But would they know Alaskan Standard Time [AKST] and Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time [HST]?)

If you’re also targeting audiences outside of North America, you need to do something else.

▶ UTC might be better

An alternative to using the abbreviations is to state the coordinated universal time (UTC) offset. So for example:

  CAT (Central Africa Time) = UTC+2 
  IST (India Standard Time) = UTC+5:30

The good thing about this is that it allows people to compare different time zones.

So say someone is in CAT and knows that they are UTC+2. If the event is at 1 pm IST (UTC+5:30), they can calculate that it’s 9:30 am CAT.

…Or is that right?

It’s not so easy for those of us who aren’t so great with numbers 😆

And do most people know their UTC offset?

Even with UTC, your potential audience members still have to know their own UTC and calculate (or look online) what the event time translates to in their own zone.

(By the way: a lot of us use GMT and UTC interchangeably, but GMT is actually a time zone name; UTC is the time standard. The UK, for example, is on GMT but switches to British Summer Time [BST] part of the year. I think I’ll just stick to UTC to avoid confusion ^^;)

▶ List a couple of different time zones

Even with the time zone acronyms (EST, CEST, etc.) or with UTC offsets, it can be more helpful if you list a few options and viewers can look for their own.

So you get something like:

Times for an event: July 6, 10:00 EST, 16:00 CEST, 19:30 IST
A real-world example I found.

But if someone lives in a CST zone and the organizer lists IST: how would they know if that’s roughly close to their own time zone or wildly different?

For that, UTC might be better:

  5 July, 16:00 UTC+7 | 12:00 UTC+3
  4 July, 23:00 UTC-10

✓ Good if your target audience is in specific, known time zones.

Listing a few options works well if your target audience is in specific, known time zones or regions.

But I’ve also heard people hating the numbers 🤔

▶ BEST OPTION: List a couple of time zones + use city names

So here’s the best option (again, thanks to Danau Tanu for championing this):

Use major city names instead of time zone names.

It’s easier for someone in Bangkok to guess that the time in Beijing is probably closer than, say, the time in Lusaka.

AND list a couple of cities.

With more cities on the list, your target audience is more likely to find a location that’s reasonably near or that they’re familiar with.

Example of how to show time zones for an event: 8:30 AM Dakar / 10:30 AM Geneva & Cairo / 2 PM Mumbai / 4:30 PM Singapore / 6:30 PM Sydney
A great example of how to show times for online events by listing a few different cities. Even though Bangkok isn’t listed, I can look at Singapore time and know that I’m one hour off from that. Blurring by Facepixelizer.

I also like that you could be more geographically inclusive when picking the cities.

For example, you could pick Seoul instead of Tokyo (if you don’t know: there is always some tension between the two due to Japan’s colonial history), Nairobi instead of Moscow, Santiago (Chile) instead of Miami, etc.

Of course, you should pick the cities most relevant for your target audience.

While I was writing this post, I dawned on me that this is a great example of plain language: it helps the reader find, understand, and use the information you’re presenting.

The Clarity Editor is all for inclusion and plain language. If you would like to discuss whether we might be a good fit for your writing project, please send me details via the contact form or email me at info@theclarityeditor.com.

Cover image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

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