Watching the presidential candidate debates is both frustrating and entertaining. It can be entertaining, and even funny, when candidates lose their cool. It becomes frustrating when a candidate is asked a question but doesn’t answer it—or worse yet, answers the previous question. The biggest problem is that the debates are supposed to be informative, not bordering on a circus-like atmosphere.

I think most of the fault lies with the moderators, or — more likely — the networks, which allow candidates’ presentations to devolve into chaos. Then again, network news became more entertainment than news years ago, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the moderators allow two or three candidates to shout over each other to the point where you can’t tell who’s saying what.

The debates are in direct contrast to technical conferences. Most conferences are organized into sessions, with several speakers making successive presentations in each session. If a speaker exceeds the time allotted for his or her presentation, the conference will fall behind schedule. No surprise there, but it was interesting how technology was used to keep speakers on schedule at a fluid-power conference I remember attending a few years ago.

A column of lights was positioned at the front of the conference room, and lights would go off one by one from the top as time progressed. If a speaker was allowed, say, 20 minutes, each of the three uppermost lights would turn off after 5, 10, and 15 minutes. The fourth light would be yellow, alerting the speaker to start wrapping things up. When one minute was left, the light would start blinking. And when time expired, the yellow light went off, and a red one turned on.

That last light would start blinking after one minute, and if the speaker still hadn’t finished after another minute, the microphone went off. Needless to say, no one wanted the embarrassment of having the mic go off. So, on the rare occasion that the red light began blinking, the speaker very quickly wrapped up the presentation.

Using ground rules like this would almost certainly bring order to the debates. But let’s be realistic; having debates that actually followed reasonable ground rules probably wouldn’t pull high ratings. I guess we’re on our own, then, if we want to compare qualifications between each of the candidates.