Earlier this Brent ran a poll about the preferred session length and more than 50% liked the idea of 45 minute sessions. Interesting, the idea of trying to fit more into a single day without making it longer, so I put it on the list.
For SQLSaturday Orlando this year (2019) we set the morning sessions at 45 minutes with a 15 minute break in between. The afternoon sessions were 60 minutes with a 15 minute break in between. My hope was that we would be able to compare the feedback between morning and afternoon. We let the speakers know in advance (though possibly not all read/processed that message!).
Pausing here, what would you guess that response was overall?
The unscientific results from individual polling, evals, and asking the group present at the end of day ceremony was consistent – no one liked it. The speakers didn’t like it because they had to rush, trying to compress 60 minutes down to 45. The attendees didn’t like it because the speakers had to rush and because most of the sessions ran long, using up some portion of the would have been leisurely break between sessions.
In theory, that’s fixable, and you’d have to fix it to get a more accurate sense of whether 45 minute sessions are a good idea. Fixing it though, is a little bit hard. It’s natural to think “I’ll just go a little faster” versus reworking a finished presentation to meet the new time frame and I think the speakers just opt for the go faster plan.
To explore a little more, it’s worth thinking if the value is in shorter sessions because they are less fluff or because we want more in a day. If it’s the latter, there are a couple options. One is to have a longer day. Start earlier or end later, or both. Another is to reduce the break time. Or all of the above.
I like 15 minutes as a break interval, it gives everyone some time to move from A to B without rushing and it gives the speakers some slack time too, just in case. Those breaks matter to sponsors too, its a few more minutes for conversations. We could change to 10 minutes (Orlando Code Camp does 50 minute sessions with 10 minute breaks), but that doesn’t net you much – 6 or 7 breaks is only 30-35 minutes more to use.
Starting earlier is a maybe. We’ve tried “early bird” sessions here and there and it works ok (typically it would be only 1 or 2 sessions), but the downside is that means the event team has to be in place for the early bird arrivals and it diverts attendees that could be slowly perusing the sponsor area.
Ending later is also hard. We want to move everyone to the end of day rally, we want to get the rooms cleaned and handed over, and we want all the volunteers to be on hand to do the final clean up during/after the end of day ceremony. Doing an extra session in parallel would dilute the experience and keep attendees from winning prizes. We could definitely just add one session block prior to the end of day, but we know that the longer the day goes, the more people we lose.
Writing this and thinking on it more, aside from lightening talks what else could we do? The only other idea I had is to stick with 60 minute blocks, but have one or two times during the day where it’s two back to back thirty minute sessions by the same speaker, no break in between. Sorta interesting, but challenging for someone who wants to only watch session A or B, not both.
The other part we could explore is whether there is too much fluff in the presentations. That could show up in a lot of forms:
- Not starting on time
- Spending too long on the who I am slide
- Stretching a concept to be an hour when it’s worth less (as presented)
- Inefficient demos
- Other stuff?
I don’t know how often any of that happens and to some degree it’s would be based on the observer. The first two are perhaps worth some effort. Start on time! One minute or less on the me slide, then on with the day. Worth doing, but not a big win for the person who just wants to go faster to get more from the day.
Our summary in Orlando was that didn’t work for us. We’re more apt to try something a lot shorter (lightning talks or similar) that rules out a speaker just trying to go faster. I’m not saying it can’t work, just that it didn’t work well for us. There’s no right answer of course. For me, I try to fight the urge to pack more into the day, especially at the cost of giving them time to meet sponsors, network, and just relax – it is a Saturday after all.