Conference sessions – why are we so time obsessed?

January 2014

To paraphrase Alice in Wonderland ‘what is the use of a conference without context or conversation?’

Traditionally conference agendas have been broken down into 50 or 60 minute sessions regardless of the demands of the topic or content complexity.  As the generational shift starts to make its impact felt it appears that the conference industry has determined that 50 minutes is too long for today’s delegates to maintain concentration.

Their answer, reduce session times to 10 or 15 minutes.  This is truly scary for an industry that is at the same time actively promoting their ability to create measurable ROI and hence improve professional standing.

A passive audience is a passive audience whether the session runs for 10 minutes or 10 hours.   Passive audiences don’t remember what they hear and they don’t learn.

The question we need to ask is why is the audience in the room.  What are their expectations?   Surely they’re hoping that their time commitment, opportunity cost and out of pocket expenses to attend will prove to be an investment in their future success.

If they’re not being given an opportunity to acquire new knowledge or skills then their time and money is being wasted and its all cost and no benefit to the convenor and the attendee.

Learning requires active participation.  Context creates value from content.  Not all attendees are starting with same level of knowledge or experience and yet in a passive presenation the ‘expert’ or ‘thought leader’ delivers the same content to all comers regardless.  For some the message and information is too basic to be useful and for others it might be adding a complexity that is unable to be accommodated at their current experience levels.

Conference sessions designed to impart new information or knowledge should be presented in an environment which encourages time and space for personal reflection and peer group discussion.   The emphasis should be on providing individual delegates with an opportunity to work out how the new information or knowledge can assist them in achieving their personal or business goals.

Not every session needs to be a full on working session.  A break for a different type of experience is as good as a sorbet in a many course restaurant meal to refresh  palattes and ready us for the next course.

There will always be a place for a speaker who can inspire or entertain an audience.  It’s exciting and memorable to have an opportunity to hear directly from our ‘heroes’.  We all benefit from looking beyond our own lives occasionally and being inspired by great sacrifice or success.

A well-designed conference agenda is one that is not hide bound by out-dated tradition or new fads but one that is created to achieve a specific clearly determined and stated objective and outcome for a defined audience.

My hope is that in the year ahead we stop and think about what we’re doing, what we’re trying to achieve and why.  Let’s see no more agendas filled with back to back speakers with unrelated topics regardless of whether the time allotted to them is 10 minutes or 50.

It’s not about duration it’s about setting objectives, creating content, context and congruence, encouraging participant engagement and delivering measurable results.  If these are the types of discussions we have with our clients then they will enjoy success and the perception of the professionalism of the conference industry will improve significantly.

Specialist skills are required to create content and agendas that can  identify and deliver measurable results.  It’s beholden on conference organizers, managers and clients who do not possess these skills to out-source them to those who do if the conference industry is going to thrive and grow and clients are going to continue to invest in their events.   It takes a variety of skills to create an event that is successful on all levels.  When we partner together we all reap the rewards of  success and repeat business.