Poll Results: What Conference Schedule Did You Prefer?

Last week, I asked you a couple of questions:

When you attend a 1-day conference like a SQLSaturday or SQL Relay, what is your preferred session schedule?

You said:

  • 31.8% (211 votes): 6 60-minute sessions
  • 31.3% (208 votes): A mix of 45-minute and 90-minute sessions
  • 25.3% (168 votes): 7 45-minute sessions: 25.3%
  • 11.6% (77 votes): 5 75-minute sessions

Other ways to think about that:

  • 88.4% do not want 75-minute sessions
  • 56.6% want 45-minute sessions as building blocks, and most of those voters want some of the sessions to be double-length

I know that’s frustrating for some presenters to hear because presenters want all of the time they can get, but the reality is that during a 1-day conference, attendees want more variety.

When you attend a 2-3 day conference like the PASS Summit or SQLbits, what is your preferred session schedule?

You said:

  • 50.2% (333 votes): A mix of 45-minute and 90-minute sessions
  • 20.2% (134 votes): 6 60-minute sessions
  • 18.2% (121 votes): 5 75-minute sessions
    (or to put it another way, 81.8% of voters do not want this)
  • 11.4% (76 votes): 7 45-minute sessions

I expected the numbers to be different during a longer event (thus the two separate questions), and they were – but in both cases, they were a strong vote against the default 75-minute session length of many events.

Attendees like 45 minute blocks, not 75.

This confirms something I’ve found when polling my own training class attendees who told me things like:

  • 75 minutes is too long to listen to one speaker without a break
  • Speakers try to cover too much ground, trying to bring people from 100-level to 300-level in a single session
  • When given a 75-minute slot, speakers leave too much time for Q&A – when instead they should take questions during the break, next to the podium, after the session completes

As a presenter, my first reaction was to fight the attendees – to tell them they don’t understand what presenters are trying to do, or how we as presenters could do better, or how we need to adapt their expectations.

That doesn’t work.

Attendees are the customers, and we presenters need to spend some time listening and adapting our work to meet the customers’ requests. They want shorter sessions, and they want us to deliver more knowledge in less time.

If you’re a presenter, this means your abstracts need to clearly define your ideal session attendee, then stick to it. As you plan your abstract, write down what the ideal session attendee already knows, and don’t try to cover that stuff in the session. Write down what’s going to be out of scope too – you simply can’t take someone from 100 level to 300 level inside a single 75-minute session. (You certainly can’t do it in 45, either – and if conferences listen to attendee feedback, shorter sessions might start becoming the new normal.)

In my own classes – both one-day pre-cons and multi-day classes – I’ve taken this feedback to heart by aiming to teach in 45-60 minute modules rather than 60-75 minutes. At first, it felt like a more stuttered agenda, taking a 15-minute bio break every 45 minutes, but it does seem to result in more focused attendees that are more able to digest material through the entire day.

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12 Comments. Leave new

  • Andrea Allred
    March 18, 2019 9:21 am

    Oh my goodness YES! I feel like I lose focus if it goes over an hour. I need to step away for a minute to let my brain breathe, eat, check my phone, and a bio break so that stuff isn’t distracting me during the presentation time. I usually feel like I can ignore my phone for an hour, but much longer than that, I feel like I need to check it just to make sure there are no emergencies. Once I start checking it during a session, I usually get distracted by it and miss a key concept that can throw off the rest of the session. I also feel that the presenter will keep the topics broken into better chunks if they know they only have a short amount of time to get the point across and it prevents long tangents.

    Reply
  • Chris Wilson
    March 18, 2019 9:25 am

    This reminded me of an older article I had read recently on Quartz/The Atlantic. The data in a productivity shows that the highest performing people would work for 52 minutes followed by a 17 minute break. Sounds very similar to the 45/15 you are working on for your attendees.

    Article:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/09/science-tells-you-how-many-minutes-should-you-take-a-break-for-work-17/380369/

    Reply
  • I feel like sessions at conferences need to be short, no more than an hour, 45 minutes is ideal. The exception would be if you are doing a deep dive into something where you need 1/2 day or full day. To me, I go to a conference to get the highlights of as many different subjects as possible. I can spend time on my own at home researching the subject more in depth if it is something that appeals to me. I want new ideas, new concepts, new connections when I go to conferences. The more time spent in one session the less of all three I will be exposed to.

    Reply
  • Philipp Stiefel
    March 18, 2019 10:23 am

    I participated in the poll and found the answer-options too limited. What I wanted to vote for was “I want a mix of different length sessions, each appropriate for the topic.” I don’t care whether that is a 45, 60, 75, or 90 min session.

    A “15-minute bio break” feels quite excessive. When presenting, I try to restrict it to much less than that. Anything longer than 5 minutes is too long. When I have reason to assume the majority of the audience knows me already, I reduce the bio to less than a minute.

    Reply
    • Mark D Freeman
      March 18, 2019 11:17 am

      If there is no Q&A and presenters are to “take questions during the break, next to the podium, after the session completes”, then a 15 minute break doesn’t seem so long. People want to get the questions answered without being late to the next session.

      Reply
      • Philipp Stiefel
        March 18, 2019 2:02 pm

        Sorry, I’m not a native speaker. I got the “bio break” totally wrong. I assumed this to be the break your brain takes while a new speaker is reciting his introduction and bio(graphy). – And now excuse me please while I roll on the floor laughing…

        Reply
  • on the 45 vs 75 minute question, for me it depends on the amount of REALLY COOL DATA I am trying to retain from the talk. If it’s jam packed with cool stuff I want to try, I’m ready to be done at 45 because my brain is like a treadmill and that great stuff you said earlier is going to fall off the other side!

    Reply
  • Glen Anderson
    March 18, 2019 12:02 pm

    There is a lot of education research showing that retention and focus fall off dramatically at about 50 minutes. Showing that more can be done if you take a break and resume with renewed focus than if you try to just push on to 75-90 minutes etc.

    Reply
  • I’m one of the few that chose 75 minute sessions. I wonder if the content was for ADVANCED instead of beginning or intermediate that this would change the vote. The SQL Saturday Pre-Conferences are all day. Would it be possible to have two 1/2 day sessions as an option for SQL Saturday that would run during the same time the 45 minute sessions. I know I’m in the minority… I seriously doubt this will ever be an option.

    Reply
  • I would have loved a comments section in the poll.

    In terms of length, I love 45 minute sessions.

    I do also like back to back 45 minute sessions where session 1 is considered a prerequisite to session 2. When done well, it allows people who only wanted the intro to leave at a logical time, but people who want to dig deeper can after a 15 minute break. 90 minutes with a forced bio break in the middle (and optional question time) is far more useful than a straight 75 minutes. It needs to be delivered as 2 sessions though, the first 45 minutes should have answered my question “How am I going to use this?” If it take more than 45 minutes to convince me that I need this skill/technology/whatever then I’m not going to stick around.

    Reply
  • Each to their own, I suppose.

    I watch training videos at 2X speed, so a 75-minute presentation would become 2.5 hours, which would ruin my schedule and I’d probably miss dinner.

    Reply
  • Greg Lovekamp
    March 22, 2019 2:36 pm

    45 minutes works well for various reasons. In the US, we have been conditioned to that duration first through high school then college, where sessions are generally about 45-50 minutes long. It is long enough that you can gain some information without mental overload. And, it is short enough, that if uninteresting, courtesy causes the listener to remain and not walk out, minimizing interruptions for remaining attendees.

    Reply

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