There’s a vibrant discussion going on amongst conference attendees and organizers, and you can help.
Take this 2-question poll about your preferred session schedule, and see the results.
Folks from inside our MS Data Platform bubble seems to assume sessions should be pretty deep, technical and long relative to folks from conferences I attend that occur outside that bubble. I’ve heard people in SQL Server land make assumptions that the standard should be for 75 or even 90 minutes – but at other conferences sessions of that length are rare.
For example, check out the schedule for DevOps Days London:
Speaking to the organisers there, they find that shorter sessions are better for most people’s attention spans and more inclusive to newer community members, more junior folks, folks who are nervous about their ability to keep up with longer and deeper technical sessions, and folks who suffer from ADHD and other similar conditions. Their communities are thriving and attracting many more new faces.
The DevOps Days London crowd also found that longer breaks were popular with attendees. They embraced networking and discussion and I avoided attending too many sessions and overloading my brain. Longer breaks also happened to be popular with sponsors.
When I attended I was struck firstly by how diverse the attendees were, and how positive and engaged folks were with the content. (Although please note that the organisers had gone out of their way to embrace inclusivity in many ways, not just their schedule.)
I know the subject matter might be different at a DevOps Days and a SQL Saturday – but I think there are some lessons we could learn from other conferences. I like to see a mix of session lengths – I know this can be a pain for scheduling, but I do believe it’s worth considering.
That’s a single track conference though. Session timing is very different when attendees don’t need to change rooms. Notice how there’s zero breaks between some of the sessions? When you’re forced to sit through all of the sessions regardless of topic, you don’t want attendees zoning out for 75-90 minute long single sessions.
But isn’t it easier to pay attention for 2x back to back 35m sessions than 1x 70m session?
It was single track in AM, and multi track in PM, with many open space / “birds of a feather” sessions.
Sorry, I’m not doing a good job of explaining that one. Lemme take another shot.
In a single-track conference, everyone has to sit in the same room, listening to the same material. Like Abe Lincoln said, it’s possible to please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. You can’t find a full roster of material in a single-track conference that interests every single attendee.
So if you’re going to force everyone to sit in the same room, you wanna minimize frustrations – you can’t afford to have people sit listening for 70 minutes to something they’re not interested in. You’re better off minimizing losses. Folks can check email or go on social media for 30 minutes, but asking them to just sit still and do that for 70 minutes – that’s kind of a stretch.
“I know this can be a pain for scheduling, but I do believe it’s worth considering.”
I’ll note that offering a mix of 45 minute and 90 minute sessions (one of the options in Brent’s poll) usually does not add a huge additional burden on the schedulers (at least, in comparison to allowing fully mixed session lengths). Effectively, scheduling a 90 minute presentation just means taking two consecutive 45 minute blocks within the same room. I’ll also note that 30/75 minute sessions are also handled under this schedule by extending the Q&A to fill in the unneeded time. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.
On the other hand, allowing a mix of 30 +15n minute presentations is messy for schedulers. It’s not merely a matter of playing scheduling Tetris: In addition to meeting any other scheduling constraints, schedulers should try to ensure that sessions of similar length operate in parallel (so that after an attendees picks which sessions they want, attendees have maximum choices for how to use gaps in their schedule).
My take is that when it comes to SQL Server, I don’t actually care what other conferences about other systems actually do.
As for people’s attention spans, I agree that they can quickly fade even on interesting sounding session names if the instructor is a bore. It’s pretty tough to see a single slide presentation with 6 bullet points and the presenter drones on and on. My take on presentation decks is that people should be able to download them, play them back, and learn again what the presenter was trying to teach.
I’ll also say that lengths of presentations need to vary based on the subject. There are subjects that are really extended lightning rounds with a bit more detail added and there are other sessions that are deeply technical that are teaching a complex subject.
And, no… people inside the SQL “bubble” don’t seem to think that sessions need to be deep… there are subjects that demand deep sessions and cannot possibly be taught in 45 or even 60 minutes. If you don’t believe that such sessions are necessary, hang around the SQL forums and see why the sessions need to be deep.
As for my vote on the poll, I voted for a mix of session lengths on both questions. My only regret is that I couldn’t suggest that to make the 45 minute sessions start or end on the same time slots as the 90 minute sessions, that the 15 minutes between 45 minutes sessions need to be included in the 90 minute session making them 1 hour and 45 minutes in length for the deep dives.
I totally agree that some sessions need to be longer than others. And I didn’t say everyone in the SQL community wanted super long and deep sessions. There are times for long deep-dives, and there are times for shorter sessions.
Actually – I just re-read my original comment back. You are right. I did generalise. That wasn’t fair of me. I should have included the word “Some”. “Some folks from…”. My bad. Thank you for calling me out. I humbly apologise.
I have heard *some* people (not everyone) say that they expect “the standard” session length to be longer and some of them have been dismissive of shorter and more entry level sessions. I have heard this *more* in the SQL community than I have in other communities. My suspicion is that folks who feel this way are more common among the experienced speaker community, who are generally pretty experienced and knowledgeable already. And I suspect that the experienced speaker community have more influence on conference schedules than first time attendees. I might be wrong.
In either case, I feel that too many events, due to their timetable, effectively force every session to be about 60 minutes, regardless of whether the content itself needs 30 minutes or 90. I think the justification is to simplify scheduling, but I don’t believe that justification is sufficient.
Just my 2c. Apologies for my lazy language in my first response, but I think we agree about a lot of things. 🙂
On that note, you should come to one of my SQLSaturday presentations. I violate nearly every rule especially when it comes to the slide deck. I don’t write PowerPoint presentations… I write animated (where necessary and you’d have to see one of the presentations to know what I mean) BOOKs using PowerPoint. My goal is to provide the attendees with true reference material and possibly use it to teach people at their place of work. I don’t want them to “need” me to get the point across.
On the subject of attention span. I DO appreciate that people can only focus for so long. That’s why when I need 2 hours on a highly complex subject (like my “Black Arts” of Index Maintenance presentation) and the fact there are people that are old enough where peeing has become an urgent form of Mother-Nature-induced mandatory exercise program, I observe the break between the two 1 hour long back-to-back sessions. I also do the same during precons. No one can pay attention for two 3 or 4 hour stints even if the instructor is the most interesting instructor in the world.
As a bit of a sidebar, I wish SQL Saturdays (in particular) would have a track for beginner sessions especially when it comes to programming in T-SQL and other basics like what should be in a table and how to design indexes and how to do backups and restores. I find that too many of the sessions are centered around the latest shiny tool that only a few will use. In other words, I look at SQL Saturdays as a one day school house where grades 1 through 12 are taught. I’ve never been to a “code bash” for front-enders and other managed-code programmers but I have seen the presentation abstracts… they appear to have a similar problem. The same appears to be happening for some of the larger conferences such as the PASS Summit but I understand that nature for those. They’re once-per-year opportunities to learn of all the stuff that has come out for the past year or to learn some of the complicated stuff from industry experts and they didn’t pay the large attendance fee to learn how to join 3 simple tables.
True dat. 🙂
I agree with Alex and Jeff. SQL Saturdays do need a beginner track with shorter sessions (30 -45 minutes). It helps those beginner attendees learn a variety of topics, and also provides opportunities for newer speakers to teach easier topics. So maybe a mix of 30/60 minute sessions for SQL Saturdays. For longer and less frequent conferences, a mix of 45 and 90 minutes provides for allowing an appropriate amount of time for the type and depth of material being covered, which should be more/better/deeper than what you can get in a SQL Saturday. And yes, pre-cons for the really broad or deep sessions.
I think Alex Yates has some great observations. If you have 45 minute blocks, it isn’t hard to make 90 minute sessions by putting them back to back. One thing I would add is that aside from perhaps needing to pee – the brain often does better with a short break. In music lessons I was taught (and held true for me) that two 30 minute sessions were often better than one hour long session.
Alternatively, the speaker could shove all 90 minutes into the front leaving either a larger break at the end with the opportunity for attendees to interact with the speaker. As a note, the out of session interaction with speakers should NOT be ignored. Having said that, it isn’t fair to expect the speaker to keep a single person from holding the speaker hostage.
As Speaker, SQLSaturday Organizer and Advisory Board Member for a restaurant technology conference I have cogitated on conversed on this very subject often. I, as both a speaker and attendee, solidly prefer the 60 minute session with a 15 minute break. As a speaker it forces me to be on point. As an attendee it allows me to get in 6 diverse sessions in a day instead of 5 longer sessions. I prefer a fire hose approach that fills my head and allows me to go back to my desk to explore and don’t need or care for a deep dive. That what a Pre Con is for. Get me started and fired up to go do my own deep dive. While 50 minutes is pushing it I would prefer, as both a speaker and presenter, that over 75 minutes but get it from a “scheduling” idea of everything starting “on the hour”. However i truly believe 60 minutes is the sweet spot. Consider that TED talks are 18 minutes for reason. Attention spans……
However i truly believe 60 minutes is the sweet spot. Consider that TED talks are 18 minutes for reason. Attention spans……
Huh, I’m confused. So why don’t you think 45 minutes is the sweet spot then? (Or are you saying TED talks are wrong? I’m confused.)
Sorry, my bad. I was trying to make a point for shorter over longer. In looking at the results it is very interesting to see the large increase in preference for mixed 45/90 minute sessions at multi-day conferences. As we try and add more very basic intro sessions to SQLSaturday I am going to see if we can dedicate a room to something in between Lightning Talks and traditional 60 minute sessions….. Hmmm.
On the subject of “more very basic intro sessions” for SQLSaturdays, Pittsburgh usually runs a track called “Wanna Be a DBA” that gives people that basics about being a DBA and what to look for for additional training to become a good one. It has quite the draw.
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I make Microsoft SQL Server go faster. I love teaching, travel, and laughing. I live in Iceland with my wife Erika. I teach SQL Server training classes, or if you haven’t got time for the pain, I’m available for consulting too.
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