One of the most frequent comments we saw on the evaluations for individual sessions was “ran out of time” or “not enough time” or something else along those lines. A few people even suggested that we lengthen the time slots in the schedule to give speakers more time, while another suggested we tell speakers they have 60 minutes, but give them 75 as we do now. (We kind of think they’d notice that when the schedule was published.)

Making a session the right length is a challenge, even for experienced speakers. We pretty much all aim to have 60-65 minutes of material and leave 10-15 minutes for questions. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Why can’t we get it right? Lots of reasons. Sometimes, of course, it’s because something goes wrong–the projector doesn’t work or your machine crashes in the middle of the session. Sometimes, something comes up during the session that eats a bit of time–a really interesting question, for example.

One big issue is that we all want to be sure we don’t run short. It’s not a problem if we finish with an extra 5 minutes, but finishing with 15 or 20 extra minutes is likely to make attendees unhappy. So we try to pack our sessions with plenty of material.

Often, though, it’s just individual variation. I’ve learned, for example, that each time I give a session, it’s likely to get a little longer. The more familiar I am with the material, the more I think of to say. So when I first rehearse a new session, I actually want it to run a little short. (Yes, I do rehearse every session before giving it the first time. I run through the whole session, running the examples I’m going to show, and making sure I know how to get from one topic to the next. If I haven’t given a particular session for a while, I’ll rehearse it before giving it, as well.)

Other speakers tell me that it’s the other way for them–the real session always runs shorter than the rehearsal. For these people, the issue is the addition of adrenaline, which speeds them up. Adrenaline is definitely a factor for me, too. On the rare occasions when it doesn’t kick in for me, I definitely run long (and I suspect the whole thing feels kind of sluggish).

Sometimes, a session is long by design. That was the case for the “We Used to Do it That Way, But …” session that I gave this year. The session is built from a set of discrete items, so I can present any subset of them that fits into the time slot. I started the session by announcing that that would be the case, and made it clear that anything we skipped was still included in the white paper and the example code on the CD.

What about the idea of going to 90-minute sessions instead of 75? First, that would cost us a session slot every day, and thus cut down on the total number of sessions offered. Second, it would put us out-of-sync with other conferences; 75 minutes seems to be the industry-standard. But Rick articulated the biggest reason not to make this change: “if we give speakers 90 minutes, they will deliver 97 minutes of material.”

Incidentally, while some sessions ran over a little, the conference center staff was quite impressed by the fact that we habitually started our sessions on time. That’s not what they usually see. Based on my experience with a non-technical conference I attend annually. I tend to agree with them. At that conference, the times slip and slip and slip and by the end of the day, we’re well behind. I’m not sure whether it’s the engineering point of view we bring or what, but I’m never been to a FoxPro conference that didn’t start most sessions on time.

1 Comment

Tom Francl · November 30, 2008 at 2:31 pm

75 minutes is a perfect length for sessions. One cannot sit still much longer than that. We need to fill up on more coffee and dispose of the previous cups.

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