How to plan the right number of breaks for your conference.

As a conference organiser you will be keen to get as much content into your conference as possible. However, your delegate experience will suffer and you’ll find it harder to meet any learning objectives for the event if you haven’t scheduled enough breaks of the right length. After all, you can present all the best content in the world but if your delegates don’t retain and act on it then you’ve wasted your time and theirs. 

So how long is the right length of time to schedule for conference breaks. As a rule of thumb consider a minimum of a 10 minute break between each hour long session as well as longer breaks for coffee or an extended lunch but here are some factors worth considering that might influence your decision: 

1. The amount of interaction in the sessions

If you include regular interaction during your conference sessions (that the delegates actually engage with)  then you can reduce the number and length of the breaks required to hold their attention. Ideally you’ll incorporate some form of interaction between each section of learning (usually every 10 to 20 minutes) because this gives your delegates the opportunity to process and retain the information that they have just learned. Some ideas include: 

  • Use an audience response / interactive voting system. Your conference AV or production company will be able to help you with this. 
  • Allow delegates to text or tweet questions to the presenter or panel rather than asking them live with a microphone. This will stop the awkward start to the Q&A session where nobody wants to go first and means that even the shy members of the audience will be able to ask their question.  
  • Break into small groups to solve a problem and feedback to the wider audience
  • Use the technology in the delegate’s pockets. I was recently at an event where the whole audience were encouraged to share a video about the event on social media. And it worked.

By the way, it’s often easy to cut down on session length whilst still getting the same point across to your audience. Look at TED talks. Some of the most engaging presentations are just 2 minutes long. by allocating longer session lengths you may well be forcing your presenters to stretch 20 minutes of content to fill the session. It would be much more interesting to have a 20 minute presentation that delivers all the key points in an engaging way followed by a 40 minute interactive session than a 45 minute presentation and 15 minutes of awkward Q&A. 

2. The length of the event

You can include shorter breaks during a one day event than a three or four day event because your delegates will not be taking in, processing and trying to retain as much information. Usually a minimum of ten minutes for a break between one-hour sessions works well with longer breaks for coffee, lunch and dinner. 

3. Is a break really a break? 

If you’re asking delegates to do something specific during a break then you can’t really call it a break. Whether it’s entertainment, a presentation or a group discussion any formal planned activity during a break can reduce the effectiveness of that break on learning. 

4. The amount and complexity of content

How fast paced are the sessions? How much content is being delivered? How complex and detailed is it? Are there difficult concepts to understand? Breaks provide a great opportunity for groups to get together and feedback informally with each other or for those delegates who like to sit and think quietly to do just that. Either way the more complex the content the more time you should allow for it to sink in. 

5. The size of your venue

The bigger your venue the longer the breaks need to be. We’ve all sat in conferences bursting for the loo and counting down the minutes (that seem like hours) until the next break. Well, to me, that means that enough break’s haven’t been scheduled and now I’m focusing on my biological needs rather than learning and interacting with the material that’s being presented. 

In fact, the chances are that I’m bursting for loo because there wasn’t time to go in the last break when I was dashing from session to session because the previous break was not scheduled to last 10 minutes but the walk from the plenary to the breakout session took 15 minutes. 

What about you?

What do you take into consideration when planning conference breaks for your delegates? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.