This is a Public Service Announcement for meeting stakeholders everywhere.
When conferences focus on content-delivery, there’s no downside to making sessions shorter. Program organizers of such conferences think like this:
“Let’s include more speakers than we originally planned. There’s no problem. We’ll just shorten presenter time and add more sessions. After all, if our speakers are given half the time, they’ll cover half their original content. Simple!”
Now it’s true that if your conference speakers are going to lecture, a larger number of short sessions may actually work better than a smaller number of long ones. That’s because our brains and bodies are not equipped to maintain full attention to any speaker for more than a few minutes. If you’ve got interesting content to share, I’m a fan of short presentation formats such as Pecha Kucha & Ignite. (TED? Not so much.)
However, in my experience, if you want to create conferences that blow attendees minds, you need to replace traditional brain-dump session formats.
Lectures rarely create significant change.
Instead, you have to use participation-rich session formats that actively involve participants in learning and facilitate relevant connections during the session.
And here’s where the old idea of shortening sessions to cram more into the program breaks down, and Briefer Madness raises its ugly head.
Participatory formats are necessarily messy. Active learning, in pairs or small groups, takes time because everyone needs relevant opportunities to think and speak and share and respond, not just a single presenter. Consequently, participatory formats do not scale like broadcast-style formats!
I like how Johnnie Moore expresses this:
…reveal[ing] the rich, messy complexity of the real world…takes time and often feels like a diversion from what we might think is the real work. People default to workaholic notions of what meetings should achieve; they should be efficient, follow an agenda, achieve set outcomes…but all of these pressures tend to keep us locked in stereotypes and assumptions.
Choosing to disrupt this can be risky. Proposing a playful approach, or suggesting a reflective walk, will sound crazy to some participants. Surely that would be a waste of time? I increasingly find the opposite is the case; the more disruptive approaches can dislodge fixed ideas that are really holding us all back.
Give skilled meeting designers or facilitators enough time to work with during your meetings, and they can design or facilitate sessions that are highly likely to generate powerful individual and group change and outcomes.
If you succumb to Briefer Madness by cutting that time in half, then, at best, a whole redesign will be needed. At worst, you’ll be asking for something that’s impossible to do well.
Yes, meeting times are never unlimited. Yes, vital content needs need to be addressed.
But rather than constraining designers and facilitators to time periods that guarantee mediocre outcomes, try asking them how much time they’ll require to be truly effective in achieving the outcomes you desire and need. Respect their answers, and don’t treat what they suggest in the same way you’d treat a program of lectures that can be sliced and diced to satisfy diversity of content needs without any ill effects.
Resist the seduction of Briefer Madness!
This has been a Public Service Announcement for meeting stakeholders everywhere. My apologies to devotees of the cult classic film Reefer Madness.