The science of white space at events

Conference organizers have an unfortunate tendency to stuff their programs full of sessions. It’s an understandable choice; if participants have committed all this time and money to be present, shouldn’t we minimize white space and give them as many sessions as we can cram in?

Unfortunately, filling every minute of your conference schedule does not lead to an optimum experience for attendees. We need white space; free time for attendees to do what they want and need to do. Here are some science-based, light-hearted, yet serious reasons why.

Biology
Yes, all of us need to use the bathroom every once in a while. The good news is that just about all event organizers remember this.

Physics
But what many forget is that Star Trek technology is not currently available; we cannot instantaneously teleport from one meeting room to another. At a minimum, breaks between sessions need to be long enough for attendees to walk leisurely between the two session locations that are furthest apart. But don’t program the minimum; people also need time to check their messages (otherwise they’ll just do it in the sessions, right?), get a cup of coffee, fall into a serendipitous conversation, etc.

Physiology
On average, conference session attendees sit 99.13% of the time.

OK, I made that up. But I’m not far off. And here’s a cheerful graphic about the perils of sitting created by Jan Jacobs:

Give your attendees more time to stand up and move about between sessions (and during them, see below) and, who knows, they may live longer.

Social science
According to social scientist Dr James House, “The magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors.” Why expose your attendees to such an unhealthy environment? We need to create conference environments that encourage and support connections with others, rather than leaving attendees to their own devices, and it turns out that conference mixers don’t provide as good opportunities for attendees to meet new people as you might think. We need additional kinds of white space at our events.

Neuroscience
Neuroscience supplies the most important rationale for providing white space at your events. As molecular biologist John Medina describes in his book Brain Rules: Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once. Brains need breaks.

We need white space not only between sessions, but also during them to maximize learning. Medina suggests that presentations be split into ten minute chunks to avoid the falloff in attention that otherwise occurs. (Back in the ’70s, Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind maps, recommended studying in cycles of twenty minutes followed by a short break, a technique that has served me well for forty years.)

In addition, Medina tells us that multisensory environments provide significantly more effective learning than unisensory environments; recall is more accurate, has better resolution, and lasts longer. So make sure your sessions include multisensory input (participatory exercises, participant movement, smells, touch, etc.) and your conference locale provides a pleasant multisensory environment.

So, what to do?
How do we find a balance between providing white space during and between conference sessions and our desire to provide as much potential content and opportunities for our attendees?

During sessions it’s important to provide white space between every ten to twenty minute chunk of learning, so that the learning that has occurred can be processed and retained. This is something that we should all be doing to optimize the learning experience at our events.

Between sessions it’s important to include significant unstructured time. A ten-minute break between two one-hour sessions is the absolute minimum I’ll schedule, followed by long refreshment or meal breaks. I am not a fan of providing intrusive entertainment during meals—eating together is one of the most intimate bonding activities humans have—for goodness sake, let your attendees talk to each other during this time!

I’ve saved my best advice for last. Instead of deciding how much white space should exist at your conference, let the attendees decide! At the start of the event, explicitly give people permission to take whatever time they need to rest, recuperate, think, etc. It may seem silly, but I find that if you publicly define the event environment as one where it’s expected and normal for people to take whatever time they need for themselves it becomes easier for attendees to give themselves permission to do so.

[Thanks to Joan Eisenstodt for providing the initial impetus for writing this post! And check out Give me a break! for another viewpoint on the topics of this post.]

White space—it’s not just for advertising any more! What’s been your experience of white space at events? What suggestions do you have for improving its use?

Image attribution: Flickr user zavie.

11 thoughts on “The science of white space at events

  1. Thank you for the research and the information and thoughts. One thing we also have to recognize is that people have different physical abilities. I know the photo was just for the purpose of a great graphic .. and yet, I’ve been to more and more places (like “hip” hotels and other venues) where the furniture is too low for me (and others) and when I want to sit comfortably, I can’t. Let’s consider all who may and do attend.

    Thanks too for the acknowledgement!

    1. Yes, Joan, I couldn’t resist the graphic when I came across it. And you’re right, it’s easy to overlook accessibility issues. While a young woman, my mother-in-law contracted polio and spent much of the rest of her life in a wheelchair. I knew her for twenty years, and one of the gifts she gave me was exposure to the needs of the differently-abled. She died in 1995, and without her constant example I am less sensitive to environmental obstacles than I used to be.

  2. I read this just about 36 hours before heading to a three-day conference whose “schedule at a glance” clocks in at 26 pages–the full program is almost 300 pages. And even those materials are so dense-packed that there’s no white space! My brain starts humming this buzzy white-noise at about the three-hour mark at this meeting, and by the end I have completely lost all ability to think anything more complex than “I need more coffee.”

    OK, I feel better now–thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I love the idea of officially giving people permission to take the time they need to digest the material if you can’t bear to put some actual white space in the schedule, but I sure do wish we could get more white space on the official program. It seems most conferences have a cram culture, even though we all (participants and planners) know on some level that it’s just not right to do this to people.

    I think part of the problem is that planners have to give potential participants tons of reasons to justify going, and then participants feel obligated to try to go to it all to be able to say it was worthwhile.

    We need to change the value proposition from quantity to quality–then maybe this will begin to change.

    1. 300 pages for the program for a three-day conference? Aaargh! Glad to give you a place to vent!

      “I think part of the problem is that planners have to give potential participants tons of reasons to justify going…”

      Sadly, yes. I write about this in my book, where I call it the program trap. If potential attendees believe they need a detailed predetermined conference program and schedule that includes interesting topics in order to decide whether they will attend, then the more topics stuffed into the program the more likely they are to attend. If conference organizers believe that people are more likely to attend conferences with a stuffed predetermined program, they will only offer pre-planned conferences that are crammed to the gills with sessions.

      Round and round we go. Both beliefs need to be challenged simultaneously in order to hold a successful alternative that uses either a participant-driven design that allows attendees to create an optimum program for themselves, or, as you say, markets quality over quantity.

  3. Adrian – Make the issues of different abilities top of mind. Cricket Park was the voice in our industry – then she left to become an Episcopal priest. I remind people constantly and they forget btw. reminders.  If we talk about inclusion at meetings, we have to ensure that all people can be included.

    Sue: my brain hurt hearing about the agenda. NUTS!

    My example: As part of an alternative gathering for industry professionals that was first held 9 years ago, we did all that we shouldn’t have done including packing the agenda. It’s funny now .. because we did what we knew not to do – that is, EVERY great idea HAD to be included!

    Over the years, we’ve become comfortable with flexibility. We do what the group and the individuals need/want to do. If we want to linger over breakfast for hours because we are having great conversation, we do. If some want to learn something (last year it was how to use social media better) and others want to play games, we do. I know that this can’t be the way it is for all conferences/meetings. I know we can do better than the rigid-school-like agendas we have now.

    1. As usual, I’m with you Joan. I remember the conference I ran last June where I discovered that one of the vendors played the bagpipes professionally and happened to have a set in the trunk of his car. The resulting impromptu short performance in the lobby of the exhibit hall was much appreciated by all. Or EventCamp East Coast in November, when we discovered there would be an axe-throwing competition next door, and rescheduled so we could go and watch. I’ve found that nearly every attendee likes this kind of spontaneous response.

  4. I hate tight schedules as well but I do understand why many conferences have them.  CEUs.

    Attendees who are there to get CEU credits are in a race to cram as many hours as possible into three days.  This next bit’s going to annoy some people and I admit that I am painting with a very broad brush but the fact is it’s true.  Many people cramming in hours for CEU credits are looking for quantity not quality.  They are much less concerned with the knowledge they are getting than with the number of hours they are accumulating.

    Many of our big events across many industries would not exist…or at least not to the scale they exist now, if it were not for those CEUs.  It’s a money maker.  You pay to get them, you pay to take a test and you pay to renew each year. 

    I’m sure there are many planners out there putting together these horrible schedules who also hate them.  But, their org sees and is drawn to the $$$ signs (yes, non-profits/associations that’s you too) so jam packed the schedules will remain.

    1. Traci, no question, CEU credits are a big factor for certain industries and conferences. As the years go by, I think we’re going to see a bigger distinction between events that are training/CEU-centric and events that are more about maximizing participant-driven learning. But I’m sure the former, anchored by professions that require continuing certification, will always be with us.

    1. Thanks for sharing these posts, Midori! Jeff covers much of the same ground in his inimitable style, as always—plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

      I like the idea of having a sponsor for white space at a traditional conference. But isn’t it a little sad that we have to formalize providing white space via enlightened sponsorship? One of the nice features of participant-driven conferences is that attendees know that they are allowed to take time for themselves when needed, and the group may decide to take advantage of white space opportunities that appear (e.g., see my earlier response to one of Joan’s comments).

  5. Sponsored white space:  It makes sense and then it makes me shudder. Makes me think of all the Bowl games that are no longer simply named and all have sponsors.  Thinking .. maybe it will sound better later …………………………..

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