Give me a break!

In 2011 I was invited to give a forty-minute presentation at a large European conference. When I arrived and saw the conference program I was surprised to see that the day’s sessions were scheduled with NO intervening breaks. Participants were somehow expected to instantaneously teleport between session rooms—even restroom visits were apparently not on the agenda. As you might expect, I lost ten minutes of my forty minute time slot because of this elementary scheduling error.

Most event planners won’t make this kind of mistake, but, given that breaks between sessions should be longer than zero minutes, how long should they be? The answer depends on several factors:

•    The time needed to move between sessions held in different locations
•    The overall length of the event
•    The amount of participation and interaction designed into sessions

In my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love I describe an event where, at the last minute, we were forced to schedule sessions in two buildings that were separated by a ten minute outdoor walk. Scheduled program breaks weren’t long enough, sessions started late, and very hot weather during the conference led to additional complaints. At the very least, breaks must be long enough for people to decide the session they want to attend next, figure out where it’s held, take a bathroom break if needed, and get to their desired destination leisurely. Even at a one-day conference where sessions are held in adjacent rooms, I recommend at least ten minutes between sessions; fifteen would be better. If your sessions are held in rooms that are further apart, or in a building that is confusing to navigate, you need to allocate more time.

Breaks can be shorter at a one-day event than they need to be at a four-day event. That doesn’t mean they should be. But if you have a crowded, must-do agenda you can get away with minimum breaks for a one-day event. At longer conferences, there’s no excuse for not scheduling extended breaks, and your attendee quality of experience will suffer if you don’t. A long lunch break—at least ninety minutes, preferably two hours—and a significant break between the last session of the day and dinner is a simple way to build longer breaks into the day, but having twenty to twenty-five minute refreshment breaks between morning sessions will also help to keep energy, participation, and learning high during a multi-day event.

Finally, the amount of participation and interaction included in sessions will influence the amount of break time needed. The opening roundtable I use at my conferences can last a couple of hours, and when I first ran this session I innocently ran it with just a single midway twenty minute refreshment break. Eventually I noticed what an energy sink this was, and now I break up the session every twenty minutes with short participative exercises like human spectrograms and pair share introductions. A refreshment table in the room allows people to grab a drink or an apple during these frequent breaks. By using multiple short breaks, the energy level in the room now remains high at the cost of very little extra break time overall.

Check out my post on the science of white space at events for more thoughts on this important, but often overlooked, topic.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jarkko