Give me a break!

breaks between meeting sessions

In 2011, the organizers of a large European conference invited me to give a forty-minute presentation. 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. No breaks between meeting sessions!

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:

  • Time needed to move between sessions held in different locations
  • Overall length of the event
  • 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.

How long should a break be?

At the very least, breaks must be long enough for people to

  • decide the session they want to attend next
  • figure out where the next session is
  • take a bathroom break if needed; and
  • get to their desired destination leisurely.

Even at a one-day conference with sessions held in adjacent rooms, I recommend at least ten minutes between sessions; fifteen would be better. If your rooms are further apart, or in a building that is confusing to navigate, you need to allocate more time.

Breaks between meeting sessions 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.

Providing breaks in long sessions

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. 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.

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

2 thoughts on “Give me a break!

  1. Tell me about it. I have also encountered this. It is one of my pet peeves along with unrealistically short time frames for sessions. It often ends up being a battle royale with clients when setting up the schedule for meetings and team building retreats. I recently blogged about a client with whom I battled for weeks as they insisted in cramming a session for which I needed 3 hours into a 2 hour time slot. They also insisted that they were not going to build a break before my session into the agenda. About a week before the business meeting, I was informed that my time had been cut to 1 1/2 hours as they had just too much content to cover. I was labelled as “inflexible” when I provided feedback that this was painting me into an impossible corner to develop results. I pointed out that content would have to be cut to the point that the session would almost be meaningless.

    On the day of the meeting, the CEO who I had been told always spoke briefly, went over time….it’s certainly his prerogative as he is footing the bill but wouldn’t it have been better to build a more realistic time frame into the agenda? The speaker before me also went over. I was to start at 3:30. He ended at 3:40 and then the client decided the group needed a break. I went on at 3:55. I was to end a 5:00 and did not have permission to go more than 10 minutes over as the bus was leaving at 6:00 for dinner. I had to chop content on the fly, cut short an exercise and skim the surface for some topics. This reflected poorly on me. An opportunity to get in front of 56 senior executives and possibly generate enough repeat business to keep my pipeline full for years was ruined. I did make a point of alerting the group to the fact that I had requested 3 hours and I also apologized for the late start and the need to cover content in less depth than I had wanted. I hope that some were bright enough to pick up on the fact that the blame for this rested with their own internal organizers. As you know, the speaker usually gets blamed.

    The take-away? Better to decline the gig than risk tarnishing your own reputation if the agenda is set up in a manner that makes it impossible to deliver value for clients.

    For planners, here is some help in planning realistic time-frames:

    Instant Team Building: What’s up with the 30 Minute Debriefs?

    Participant Engagement vs. Instant Results

    If you ever get stuck, here are some tips:

    Making Presentation, Facilitating Meetings & Team Building Within a Tight Time-frame:

    1. Wow, Anne. What a nightmare! My sympathies.

      We don’t expect a great restaurant to provide us a superb meal in half the normal time; why people think that effective learning can be delivered fast-food style is beyond me. What I think your story shows is that many managers play lip service to providing effective learning opportunities. I just wrote a blog post about this very topic:

      Perhaps another take-away is that clients who battle over session length even before a contract is signed are likely to renege further when the day arrives. One possible defense could be to write a minimum duration into the contract and include the right to receive a full fee and cancel the session if the specified time is not provided.

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