Forward Thinking

7 Ways To Improve Breakouts

Concurrent sessions are the meat and potatoes of conferences. They are also one of the most difficult areas to improve.

In most associations, volunteer committees vet submissions, decide on topics, and select speakers for the annual meeting’s concurrent sessions. While well intentioned, volunteer committees are rarely equipped with a big-picture view of adult-learning trends.

This past summer, we conducted a survey of 175 conference organizers to capture improvement trends for education sessions. Here’s a listing of their top seven initiatives:

For every three respondents who plan to reduce their number of sessions and/or speakers, there is one who is planning to add more. Quality is winning over quantity. The best gauge for identifying the need to decrease the number of concurrent sessions you offer is attendance. As a rule of thumb, if a session is attracting fewer than 75 attendees, it’ s time to cut it out.

Many believe that panels are less interactive than single-presenter-led sessions. Quite a few organizers are significantly reducing the number of panels they offer and/or limiting their size to three or fewer panelists.

Organizations are craving presenters who make education more participatory — facilitation versus the lecture model. Some are requesting more time for Q&A, although that rarely leads to improved learning. Others program more peer-to-peer roundtables. Some are asking for planned audience-engagement strategies in their call for proposals (CFP), and many are providing speaker coaching and tip sheets.

Compared to comments from this same survey taken two years ago, there is a more noticeable focus on managing the hard costs of education sessions. Some organizers are cutting back on sessions to save on AV, while others are using the same speaker for multiple sessions and/or repeating popular sessions.

Some organizers realize that they must err on the side of advanced or high-tech content versus 101 content to differentiate their education offerings and attract higher-level participants.

An increasing number of organizations are programming TED-type talks to better serve attendees’ shrinking attention spans — and are finding that these more concise formats actually improve the presentation skills of their presenters.

A growing number of organizations are leaving session slots open to address late-breaking content. Some are issuing a second call for proposals two to three months before their conference for emerging issues.

Interested in developing your improvement plan around these trends? Start with two or three initiatives, and apply them to 25 percent of your program. Most meetings don’t need a wholesale change. Start small, collect data and feedback — and swing for the fences.

Get your free copy of The 2013 Speaker Report: The Use of Professional and Industry Speakers in the Meetings Market, conducted by Tagoras and Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, at

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.