You walk toward the session rooms studying your program. You meant to read it on the plane but never got around to it. That’s OK, you think. It’s pretty much the same stuff every year. You’ve narrowed your choices to two sessions, trying to decide between them. The first room you reach has a sign on an easel with the title of one of your options. Fate has made the decision for you. You go in.

The room is about 75 percent full, so you definitely made the right choice, right? The first speaker goes to the lectern, remote slide clicker in hand. You realize you’ve already seen this session! But when and where? Oh, this same conference last year! It was good, very informative, which is probably why these speakers are back. But you don’t need to see it again.

Do you stay or try to slip out and catch the other session? People are still filing in and finding seats, so you probably can sneak out without being too disruptive. You make your move.

When you find the other session, the door is closed. You open it slowly and slip inside, getting a sideways glance from the lone guy in the back row. You duck your head, take a seat and hope you haven’t missed too much. Checking your watch you realize you’re 10 minutes late for an hourlong session.  

You look at the speakers. Another panel discussion. You settle back, hoping to hear something worthwhile, then realize your attention has wandered. The speakers have been going nonstop, and you’re losing interest. You’re vaguely disappointed, but not surprised. These things are a crapshoot. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Time to pull out the phone and check email.


As anyone who’s planned education content or coordinated session logistics knows, this scenario is both a reality and a nightmare. I’ve seen people “session-hop” looking for something to capture their interest many, many times. Some people will always do it, but we must accept the possibility that despite our earnest attempts, our breakout sessions are boring the people we’re trying to educate.

Why? What are we doing wrong?

It’s largely a reliance on two things, I think: 1.) what has worked in the past and 2.) what we’ve always done. But we now have too much information about how people like to learn to ignore it. As planners and content developers, we owe it to our attendees to research new ways of doing things. A few suggestions:

  • If you want to feature speakers or a session from a previous year, find a way to mix it up. Change the format from a panel discussion to a discussion-oriented roundtable, where the speakers move from group to group and encourage attendees to explore the ideas for themselves.
  • Don’t let speakers talk more than 20 minutes without breaking to ask questions or engage attendees in some other way. Most hotels and conference centers have Wi-Fi — do live polling, or text or tweet questions to the speakers – anything to keep them focused.
  • Phase out of standard case study-based sessions. Even the good ones lack pace and excitement.
  • Work with your speakers! Don’t just give them a time, date and location and let them go. Get them on the phone as a group and discuss how they can keep the audience hooked. Instead of being insulted, most will welcome your suggestions.
  • Be creative with room sets. If you can’t afford fancy furniture, experiment with different configurations. When an attendee walks into a room that looks different from what she’s expecting, it changes her mindset and she’s more likely to be open to hearing what you have to say. (Keep in mind, however, the needs for attendees with vision, hearing or mobility issues.)
  • Use more discussion-oriented and experiential sessions. Give attendees a real opportunity to connect to others while they learn.

These aren’t the only techniques you can use to keep your audience engaged. Read the blogs, join the associations, talk to others. It will be worth it!