What Makes A Good One-Hour Conference Session?

One of my original blogging philosophies (back in 2004 or 2005) was this: if I wrote something for work or school, I would post it to my blog (if it were relevant and worth posting). In my flirting with NaNoWriMo and DigiWriMo this month, I’ve realized that much of my best writing (and most of my writing of any kind) is happening in email. I sometimes write emails that border on minor manifestos, and I’ve kept an eye out for when I sense that happening, and then cut and paste the relevant portions into a document for potential blog posts. Here’s part of a message I wrote to one of the local hosts of an upcoming Google Apps for Education Summit. It captures some of my philosophy on what we’re looking for in a one-hour professional development session at the summits.

In general, we’d like to connect directly with the presenters as much as possible. A key element to the success of these events has been our vetting and managing of the entire program – it is not a conference with random sessions submissions. That being said, we would love your feedback following any local auditions you arrange. Your opinion would be very important to our decisions and direction – we do rely heavily on our hosts for helping to vet the “local talent.”

Also in general, our main criteria is that people leave a session informed and inspired. We focus most on raising awareness, but also want them to leave empowered to take next steps – and we know that a successful hands on experience can be key in making that happen. So we do encourage hands-on sessions, but that can be a “play along” format as easily as a “complete this activity” format. We typically don’t do “how to” sessions, though. Any attempt to do an activity in an hour should be bite sized, and easily differentiated for different skill levels. An ideal session might have a 10 minute interactive overview, choices for a 30 minute hands-on activity, and another 10 minute interactive “wow, look what you can do” demonstration. We also encourage welcome and reflection activities as the bookends to each session. But often a series of “wow look what you can do” moments each followed by “now you try” can be very successful in the hands of the right presenter, especially if supported by moving anecdotes, examples, and inspiring ideas. So we don’t put many requirements on our presenters. Instead, we ask them to share what they are most passionate about sharing – and only invite people we are confident will know how to deliver this magic. :)

There are certainly many other answers to the question of “what makes a good one-hour conference session” but this excerpt addresses one of the answers that has worked for us… and worked for me, both as a participant and an organizer. Naturally, I’d love to hear comments on these thoughts – and on what you think makes a good one-hour conference session – here on the blog. Please participate below. :)