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How Long is Too Long?

By Steve Jones,

After SQL Bits this year, there was a discussion on Twitter about the length of the sessions and what attendees would like to see. The event ran 50 minute sessions, and that wasn't appreciated by some speakers. It's an odd length, and one that few events use. Even SQL Saturdays often do at least 60 minutes, though often I find larger conferences do 75 or 90 minute lengths. In response to some of the debates about short vs. long sessions, Brent Ozar Unlimited is running a poll as well. I'd encourage you to participate and help shape how conferences structure their schedules.

I've somewhat argued against the shorter session for a conference, or really, at SQL Bits, because the short length is disruptive for me. I've got sessions I've prepared and given elsewhere. Some I'd like to give at Bits and some I'd update and adapt for the event, but cutting down from a 75 minute talk to 45 or 50 minutes is quite a bit of work. I know because I had a session last year that was accepted at multiple events. I had to give this in 30 minute, 60 minute, and 75 minute lengths, which was a challenge. I ended up building the 75 minute version and cutting things out, but it felt like I lost some flow and continuity at the different events. I think this was because it is just hard to practice different lengths and deliver them well.

That's me, and I'm a speaker. If I want to present, then I need to adapt, so some of my argument is because I would like to avoid some work. I practice sessions many times and work hard to build a smooth flow that attendees follow. Changing lengths means more practice for me. I'll do it, but I'll also think about skipping events that use weird times. 60 minutes isn't too hard to get to from 75 minutes, but I still find myself rushing at the end. I know trying to fit down to 50 minutes would be hard. I definitely see lots of speakers that struggle to get their talk going, and often run out of time, which I think gets worse with shorter time frames.

For the attendee, I have a different view. I actually think that shorter is better. At our SQL in the City Streamed events, we've experimented with sessions at 25, 35, 45, and 60 minute lengths. I like the shorter ones, which are more focused, and I do think that we can focus down on a topic more tightly in a 30-45 minute session. Strangely enough, I find the 15-20 minute sessions the hardest to build, often because I feel I have to jump right into the topic and the demos have to be very tight and reliable.

SQL in the City Streamed, however, has no audience. No one to ask a question or slow the session down. Also no feedback to understand if I'm losing people because of a poor explanation. In a live event, I find that my pacing will vary slightly as I take questions or elaborate on a point. The shorter the session, the less time for this, but perhaps that's fine. Questions can be handled later, or maybe even submitted to speakers who can publish answers on their blog or an event site. 

We deal with a lot of complex topics in technology, and I'd agree that many aren't handled very well in short sessions, but I also think that complex topics aren't handled well in 90 minutes either. Going to shorter session lengths means more slots during the day, maybe even more networking, and perhaps best of all, more breaks to stand up and move. If I were designing the ideal length, I do like 50 minutes, with a 10 minute break every hour. If a speaker needs more time, then build a 100 minute session and present in two parts, still with a break.

Selfishly, I like longer sessions as a speaker where I can dig into topics and spend more time explaining concepts, demoing solutions, and developing a pace of delivery. As an attendee, I prefer shorter sessions, but I do expect more effort from speakers to be on point, have demos that flow smoothly and quickly, and don't waste time on items that the audience should be expected to know. However, I'm also a member of the community and I'll work with whatever decisions conference organizers make. I'd just prefer they stick close to each other with similar session lengths.

Take Brent's survey, but let me know in the discussion here what you prefer and why? Should you get shorter, more tightly focused sessions? Think about something you've seen recently and how it would be if you cut the length down or made it longer. Would the talk have been better or worse?

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