What is the best session format to use at conferences?

As I was thinking through planning my 2nd (the first one should’ve scared me off but clearly it didn’t) and one of the first things I thought about was structure. Not the speaking times or even where, but how to structure the day and single track.

Most conferences (virtual and in person) go with the “session” setup where you typically have 1 or 2 people walk you through slides and give their presentation. I’ve also been in sessions where there are 3-4 speakers with each person getting anywhere from 10-18 minutes. I think it is a great format and heck we even did that in my first conference back in 2019 in Detroit. That conference was a half day event with an opening keynote, 2 panels and 4 solo sessions. I liked that mixed format but I go back to thinking of me as an attendee and what is best for them.

Possible Issues with Session Format

To be fair these are not always issues, but rather they are common issues that CAN happen with solo sessions (and yes in any type of format).

  • The speaker’s examples are from a different industry.
  • The examples or angle of the talk that the single speaker takes doesn’t resonate with me.
  • They spend more time talking about them and their company than anything else.
  • I’m just not interested in their speaking style, speaking habits, slides, or anything else you might not like.

Possible Issues with Keynote Format

Most of the issues with a keynote were already mentioned with the Session format. That said there are also some other personal issues of why this “format” isn’t my favorite in how lots of places utilize it.

  • Keynotes are often more “inspirational” or “forward thinking” and not very “actionable” or “educational”. Some people love this type of format and most every conference does it – maybe it’s just me that doesnt love it (we all have different learning styles). I just look at it as I have limited time at this event away from all the distractions of email, meetings and the todos piling up that I want to be educated.

Possible Issues with Panel Format

Where to start? While any format can be great there can be issues with them all including the panel format.

  • Too many people.
  • Too little time.
  • Too many people for too little time.
  • People that are too similar which reduces the different takes on a question.
  • The questions don’t align with the audience and/or the speakers. I’ve been on an SEO panel and audience questions were posed about PPC or Social Media – yes some on the panel can often answer but the other 99% of people in the room likely are not interested.

So what is the best Dave since you hate them all?

I don’t hate any, I just think that for some conferences and events one format might be better (or worse). I think it depends on the goal, the audience, the topic and really – it just depends.

As I stated in Detroit earlier, we did 1 keynote, 2 panels and 4 solo sessions – we used all 3 of the formats that I just broke down. This time around I am mixing it up with the following:

  • 2 Keynote/Solo Actionable Sessions – goal is to mix high level and actionable topics everyone will be interested in from great speakers.
    • These were just topics that I thought aligned with a single speaker well and also liked how it would break up all the panels. That is partly back to trying to think of the audience and how everyone might have a preference and make sure that they can walk away with something.
  • 5 Host Led Small Panels – the panel format I thought made sense was with a host that knows the topic and two people that work in different spaces up talking. Spaces are vague but could be one is inhouse and one is an agency, one is a big company and one is a startup and so on but the goal was to bring two smart people together to give very different views.
  • 1 Free Form Panel – For one of the panels I didn’t think a host was needed as the two speakers will likely just talk, argue and then dig in and answer some audience questions. The format is a bit open, which hopefully also gives people some unique takes on things they don’t otherwise get to hear.

In the end I don’t yet know how my tweaking for this event will go, but based on my last event and what I have learned (good, bad and inbetween from other events) I am sure that it will go great.

What format for conferences do you prefer? There is a poll and conversation going on over on LinkedIn and Twitter so let me and others that organize digital marketing conferences know.