Breakdown of a Breakout

I’ve structured most of my working life around staying home. Most of my communication is through email (because it’s quick and also allows me to have a reference of the conversation), I don’t have a lot of face-to-face meetings, and nearly all of my work is easily and efficiently accomplished here at my desk. Not to mention there’s a great coffeeshop with snacks directly upstairs and I don’t have to wear pants unless I really want to. It’s a pretty sweet arrangement.

However, as part of my responsibilities leading the band at church, I do have the opportunity to attend conferences from time to time, and in spite of being around 80% introvert, I actually enjoy them for the most part. There’s one part of conferences that always seem to be a bit lackluster though, and that is the dreaded “breakout” or “workshop”.

This is the part of the day when everyone goes from one room listening to one person and disperses into a series of smaller rooms where we can all be cramped and uncomfortable while listening to people who we have no clue about. It can be similar to enjoying a nice slice of pie and then having someone come along, take your pie, and say “Here, eat this day-old scone that was baked by a first year culinary class of elementary school kids.” Okay, that might be a little harsh, but you get the overall drift of the thing, right?

Since I spent yesterday at a church conference where they had workshops, I had plenty of time to think this whole thing over and figured I’d share some thoughts.

  • First and foremost, unless you have some sort of all-star in their field leading the breakout, it should not under any circumstances last more than an hour. If possible, I’d say 45 minutes is enough when dealing with most people below the all-star level. Nothing personally against them, but I’ve sat in too many breakouts where it’s obvious the person hasn’t put much thought into organization so the whole thing drags and eventually devolves into a poorly wrangled, meandering Q&A session.
  • About that Q&A… unless a previously mentioned all-star is running that session, the Q&A portion should be no longer than any other segment of the session and answers should be quick and to the point. In my experience, Q&A’s that aren’t tightly run turn into people asking questions that are thinly-veiled justifications for telling their own stories – most of which aren’t all that helpful.
  • A word about this whole “all-star” thing… I’m not against people who aren’t at the top of the field leading a workshop or giving a talk – I’m a firm believe that you can learn something from anybody, even if it’s what not to do. What I’m referring to here is someone in the top 10-25% of their field who is far and away more qualified than the people attending the breakout. That’s the person I want to listen to speak for a long time, not someone who is about a month and a half ahead of me.
  • In my opinion, the optimal breakout breakdown is one quarter info for beginners, one quarter info for upward movement, one quarter general theory or philosophy, and at most one quarter leftover to tidy up questions. Spending the entire time talking about stuff for beginners shortchanges everyone in the breakout who isn’t a beginner, unless the entire thing is labeled as for beginners only.
  • Better yet, have breakouts with a specific focus instead of these general mosh pits of information.

One more thing. I’m not trying to trash on anyone here while pretending that I’d be miles better than them. In fact, most of the sins committed above are ones that I would be knee-deep in myself were I asked to do a breakout session. They’re easy to do, especially if the person handing the session has a full-time gig they’re already doing along with responsibilities at the conference itself – chances are, they’re just trying to survive the thing and get home to a cold one. I get it. But one thing that I’ve learned along the way is that most of the time when I’m just getting by, it could be a little easier with some extra planning and thought up front.

Now, I just need to implement that and I should be all set. Right?

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