I’ve been attending a ton of virtual conferences and events, and have done so for many years. Something to keep in mind for virtual is people attending from many many timezones. Another thing to keep in mind is that people are attending from home, and may have distractions or demands different from when they attend in-person. Yet another is that audience is likely to include people who would not or could not attend in person, people from resource-poor communities, people with disabilities, people who just don’t travel for whatever reason. This means that your audience will very likely require different kinds of accommodations than for a face-to-face event.
The days will need to be short, and on a weird schedule. 10am on the east coast is 7AM on the west coast, 3pm in London and Paris, 1AM in Sydney AU. If we do a full day, we are looking at probably 10amET-7pm, with a one hour lunch break. Whatever form breaks take, they will have to appear at some point, and that time has to be planned into the schedule.
Some folk believing that the audience will be fine with back to back sessions and no breaks. What we’ve been learning locally is … no. No, the audience is absolutely NOT okay with meetings that have no planned breaks. There are a lot of reasons for this, but here are just a few.
- People who really love your content don’t want to leave, and get cranky when you force them to stay past the point of comfort.
- People who don’t really love your content interpret the lack of breaks as a sign that you don’t care if they stay or not, or engage with your content. So they take breaks. Lots of them.
- People who really, REALLY love your content? This gives them a chance to mentally process the content and retain it. Good teachers know the power for learning of a well-timed break.
- People with disabilities see this as … ableist. Sorry, but it’s true. The assumption that it’s easy for people to pop away quickly, take care of bodily needs, and pop back, all without missing anything important? If you think that’s a thing, you are clearly someone who is temporarily able-bodied and not thinking about those in other circumstances.
- Breaks offer a change for physical activity, improving health for everyone. Especially at health and medical events, it behooves us to set a good example with this.
Breaks ease stress on body and mind, improve health, improve engagement, improve learning, increase engagement, increase a sense of respect and gratitude for the event planners, and increase the perception that the event planners have a sense of gratitude and respect toward the attendees.
I really feel very strongly about this, and that building in brief breaks is not only a kindness to those who need them, but communicates and supports a healthy approach. Here at UM, we are being told to schedule in breaks every 60-90 minutes, and HR encourages everyone to take a 3 minute physical activity break every 60 minutes. They say it actually reduces the University’s health insurance bills! Many professional meeting planners and event coordinators are also endorsing that concept.
For virtual meetings, there is a lot of creativity that can feed into your breaks. One idea to consider around the idea of building in breaks, is to make them working breaks. Have drop in Q&A sessions on special topics for those who wish. Maybe that’s when you highlight tools or resources. Have your long panel discussion, and then follow it with a break with a drop-in Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) on a related topic, or an extended more private Q&A by the panelists. You can set up entertainment during breaks — local musicians, show a YouTube video that leads into the next session, or have brief breakout rooms focused on topics of interest. Another idea I read about was doing kind of improv quick discussions during short breaks, pose a problem or question, and let people brainstorm approaches or solutions. Build in breaks, a bit of flex time, and still make that productive useful time for your content. Have the organizers take turns hosting the break time conversations, and that way they also get breaks the rest of the time, while colleagues share the load of keeping the audience engaged during breaks.
A lot of the conferences I’ve been attending have opted for full days, but many people came late and left early to accommodate the needs of their location and their life there. A few have opted for shorter day events to avoid that challenge, and those events actually seemed to have consistent attendance throughout the day! It seemed that 10a-3p ET worked for the North American audience, and that would actually work fairly well for European folk as well.
Just remember — if you are planning an online event or virtual meeting, those breaks are also critical to the event and organizational staff. These days, you really should have ASL interpreters and captioning. Those people are not machines, and they need breaks, too. You need to hire extra interpreters and captioners so they can switch off. Building in solid breaks that don’t require them can save money for the event, meaning you hire a team of two to switch off instead of three or four. It also leaves space for smooth handoffs between support teams, which can minimize needing to break up the presentation flow.
The main takeaway? Building in breaks helps EVERYONE (organizers, funders, attendees), and makes for better learning during the event, better engagement with the content/activities of the event, better health and less stress for all involved, … Good breaks mean you planned a better event,
National Association of Chronic Disease Directors: Tips for Virtual Meetings
“Build in short, 5-10 minute breaks during the longer Zoom calls. For a 2 hours class, for example, take a 5-minute break every 30 minutes or so to look away from the camera. It’s harder to focus attention on a small screen than on a whole person in a classroom.”
Conferences that Work: Schedule Breaks During Online Meetings
“When you don’t schedule enough breaks, people will leave an online meeting seemingly at random. Sometimes they’ll do this because they need to, but the other meeting attendees don’t know this. As a result, the meeting will feel unnecessarily disjointed, and it’s easy for participants to conclude that the meeting is not so important, or boring, or a waste of time.”
International Institute for Facilitation and Change: Why your meetings need breaks
“Breaks are strategies to increase participation and satisfaction in meetings. … The truth is: If breaks are not scheduled, people get up and leave the room anyway to attend to their physical and emotional needs. Many meeting participants are genuinely busy people who need time to attend to other aspects of their lives. If breaks are not scheduled, they will distract others by making telephone calls, answering email, consulting with colleagues, etc. during the meeting.”
Meeting Professionals International: Entertainment and Wellness Break Ideas for Virtual Events
“To combat waning attention spans and keep people engaged, it’s important to provide your virtual attendees with time to clear their minds, get energized and reset their focus. That’s where entertainment and wellness breaks between sessions can play a key role in enhancing the overall virtual experience. Fun, lively and interactive activities help people stay focused and pumped up for your next round of programming. They also help participants stay motivated to return to your virtual event rather than check out on their phones. In other words, you must give your participants a compelling reason to tune back in or risk losing them altogether.”
Advice for Engaging Virtual Conference Attendees
“How long will someone sit at a computer? No one really knows how attendees will behave during a virtual conference. But we know that attendees need variety and they need breaks.”
“Breaks. Use breakout rooms for snack and lunch breaks where attendees can talk about aha moments. Or, open some up as drop–in lounges for discussions on specific topics, for example, dealing with the economic impact of this crisis.”
18 Ways to Engage Attendees at Virtual Meetings and Events
“If you want attendees to stick to an agenda, give them a little wiggle room and add time in for breaks.”