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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Session Hopping – A Practical Guide

I just saw a link by Christy Tucker to a wonderfully funny, but a little too true: On the High Art of Getting Grades Without Learning Anything.

It caused me to remember that last year while attending a session at ASTD 2007, a few random people and I were discussing session hopping (prior to a session). I think the term is probably self-explanatory – but in case you don’t know what this is –
A session hopper moves between sessions at a conference that are scheduled at the same time in order to find the session that they feel provides the most value.
At any large conference, there generally are several sessions that sound interesting offered at the same time. As a session hopper, you identify several sessions for each time slot and then may choose to move around.

This is something I’ve been observing for years … and yes, I’m a session hopper. Interestingly, at ASTD 2007, I found several other kindred session hoppers. And, here are three guidelines around this practice …

Session Hopping Guidelines

First, as a session hopper, it is important to choose the right location – and that location is easy – it’s near the door on an aisle. That’s where we all sit. Notice that those are almost always the seats first taken in any session. Obviously, this marks you as a session hopper. So if you are not one, then please don't take those seats.

Second, know the right times to leave. The first opportunity is before the session starts after you’ve looked at the handouts - but don't take a copy of the handouts - that's just mean. Someone else who has the fortitude to actually sit through the whole session needs those handouts. The second opportunity is when the speaker goes through what they are going to cover – their outline. At either of these points, if it doesn’t look like they are going to cover something of value, then it makes sense to leave. Of course, during the session at various points there are opportunities to hop - maybe the speaker is either not all that great or has covered everything you care about.

What's interesting is that there are many speakers who seem not to understand us session hoppers. Through the whole presentation, they will continue to promise to show you something really interesting. Maybe it's the demo or its what they concluded. As a hopper, this is extremely frustrating. Cmon already. Get to the good stuff. And in many cases, it turns out not to be worth the 45 minutes investment. It seems that the speaker intentionally tried to get you to stay the whole time. You really feel cheated.

Third, know how to leave. I prefer to wait for the speaker to pause and look down – so they might not see me leave. Note: it’s hard to get out unseen when you are 6’6” (2m) tall and a fair number of people know you. It’s impossible to get out unseen if you have a middle seat. Thus, you sit on an aisle near the door. The other good time to leave is when a question or discussion with the audience breaks out. That way the speaker may think I’m leaving because the person asked a bad question or somehow it was the fault of the audience. I’ve been tempted but have never tried this – wait for the speaker to be in the middle of something. Get up. Give the speaker a big thumbs-up preferably with both hands. Smile. And then leave. They’d have to think I was being forced to leave for some other reason, right?

If you are really concerned about the perception of the presenter, you can always go up ahead of the session and tell the presenter that you might be getting a call in the middle and have to step out and take the call. I’ve used this technique. But the acting like I got the call part is more uncomfortable than sneaking out.

Speaker Perspective

Obviously, part of my strategy is due to worrying about the perception of the presenter. So, let's shift this a bit and talk from my perspective as a presenter:

I used to be pretty self-conscious about people leaving a session. I would worry what I had done wrong to cause them to leave. I’ve become somewhat less sensitive, but I doubt that any presenter doesn’t feel a slight worry when people leave. And as a moderator of panel, I definitely notice when people leave when one of the panelists is speaking.

A big part of why people leave is that you simply aren’t talking about what they expected based on the description. I try really hard to make my session description accurate to minimize people leaving. Along those same lines, a session hop (or leave) early in the session when it’s obvious that the content is not a good fit for them doesn’t bother me much. It clearly wasn’t a good fit. So, early hopping is okay. One caveat that I mentioned above, I’m not a big fan of people who come in to grab a copy of the slides and then go to a different session, especially when there aren’t enough copies for people who come and stay. A better practice is to come up and hand me a business card with your email and ask me to mail you a copy of the slides. I’m happy to do that.

Despite a lot of self-counseling, I’m still a bit self-conscious about people who leave in the middle. I’ve had enough discussions with people who tell me that they were upset that they needed to leave in the middle because they had to catch a flight or meet someone or do a conference call, that I’m not quite as worried about it. Of course, they may be using my suggestions above around session hopping. Still you would always rather have people coming in half-way through (from another session) than having them leave half-way through.

Also perception is heavily based on the number of people in the audience. If 10% of your audience leaves, that feels like a lot. 10% of 200 is 20. 10% of 40 is 4. So in a small room if a few people start leaving half-way through – it really makes you wonder.

Other Random Thoughts

As long as I’m on the topic of perception as a presenter, the best sessions always seem to be when I get scheduled into a small room and people are literally sitting on the floor, standing along the walls, looking through the door. There’s a funny energy in the room created by everyone feeling like – “hey I got into this session – other people can’t – I’m lucky – this must be good stuff.” Of course, at ASTD 2007, there were a bunch of sessions that were overfull at the same time (they had too many attendees for the size of the rooms). That's not a good thing. And I realize it’s not really a good thing for people who are coming. It's nice to have a bit of personal space. And people who couldn’t get in are likely not happy about it. Still anytime you present to an overfull room, it seems like people are more engaged, want to talk more, throw ideas out, challenge me, ask great questions. It’s fun.

On the flip side, probably the worst session I ever did was in November 2001 at the LA Convention Center. I was a featured speaker on Trends in eLearning. The conference almost didn’t happen because of the terrorist attacks a month and a half earlier. The conference was very much under attended and my session had room for about 600 in a large auditorium. I had maybe 100 people scattered around the seats, and the energy was not there. How could we care that much about eLearning Trends when the world as we knew it had changed?

On the other hand, Bill Clinton was a speaker at the conference and drew a standing room only audience. And I was very glad I attended his presentation. He truly is an impressive speaker. And it was good to hear his perspective on the attacks.


V Yonkers said...

Obviously you aren't used to college age students getting up in the middle of class to a) go to the bathroom, b)go talk to their friends outside of the classroom, and/or c)just disappearing!

I find, in fact, that most conference participants (even the session hoppers) are much more considerate than my students, and I am rarely distracted by their leaving. The one exception was when I had only 2 attendees (last presentation of a 4 day conference which wasn't that well attended any way) and one left at the beginning. I also have sat through horrible presentations because there were only 3-5 of us there. If was just too obvious to leave!

Anonymous said...

I don't know that I'm a session hopper per se, but at a conference with multiple sessions, I almost always plan a bail-out alternative.

I accept that my reading of a session's description may not match the presenter's reality. I might show up to hear about some new area, only to decide it has no interest for me. And since the cost of travel/living/registration is out of my pocket, I don't hang around just because the topic is hot or the presenter has a big photo in the conference brochure.

When I'm the presenter, I start off with a 45-second summary of what the session's about and why I'm giving it. ("I'm going to tell how we trained 2,500 novices to work with computers, use a new custom application, and work with off-the-shelf software. I'll talk about why did did what we did, and why we changed course. And I'll focus on our extremely hands-on approach.")

The handouts will be out already (and if you don't think session hoppers tend to take them, you must not be looking).

I'll ask how many are at their first conference of this type. Then I'll say, "if you find this isn't meeting your interests, don't just sit here -- leave! Pick another session from the program and go . You won't hurt my feelings. Well, not that much."

There is the risk that everyone leaves, but it hasn't happened... yet.

Jody Baty said...

I'm also a session hopper so these tips will come in handy. Thanks.

Lately I find myself attending more online conferences. For starters, they're way less expensive. More importantly though, the sesssions are usually recorded which makes it possible to attend a missed session or review a really good session in more detail. And, really good conferences will have a pre and post discussions to connect with the presenter. A good example of a really well organized conference was the Corporate Learning: Trends and Innovations conference ( organized by George Siemens last fall.

Tony Karrer said...

Great comments -

Profv - I had pretty good luck with college students staying (1990-2000). These were small classes and the culture was that you didn't do that.

I've got to say, trying to do a presentation to 2 people (or 1) is incredibly hard.

And like you, I've been in the presentation with 5 people where you just felt you couldn't leave. And, it often turns out there's a reason there were only 5 people.

Dave - I like your suggestion - summary. That's a great way to handle the outline.

Jody - good point around online presentations. One thing that having recorded sessions does though - it makes me always have an additional wonder whether sitting through the presentation real-time is worth it. Essentially, the online presenter is competing with everything else.

Jaap said...

Tony, I just don't sometimes choose the right presentation and leave for another one.
Whem I am presenting, some people just go. I don't mind. I learned that people have various reasons to go away from a presentation.