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Session lengths at CLS - feedback wanted!


Hi All,

We just had an organizational call for this year’s CLS. In it we discussed the length of CLS sessions.

One change we are discussing is making sessions 45mins long but with a 15min break at the end before the next session. This means that some sessions could be 45mins but if people want to go to an hour, they can.

This then got us discussing how long people generally prefer sessions to be. So, I suggested we ask our community.

How long do you generally prefer sessions? 15mins, 30mins, 45mins, or an hour, and why?


30 - 45 mins should be enough for presenting. This should let more people to show their ideas or experiences. The presentations should work as an starting point for deeper conversations later during the CLS


30-45 is good for a traditional conference talk, but good unconference sessions usually need a bit more time for interaction.

In the classic “Open Space Technology” book, Harrison Owen recommends 45 minutes for a session. Because in reality sessions are rarely started promptly, I like adding the 15 minute “break buffer”, or even simpler, just calling the sessions an hour and making it clear that it’s OK to finish early. Our project runs all our unconference sessions at least one hour after setting that expectation. (The hallway track is often the most valuable!)

I’d not go any shorter than 45 minutes, FWIW.


Thanks for the feedback. My hunch is similar to yours that 45 mins makes most sense, but making it clear that sessions can be an hour or less in length.

Any other thoughts, folks?


The whitespace is valuable for hallway track conversations and individual follow-ups, so I think it would be nice if the special value of that last fifteen minutes (besides allowing frequent opportunities for comfort breaks) could be acknowledged though not necessarily universally observed - sometimes it WILL be better to let a particularly lively or engaging session run the full hour.


No less than 45 minutes! There is NO way things get productive in too short a time with the unconference format. There’s a certain amount of ground-setting that needs to happen. The only way to do it briefly is to skip the sort of welcoming that helps make everyone (especially the more timid) feel invited to participate.

Last year, I felt that some sessions involved people just getting a sense of different perspectives and then running out of time before more useful discussion about the issues could happen.


I think you make some good points here. It sounds like 45mins is generally considered the best minimum amount for a session.

I think one thing I would like to enhance for this year’s event is providing guidance around how to run a session and get the most out of the time. Any thoughts on how we can best do this?


Someone here mentioned Aspiration’s wiki as a resource, and there are a couple pages there that could help helpful in this regard: Participant Guidelines and Facilitator Guidelines. Synthesized, these could be a starting point for information to send out ahead of time to participants, post on the event wiki, refer to in the morning, etc.


Yeah, that’s an important topic!

I think we should encourage neutral facilitation and ideally a group-memory recorder when feasible. Incidentally, people should read the classic book How to Make Meetings Work.

So, each session should at a minimum have a facilitator, and there should be an introduction to facilitation at the start of the conference. The facilitator’s role is to make sure everyone has a chance to speak, nobody dominates the discussion, things stay on topic reasonably, and otherwise helps to bring out the best from everyone. The key is that the facilitator needs to avoid weighing in with their own opinions and judgments. They do not control the session, they serve and help and should welcome anyone providing them constructive feedback on their facilitation.

A group-memory means that someone is the recorder who will write down (ideally on a whiteboard or something, although an etherpad could work) the general ideas and topics. That way, everyone knows what has been said and what the focus is. Group memory is not minutes and it is not about recording who said things, it’s just about focusing and collecting ideas. It does help for the group to be able to clarify and correct things that were not recorded optimally.

So, ideally, each session starts with volunteers for facilitator and recorder and they serve the group to make the time as meaningful, productive, respectful, and inclusive as they can.

I think that’s the key and will make a big difference — especially if everyone understands the neutral roles from the beginning. Having it clear who is doing this will free everyone else to focus on their contributions and ideas.

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