20 Minute Sessions: A Couple of Thoughts

At the most recent SQL Bits, I gave two 20 minute sessions. I also gave one last year. There is a little bit of controversy around these (nothing real, come on), and I’d like to take a moment to record a few thoughts.

Let me say this up front, and then we’ll go from there:
I’m not a fan.

20 Minute Sessions Can Be Challenging

Most conferences have a 60 minute session as the default. Quite a few have 75 minutes too. The standard session at Bits is the 50 minute session (which, can be mildly uncomfortable when you’re used to 60, but is honestly no big deal). So what are the 20 minute sessions for?

You’ll also see a lot of shorter sessions, usually 5-10 minutes, sometimes called lightning talks. These are billed as the place where beginners go to hone their craft.

Personally, I find this to be nonsense, and it applies directly to the 20 minute session. The reason being, it’s probably harder to do well in 20 minutes than in 60. You can meander a bit, and still deliver a good 60 minute session, so new people can get comfortable. There’s no meandering in 20 minutes or less.

In 20 minutes (or less), you can really only communicate a single idea. And, because of the time frame, you have to be extremely focused. This is where the problems start. I watched several 20 minute sessions over the last couple of years, put on by good people. I also have my own experiences. For myself, I think I did OK on 2 out of 3 of those sessions, because I had picked a good enough topic I could focus well. Others I’ve seen have done the same. Yet others, missed the ball entirely, trying to cram a bigger session into 20 minutes (not naming names or calling things out, plus, I know one of my own sessions suffered). Why? A complete lack of focus. No single idea.

Next, within a 20 minute session, there generally isn’t time for questions, no substantial ones. If you miss the mark with someone in the audience, and they need something clarified, well, it ain’t happening til after the sesssion (or, in my case, I had, barely, time for exactly one, really short, question, and I ended up cutting off, slightly, the person who asked it, sorry for that, there just wasn’t time). What this means is that others in the audience who may have missed the same point won’t be able to hear the question and answer. Any recording is lost, because it didn’t happen.

Finally, I feel a bit of pressure to finish, right on time. One, this is so that I do get my one idea across. Two, because it’s just common courtesy to the attendees to finish on time so they can get to their next session. Three, because, again, it’s common courtesy to get the heck out of the way for the next presenter. Yet, with 20 minutes, when you hiccup, cough, say “uhm” or just about anything, five minutes are gone. Hoo boy, more pressure.


I’d Like To See More 20 Minute Sessions

I know, I started with “I’m not a fan”. That doesn’t mean I don’t see their utility. Let me share, paraphrased a bit, something said to me after my “Git Fundamentals” talk:

“Grant, that session today was exactly what I needed… a year ago when I started using Git and was completely lost. I’m taking it back to the team now for others to use.”

I received some similar comments from my session last year on the benefits of source control.

See, when you laser focus on a single idea, it helps people. If you’re focused just enough, it helps people more than a longer session might, because your idea gets hammered home, really well.

Also, a shorter session let’s the people in the audience be laser focused as well. They get the one thing they need, and they’re out. To get that single point out there, whatever it might be, this mechanism is effective. Or at least it can be.

As I said above, as a speaker, there are challenges, but I see the awards as outweighing them. I’ve got less material to prepare overall for a 20 minute session. That means I can spend a bit more time focused on polishing the session as opposed to building it, making it better. I have more time at the event to interact with others, which is frequently the best part of any event. I’m still providing something helpful and leading influence in the ways I desire.

In short, yeah, I’m in favor of more of these. Heck, I wish there were events having them because I’ve got two I’d love to give again.


While I may not be a fan of 20 minute sessions, I’m going to advocate for normalizing these things. Just because I’m uncomfortable doesn’t mean I can’t see the utility. My discomfort shouldn’t be a driving factor for what helps people. In fact, just the opposite. If it helps people while making me a bit more anxious, well, heck, that’s a driver to do a better job.

One word of advice, that I’m mainly giving to myself, when presenting on a 20 minute session, don’t complain about the time frame, just cope (and yeah, I’m very, very much saying I did this, not accusing others).

Otherwise, I see these as yet another tool we have in our toolbox of methods to share. Organizers, please, consider adding these to your event. Speakers, please, consider adding these to your repertoire.

Please let me know what you think about this article or any questions:

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