Parallel Dilemmas

by | Feb 14, 2011

One of the main issues which arises when I come to draft an event amplification plan is the problem of parallel sessions. Virtually all conferences have formal or informal breakout sessions at some point in their programme. Some events cram in so many presentations that almost the entire programme is taken up with parallel sessions. Whilst this gives their physical audiences a dizzying choice of topics, it provides the event amplifier with a dilemma: how do you present this choice to the remote audience?

There are a variety of options available, and like many things, your choice will probably depend on the budget and resources available. There are also two types of amplification to consider: real-time amplification and long-term or post-event amplification. Depending on your focus, there are different ways to achieve your desired effect.

Real-Time Amplification


  • Live stream multiple sessions;
  • Live stream one session and let the others go uncovered;
  • Live stream one session and record others for later publication;
  • Use session-specific hash tags and aggregate the results so online delegates can browse the Twitter output from each session;
  • Offer a dedicated online session.

Streaming multiple sessions is an expensive option to do professionally, but could be achieved on a more modest budget if you are prepared to offer a lower quality feed. You could use a standard laptop web cam or even a smart phone to produce a live video stream through a service such as Livestream or Bambuser. Of course, you will need to have enough people available to operate and monitor these live streams, and you will need to be conscious of the load on your wifi connection. However, if money is no object and you want to move towards a hybrid event model, get a camera in each room and stream all of your sessions so that your remote audience the same choice as the physical audience.

Streaming one session alone is a more cost effective option – particularly if you are streaming your main keynote sessions and are planning to use the same room for one of your parallel sessions. Choosing that session is more tricky. Do you go with the most popular session amongst your physical audience? Do you poll your remote audience in advance to find out what they would like to see? They might be grateful for any content they can get, but equally might feel aggrieved that they had your choice thrust upon them.

Providing alternative coverage of the other sessions for later publication can be a good compromise. This can include video recordings (which you can set going at the beginning of a session and do not necessarily have to man throughout), podcasts, or written session summaries.

Using session-specific hash tags will really only work if you have a critical mass of active Twitter users in the audience, or sufficient budget to place a live microblogger in each session. It is also really important to heavily promote the session hash tag, and accept the risk that not all of your physical delegates will be considerate enough to use it, or provide full context to their responses when they tweet.

The other approach I have tried with some success is offering a dedicated online session. This worked particularly well at IWMW 10 when we ran an online barcamp. The barcamp section of the programme consisted of smaller, more informal, self-organised sessions, so an online gathering in a similar vein using CoveritLive provided a dedicated forum for the online delegates to get the same level of interaction as the physical delegates.

Long-Term Amplification

I am often asked to produce materials that amplify an event over a longer period of time, either in addition to or even instead of live amplification. The online audience for these materials is engaged in a different way with the event content, and often consists of different individuals – including those who attended the event in person but want to catch up with the bits they missed. There are therefore some different options available if you want to cover more of your event:

  • Produce different types of coverage;
  • Publish speakers’ slides;
  • Offer sponsored places to delegates in return for session reports;
  • Ask speakers for a guest article following their session.
  • Parallel sessions offer me the opportunity to mix things up a bit as an event amplifier and produce different types of coverage for different sessions. This makes it more interesting for the audience and spreads the conference message across a wider variety of platforms. At one recent event with two strands of parallel sessions, I produced written summaries for the event blog for half of the sessions, then raced to the other room to interview the speaker from the alternate session. It was vital to catch the speaker immediately after their session so I could ask about the types of questions that the audience asked, otherwise the interviews may have given no more original information than the conference programme description, which would have completely defeated the point.

    Publishing the speakers’ slides is a must for me at all events, as this can significantly increase the lifetime of a presentation. Online participants can look through and glean key points about sessions which were not covered, or which they missed due to other commitments.

    In tough economic times, getting your sponsors on board to help with your event amplification can really increase the amount you are able to do. I often find that my services are being paid for by an event sponsor, rather than the event organiser themselves, which helps the sponsor see exactly how their money is being put to use and demonstrate their contribution in a tangible way. I have also attended events where a sponsor has funded a discount on the attendance fee for exceptional delegates. These delegates have then been asked to contribute to the event by supporting me with the event amplification in return for their discount. If you have a team of keen, hand-picked people who have received a benefit like this, then you could ask them for a report about the parallel session they attended so you can collect these together for the remote audience. Unless you know these people well, there is a need for some level of editorial input before resources are published to ensure quality, and some coordination required to ensure that all sessions are covered in some way.

    Finally, if you are covering your event using a blog, you might want to ask parallel session speakers to provide a guest post after the event in which they summarise what they covered and discuss the audience reaction.


    Providing effective coverage of parallel sessions and collecting useful records of those sessions will vary depending on your budget, your resources and the character of those sessions. Informal workshop or discussion sessions may lend themselves best to speaker/facilitator interviews in summary, whilst more traditional presentations may suit a more direct means of dissemination. When I meet with event organisers I have to try to establish their requirements in order to recommend the best method, which usually consists of a combination of techniques. However, if anyone establishes a way of being in more than one room at once, I would be very interested to know!
    Photo Credit: Danny Fowler.
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