Don’t let Lousy Breakouts Ruin Your Conference

Breakout Session - IMA

Imagine your top prospect’s experience at your upcoming conference. She’s wowed by your super-professional opening video, dazzled by your CEO’s kickoff and energized by your opening speaker. She thinks you’re a top-notch company.

And then she goes to your breakouts. This is the moment of truth for your conference. Will the breakouts match the cool factor of your keynotes? Or will they have her counting typos or dozing off from boring “eye-chart” slides packed with text?

Make your breakouts as amazing as your opener

A quick look at your upcoming agenda will show you just how big a problem bad breakout experiences can be. Here are three key tips for making your breakouts as amazing as your mainstage keynote sessions:

Consistency is key

One of the best ways to look like a world-class conference is to have a consistent, professional look and feel across every part of the experience – from invitations to web properties to signage to sessions. Imagine how jarring it is to walk into a breakout and wonder if you’ve accidentally stumbled into the wrong conference? It’s essential to carry the look and feel of your keynotes into every breakout session. Consistency is key to keeping your attendees engaged.

Lori Bush Shepard is a strategic marketing consultant who ran user conferences while vice president of corporate marketing at such companies as Marketo, Clarizen and Axway. She notes: “Breakout presenters are subject matter experts, not designers. They have tons of great content, but the resulting slides can be a real mess. It’s a conference owner’s responsibility to set them up in their best light, so their message – not their messes – are what your attendees remember.”

Don’t flub the details

I was recently at a conference by a very large, well-known Silicon Valley company. I wish I’d been surprised by the number of typographical errors in the decks, but there they were. The look and feel of the presentations were all over the board in terms of graphics, fonts and templates. Bad imagery, misspellings, missing words, and other mistakes are distracting to your attendees and take their minds off what the speaker is saying. It’s essential to ensure each slide is cleaned up before you open your show.

Sibylle Coe, CEO and owner of Launch, Inc., has seen more than her share of bad breakout presentations. With over 20 years of experience producing conferences for the likes of Marketo, Optimizely, Okta and Guidewire, she’s seen thousands of breakout decks. As for consistency, she says, “It doesn’t happen. You might start with your company template, but people will break it – changing fonts, colors, layouts – which makes your breakouts look sloppy. Text-heavy slides are another big problem.” Slides are meant to engage the audience, not be a script for the presenter – that’s what the notes section is for. Too much text makes people tune out or read the speaker’s slides instead of listening.

Imagery can be a real landmine for consistency, too. Your keynotes are (or should be) full of evocative imagery that helps tell the story. Mismatched clip-art lifted from Google searches will not carry that look forward in your breakouts. “We see all sorts of things, like photos that are super low-resolution or stretched – that’s always fun, especially if it’s a person,” Sibylle adds.

“People don’t realize how horrible that will look when it’s projected.”

And don’t forget every event owner’s nightmare – offensive imagery. What one presenter finds funny could be seriously upsetting to some of your attendees. The last thing you need is angry prospects, a confused speaker, and valuable content that goes unheard because of the discord.

Everything comes at the last minute

You set your slide deadlines with plenty of time to get presentations reviewed. Everyone will comply, right? Wrong. Especially when it comes to your own colleagues, I’m sad to say.

But can your in-house graphics team handle the volume when the decks come flying in the last minute? If you’re like most companies, the answer is no. That avalanche of design work will come on top of all of the other things they need to do, and they will wind up very, very frustrated. As Sibylle notes, “They don’t have time to do their best work, and it shows in the decks.”

Gain control with quality at scale

So, I’m sure you agree that consistency is important. If you lose control of the look and quality of your breakout session presentations, your conference – and your attendees – will suffer for it. But while fixing them is can be time consuming and expensive, it is central to saving your conference!

Danielle Daly is Co-founder and CEO of Slidetown, a company committed to telling powerful stories with stunning presentation slides. To learn more, visit