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What Makes A Memorable Conference Session?

  1. Dec 6, 2006 #1

    Dr Transport

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    What Makes A Memorable Conference Session??

    As the title says: "What Makes A Memorable Conference Session??"

    I have been contacted about organizing and chairing a conference/workshop session and I'd like to know what you would suggest I do to help facilitate the smooth running of one.

    Good, Bad or Indifferent what have you done to make a session an educational experience where everyone comes out ahead.

    (passing out beer ahead of time is not an option.)

    Thanks.......
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 6, 2006 #2

    Moonbear

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    Communication, communication, communication! :biggrin:

    First and foremost is finding the right set of speakers. You need to find a group of presenters whose work complements one another, but not with so much overlap that every one is bored of nearly identical introductions by the end of the session. I suggest inviting people you have personally heard speak and who you think give very dynamic presentations...some people have fantastic work, but give horrid presentations, or have a well-known habit of running overtime (if you can't avoid having one of those, schedule that person last so they don't run into everyone else's time).

    Other things that are important are keeping in touch with the presenters in advance, making sure they know the other people who will present and the titles of their talks as soon as possible so they can tailor their presentations based on those that will come before and after theirs. Confirm a couple months, a month and two weeks in advance that they are still planning to attend, and make sure they know how to reach you if they have a last minute emergency that keeps them from attending.

    Make sure you know what audiovisual equipment will be available well in advance, including if there are restrictions on what operating system or presentation software will be available, or if people can bring their own laptops, and convey this to the presenters so they can check their presentations are compatible in advance.

    Plan to arrive an hour early to meet your presenters and get their talks loaded onto the computers so you have time to fix any technical problems before the session begins.

    It's also nice if you can get a trainee as a co-chair so they can get some experience in chairing sessions too, and let them introduce a few of the speakers.

    That's the biggest part of it...select the speakers, get them there, introduce them, keep them within the time limits, and since you'll have the most advance knowledge of the content of their talks, be sure to have a question or two planned ahead for each one just in case the audience is slow to ask questions (the session chair is somewhat obligated to ask a question if nobody else does so that the presenter doesn't leave feeling like nobody appreciated their talk).

    Oh, the other thing that helps is to make sure questions are taken from people in the audience other than the ones everyone already knows by name. If a young person who might be a student timidly raises a hand, give them a chance to ask a question before they lose their nerve. I hate it when you attend a talk and have a question, but only the "in crowd" gets recognized, especially when you're really trying to stretch and learn something more outside your field.

    Oh, and if you have any say over it, think about bladder capacity after consuming coffee when planning shorter breaks...have an break earlier in the session in the morning than you might plan in the afternoon, or else make sure the room is arranged so people can easily slip out without having to walk past the speaker.

    That's the basics. The reality is that most people complain if 1) you get horrible speakers presenting only stuff they've already published rather than adding in something really new, 2) the AV equipment is malfunctioning and distracting everyone or making it impossible to hear speakers or see their slides, 3) you let the speakers run over time so that the session becomes unbearably long.

    If you have more than just one session to plan, the logistics get a lot harder (I've been on the local arrangements committees for a few conferences...one for a large, national meeting with multiple concurrent sessions held in a convention center and two different hotels...so if you're actually planning an entire workshop and not just a single session in one, I can cover some of the other logistics, including don't hold concurrent sessions in more than one building if you only have one person to run between them to fix AV problems :rolleyes:, but that gets to be a pretty long list.)
     
  4. Dec 6, 2006 #3

    Gokul43201

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    Which conference? What kind of session (short talks, long talks, invited talks...)?
     
  5. Dec 6, 2006 #4

    Evo

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    HUMOUR. The ability to get past an oblivious and brain dead audience and reach the attendants that have some hope of comprehension.
     
  6. Dec 7, 2006 #5

    Astronuc

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    Keep it short and sweet. :rofl: Humor helps too! :biggrin:
     
  7. Dec 7, 2006 #6
    A sunny, tropical island with 12,000kg of coffee beans, well thought-out topic programming, enthusiastic speakers who know how to give talks, poster sessions for students, free champagne and ice cream.
     
  8. Dec 7, 2006 #7

    ZapperZ

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    How much of a budget do you have? :)

    I just finished running a workshop this past July in Lake Geneva, WI. And unless they were lying to us, everyone was telling me that it was the best of the AAC workshop so far. Even the chair of the committee running this in 2 years already conceeded that they won't have quite the wonderful facility and the setting that we did.

    The one advice I would give you would be PATIENCE. You'd be surprise how demanding people are, and how they they simply do not read instructions no matter how obvious or how many times you tell them. So even if you have laid out all the instructions, assume that there will be people who won't read them. This means that you will have to make plans according to that assumption.

    Zz.
     
  9. Dec 7, 2006 #8

    Moonbear

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    Yeah, if he has to organize the entire conference/workshop, it's a lot different than if he has to chair a single session.

    People are incredibly demanding, though that also depends on how big of egos your attendees have. One of the smaller workshops I helped organize was the worst in this regard, because the invited speakers were a group of people who are major bigwigs in the field (it was a workshop to honor one of their fellow bigwigs, who seemed to be the only humble person among them), and boy did they have EGOS!!! Fortunately, one of the post-docs we had at our registration desk, which is where most of the requests and complaints were raised, had worked at Euro Disney while still in school, so had been trained in customer relations and keeping a smile on his face no matter how difficult someone is being. You'd be amazeed how much it helps to just keep a smile plastered on your face as you say, "I'm sorry, sir, we don't have any way to do that for you, would you like to borrow a phonebook to see if you can locate someplace in the area that can?"

    For the larger conference I helped organize, the most important thing people worried about was food, the second most important thing that we were praised for was that we ensured enough space between poster boards so people could walk comfortably through the aisles and had plenty of room to read posters, and the last was that we had a student volunteer in every room to help with AV issues, and had an AV room where we had computers and professional staff present to help convert presentations into proper format and onto proper media (including having CDs available that people could just buy off us if they didn't bring their own to burn their presentations onto after making changes, because, as Zz mentioned, people can't follow simple instructions, and would show up with presentations that were not compatible with the operating system on the computers in the rooms where they were giving the presentations, so the best we could do was have support staff who could help them make changes at the last minute when they realized that weird font we told them not to use because it wouldn't be installed was showing up as a bunch of open squares).

    As for food, it gets expensive very quickly. But, we realized that people don't need fancy food, they just want enough food. In the mornings, have both the high carb, sweet stuff like danishes and muffins, along with the healthier options like fruits, and of course PLENTY of coffee. And, think about how to get people through the lines quickly so they have time to eat before the coffee breaks end. For some reason, even hotels don't think about these things, so they don't prompt you to do it if you don't ask for it. As an example, set the condiments for the coffee on a table nearby, but separate from the line for everything else, and have a few extra coffee urns there. Some people just want coffee, and don't need to stand in the long line for pastries and fruit to get it. And, some people take FOREVER to add sugar and cream to their coffee, which slows the whole line if you don't separate the condiments. The sooner you get your participants to their coffee in the morning, to better the rest of the day will go. :biggrin:
     
  10. Dec 7, 2006 #9

    turbo

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    Moonbear's idea of putting cream and sugar on a separate table works well (with a couple of extra carafes of coffee). If you have the room, set a modest-sized square table in an open area so people can approach it from all sides, not against a wall or among obstacles that would force people to queue up. That will unite people with their precious coffee more quickly. Put cups and stirrers and napkins on two diagonally opposite corners of that table so that no matter which side of the table the people are on, the necessities are at hand. It can help to have separate tables for high-carb treats and for fruit, juices, too. If a guy wants a jelly donut, don't make him wait in a food line where people are selecting fruit, pouring juices, etc. His break (and your break period) will go a lot smoother if he can just grab his donut and coffee and take a seat.
     
  11. Dec 7, 2006 #10

    ZapperZ

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    I believe that usually, the food and catering part are usually the responsibility of the caterer. While you can make suggestion on the layout, etc., usually where things are placed in terms of food service should be left to them, especially if you are contracting it out at the hotel/resort that the conference is being held. They have done this many times and usually can tell you what works and what doesn't.

    I had to make a suggestion on how they place the coffee service during our coffee break, because they only get 1/2 hour for that break, and with 300 people, we had to get them their snacks rather quickly. But other than that, usually they get it right in terms of what needs to be accomplised. So in most cases, while you do have to worry about what food and drinks to be served, how they are served usually isn't a major concerned if you have chosen your food provider well.

    Zz.
     
  12. Dec 7, 2006 #11

    turbo

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    Good point ZZ, if you have a caterer, let them do their thing. I used to do a lot of industrial training and though the mills generally provided the beverages and snacks for breaks, they often chose the "chow line" model in which the line moves only as fast as the slowest person. I usually managed to get the layout modified to get the breaks done as smoothly as possible. If the mill is paying me a couple of grand to teach boiler safety for a week, I'm not going to let the training manager catch me letting 15 minute breaks run to 1/2 hour due to a logistics problem that could be addressed easily.
     
  13. Dec 7, 2006 #12

    brewnog

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    Frequent break-out sessions for any group work or practical activities always go down well.
     
  14. Dec 7, 2006 #13

    Astronuc

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    I am on the steering/program committee for a conference in June of next year. We sent out a call for papers two months ago, and we just extended the deadline for abstracts by several weeks.

    Moonbear makes some excellent points, and so do Zz and others.

    Venue (comfortable, not distractful and clean) and logistics are important. The venue is predetermined years in advance by a group in the technical society, so session chairs don't get involved. Most of the logistics are prearranged by the conference organizing committee. The session chairs would have to decide on last minute details and should arrive early to find the room/rooms where the session will be held, and check the accommodations and communications infrastructure.

    As for organizing a session, as Moonbear indicated it is important to keep in touch with the speakers/presenters. Most will be known by those attending the session, since those people would be interested in the topics. The societies in which I belong often have speaker breakfasts, otherwise the session chair has to track down the speakers. In fact, I'll communicate in advance of the conference regarding arrivals and meeting the person to be sure they know when and where they need to be.

    I arrive at the session early in order to ensure things are working, and then I spend time talking to speakers and members of the audience, especially students. It is important to bring students into the process, because they will ultimately be the next generation of professionals.

    Absolutely. This is a great way to get students involved.

    I participate in large and small conferences. In the large conferences (usually national) - the sessions are generally 3-6 papers long (with about 20 minutes including questions). In the smaller conferences, which are dedicated to very specific topics, we'll do 2 or 3 papers then take breaks for coffee, or lunch.

    I've done seminars where the presentations would be 45 min to 1 hr (much like a university class period), and we'd do two presentations between breaks.
     
  15. Dec 7, 2006 #14

    Moonbear

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    That hasn't been my experience at all. You have to tell them what your group needs. Especially in hotels and convention centers, they can guide you on these things, but you have to make the final decisions and tell them how you want it done for your group. Some just always set it up the same way if you leave it up to them, which is whatever is easiest for them, not necessarily what is best for your group. For example, if you have 15 min coffee breaks scheduled, do you want the hotel staff to clear away everything as soon as your break is over, or do you want them to leave any leftover out until it is consumed? At long meetings, sometimes people like to get up during unplanned breaks and grab a second cup of coffee while stretching their legs a few minutes before returning to a session.

    When we planned the big conference, we basically went to the one the year before and took notes on EVERYTHING. If there were bottlenecks with food service, we took note, if there were rooms set up with AV equipment in a way that people sitting in the back couldn't see the screen or speaker, we took note, when the arrangements committees each year were trying to top each other with entertainment during the opening reception, to the point where everyone was sitting and watching a show rather than mingling and socializing, we took note (and it somewhat helped that the meeting the year before was in a brand new hotel that had clearly not been an appropriate meeting location, so there were lots of problems for us to note).

    We were fortunate that the convention center and surrounding hotels had experience working together, so that made it easier to coordinate things happening in three places at once. But, a lot is in the details...remembering to get timers in the rooms so that concurrent sessions stay on schedule for people who want to go to the first talk in one and the third talk in another to not miss what they've planned to attend, or making sure there are plenty of signs pointing people in the right direction for events. And, every year, we make sure that all the volunteers running the meeting have distinctive t-shirts to wear, along with special badges identifying them as such, so people know who to ask if they need help finding something.

    That's really the big thing, just making it so people can get where they need to be, when they need to be there, without getting lost, and making it such that if they do get lost or don't know where they need to be or what to do about something, there is someone they can easily find who can point them in the right direction. We asked our volunteers to linger near escalators and elevators as well as the street corners between hotels during the breaks so that they could point people in the right direction as they headed to their next session.

    And, we did have the occassional real problem come up, and needed to know who to contact to assist (such as the woman from another country who had her purse stolen, including her passport and other ID that she needed to get back home...we called the local police for her, and contacted the airlines and embassies for her to get all the needed information to ensure she would get replacements in time to get home).
     
  16. Dec 7, 2006 #15

    Dr Transport

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    Thanks for the input and info. I have read and re-read every post and will take much of this to heart.

    A little more info on my part. This is more of a workshop and all talks are contributed, the only talk that is invited will be the initial presentation. The co-organizers I am working with on htis all have experience at setting these up so I suspect that the logistics will be take care of when it comes to food etc.... One of the ladies we work with has done this logistics work for over 10 years and this will be her 25th or so conference, the only twist is this time it is off site for her and she will not be able to just call her office for the answer.

    My major worry is accommodating the spectrum of speakers; govt lab, academic and industry; all in one session and will have to spend a bit of time working and reworking the schedule so there is a decent flow. At this workshop previously, the talks were 15 minutes or so with between 5 and 10 minutes of questions and discussion. Most of the time the speaker is interupted with questions and they finish in 20 minutes and nothing more needs to be said. Being a workshop, we have presentations in the morning and for about an hour after lunch then break into working groups (part of this workshop is to set a national policy over the next 3-5 years). Techincally we use this as a forum to check each other and compare notes about how our systems are working and we spend about 2-3 days back in our offices and in our rooms at night after dinner and brewskis discussing the intelligance we have gotten during the day about our competitors.

    Thanks again....



    Anything else??????
    (just practicing.....)
     
  17. Dec 7, 2006 #16

    Astronuc

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    I have participated in international conferences devoted to particular areas. The session chairs have the responsibility of taking notes, then summarizing the session at the end. The session summary then goes into the proceedings. The summary covers the key points of each paper/presentation given, and gives us a chance to make corrections or clarify the key points.

    In one day, if we have 12-16 presentations, the papers are organized by topic and then subtopics, i.e. we try to group papers by relevancy.

    Many of the workshop conferences I attend now have CDs of the presentations. The main conference organizers collects the presentations on a hard drive, then burns CDs during or after the conference, and then the CD is mailed to each participant.
     
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