Friday, May 2, 2014

Planning Conferences

During the school year before this past one, I had the privilege of serving as the faculty advisor for a law review symposium.  We brought in an excellent group of professors and practitioners and, at least from my point of view, the symposium went quite well.  The planning process, however, was much more involved than I had originally thought.  All professors should go through the conference planning process at least once, if only to gain more respect for those who plan the conferences at which we present and attend.    

While I am certainly not a conference planning expert (and my students did the vast majority of the work for that one symposium), I decided to share some of my thoughts here.  Hopefully, these thoughts are helpful, though there may be nothing new for the seasoned conference goer and planner.  Feel free to leave comments to fill in the gaps I leave or to offer your own opinions.   

Start Planning Early.  We started planning our October symposium in late-February/early-March.  That timing worked well for us.  Professors were finished with (or putting the last touches on) their spring articles, but not quite in exam-scramble mode yet.  Initially, I thought we were planning much too early, but soon realized that some of our targeted speakers were already “mostly full” for the fall, and starting any later would have been problematic. 

Seek a Variety of Views.  A good conference, in my opinion, includes speakers with a variety of views.  UCLA’s Micro-Symposium on Competing Theories of Corporate Governance and the Conglomerate’s online symposium on Hobby Lobby are two excellent, recent examples.  There is some benefit of having conferences where the speakers are all in the same area (with different opinions), but I have also benefited from conferences that seek to bring academics from various disciplines together and from conferences that include both practitioners and academics.

Double-Check the Technical.  A surprising number of conferences start with, or include, technical issues.  If you are planning the conference, plan to test the technical side before the conference begins and try to get the presenters to send you any slides beforehand. 

Engage the Audience.  Plenty of conferences I have attended spend the vast majority of time on the presentations and leave little time for Q&A.  Generally, the audiences of academic conferences are pretty sophisticated academics and practitioners.  The questions (as long as they aren’t of the self-aggrandizing variety, see this comic from Professor Anne Tucker) can make the conference more engaging, can highlight the difficult issues, and can challenge the presenters.  At a recent conference at Belmont University, they collected written questions from the audience, and the moderator chose the best, most relevant questions to ask.  This process made the Q&A time more efficient than taking the microphone through the crowd to each audience member and made sure that the questions were not overly long and were of high quality.  If possible, you might also want to consider setting up the conference space with round tables and allow the audience to discuss the presentations at their tables, perhaps with the aid of a table host and starter questions.  This way many more people get to speak.  I have seen the table discussions done extremely well a few times, most recently at a dinner presentation following this University of St. Thomas conference.  If the attendees are involved, they generally have a better time and take away more from the experience. 

Build in Extra Time and Breaks.  Conferences almost never run exactly according to schedule and almost always seem to run long.  While you can warn the presenters that you plan to stick to a strict time-line, presenters almost always go a few extra minutes over the allotted time.  If you can, build in some extra time.  If you want 30 minutes for Q&A, give yourself 40 minutes so that the presenters can go a bit long and not eat through much of the Q&A time.  Also, build in some breaks in the conference.  Attention spans seem to be getting shorter and attendees usually attend conferences, at least in part, to network.  Breaks give them a chance to meet other attendees.  Be warned, however, that it is sometimes difficult to corral the audience back into the presentation space.   

Anyway, those are just some of my thoughts.  Again, I welcome readers to add comments.    

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