The relatively low impact of many academic conferences suggests it may be time for a rethink, argues Duncan Green. ‘Manels’ (male only panels) are an outrage, but why not go for complete abolition, rather than mere gender balance? With people reading out papers, terrible powerpoints crammed with too many words, or illegible graphics, it is time for innovation in format. We need to get better at shaping the format to fit the the precise purpose of the conference.
With the occasional exception (see previous post on Piketty), my mood in conferences usually swings between boredom, despair and rage. The turgid/self-aggrandizing keynotes and coma-inducing panels, followed by people (usually men) asking ‘questions’ that are really comments, usually not on topic. The chairs who abdicate responsibility and let all the speakers over-run, so that the only genuinely productive bit of the day (networking at coffee breaks and lunch) gets squeezed. I end up dozing off, or furiously scribbling abuse in my notebook as a form of therapy, and hoping my neighbours can’t see what I’m writing. I probably look a bit unhinged…..
This matters both because of the lost opportunity that badly run conferences represent, and because they cost money and time. I guess if it was easy to fix, people would have done so already, but the format is tired and unproductive – how can we shake it up?
Image credit: Jae CC BY-SA
Conferences frequently discuss evidence and results. So where are the evidence and results for the efficacy of conferences? Given the resources being ploughed into research on development (DFID alone spends about £350m a year), surely it would be a worthwhile investment (if it hasn’t already been done) to sponsor a research programme that runs multiple parallel experiments with different event formats, and compares the results in terms of participant feedback, how much people retain a month after the event etc? At the very least, can they find or commission a systematic review on what the existing evidence says?
Feedback systems could really help: A public eBay-type ratings system to rank speakers/conferences would provide nice examples of good practice for people to draw on (and bad practice to avoid). Or why not go realtime and encourage instant audience feedback? OK, maybe Occupy-style thumbs up from the audience if they like the speaker, thumbs down if they don’t would be a bit in-your-face for academe, but why not introduce a twitterwall to encourage the audience to interact with the speaker (perhaps with moderation to stop people testing the limits, as my LSE students did to Owen Barder last term)?
How did something as truly awful as panel discussions become the default format? People reading out papers; terrible powerpoints crammed with too many words, or illegible graphics. Please, can we try other formats, like speed dating (eg 10 people pitch their work for 2 minutes each, then each goes to a table and the audience hooks up (intellectually, I mean) with the ones they were interested in); world cafes; simulation games; joint tasks (eg come up with an infographic that explains X). Anything, really. Yes ‘manels’ (male only panels – take the pledge here) are an outrage, but why not go for complete abolition, rather than mere gender balance?
We need to get better at shaping the format to fit the the precise purpose of the conference. If it’s building networks, making new links etc, then you need to maximise the interaction time – speed-dating, lots of coffee breaks etc. If it’s to jointly progress thinking on a particular issue, then use a workshop methodology, like the excellent USAID/IDS seminar I attended a few months ago (whose results I’m still using). If it’s to pick apart and improve methods and findings, then it has to be at first draft stage, and with the right combination of academics and practitioners in the room. But if the best you can manage is ‘disseminating new research’ of ‘information sharing’, alarm bells should probably ring.
Resource it: Organizing good conferences requires expertise and time. It’s not something an overburdened academic should be doing at 1am, after the kids are in bed, and the emails are done. Weirdly, friends tell me that there is often no budget for conferences. But doing them on the cheap is a false economy, if all the people who end up the room wish they were dead/get nothing out of it. So research funders should demand a sensible conference budget in any proposal, and outside particular research projects, academic institutions should fund conferences seriously as places where networking can incubate new ideas and refine old ones.
And why should academics be organizing them anyway? Isn’t there a case for outsourcing more of them to good good conference organizers who ‘get’ the special challenges of academic (rather than, say, corporate) events? With my How Change Happens hat on, the obvious question is, why haven’t things changed already? Using the handy 3i rule of thumb, is it ideas, institutions or interests that are keeping things this way?
Ideas: maybe people genuinely think this format is the best possible, or just lack imagination – how do we undermine that view and get recognition of alternatives?
Institutions: is part of the reason for the leaden, top-down formats that organizers want to control the agenda, pump out their own material etc? Does everyone need to be on a platform, with at least 20 minutes to talk about themselves or their interests? If so, very hard to get away from panelism.
Interests: Academics have to write papers for career advancement and to feed the REF beast. But does that really mean they have to present and discuss them in such a mind-numbing way?
Finally, allow me one unconstructive suggestion: can we please as standard have a clock above the platform that not only records the time, (for the benefit of the chair), but the cumulative cost of the day, based on a rough estimate of the hourly salaries of those in the room (we could base it on this meeting cost calculator)? Perhaps the IT wallahs could also come up with a way of monitoring the number of people who are not actually in the room in any useful sense, because they are on email/twitter/Facebook/doing their online shopping?
And in case you think I’m picking unfairly on academics, corporate, NGO and thinktank conferences are all usually awful, in their different ways (thanks Tolstoy). Rant over, reactions please, including top tips for how to organize good conferences on negligible time/money. See some previous cathartic post-conference posts on epistemic communities and an even more prolonged purgatory in Delhi.
This piece originally appeared on the author’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.
Featured image credit: Robert Scoble CC BY
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Duncan Green is Senior Strategic Adviser for Oxfam GB and Professor in Practice in the department for International Development at LSE. He runs the From Poverty to Power blog and is author of the book ‘How Change Happens (OUP, October 2016). He can be found on twitter @fp2p.
I have noticed a distinct deterioration in the quality of presentations and presenters at Conferences over the last decade, both nationally within Australia and even internationally. I put it down to a combination of factors playing out within the current mass market model of higher education.
My feeling is that on the whole academics are overworked, lecturing too and assessing both on campus students and those studying via distance modes, including online. When teaching duties are devalued and more and more administration is loaded into workload models to meet ever increasing standards of compliance documentation and output or quality audit reports, academics become time poor. If designated ‘teaching only’ then individual research and academic development suffers. Thus Conference papers are hurried and thrown together in as little time as possible.
I feel work load pressure, when compounded by increased time spent to write funding and grant applications, similarly impacts on academics research quality. In Australia the available funding for distribution within the HASS disciplines has decreased disproportionately to the size of the student enrolments putting a squeeze into access to funds for both Conference attendance or Conference presentations. It becomes harder for junior academics to present any new or early research for Conference discussion and feedback, when tenured senior academics have better access to both Faculty funding and Grant budgets for Conferences.
I have also found that very few academics I have worked with are competent with technology, and PowerPoint is viewed as a simple, easy, time saving option. These academics have zero training in design, layout and often no training in public speaking and presentation techniques. More advanced software programs are not universally available at venues unless there is reliable fast internet speed which can support the running of audio visual material or Prezi projections.
Another issue I see impacting the quality of Conference papers and indeed panel discussions is really poor time allocation and panel moderation. Too much is scheduled to be covered, often by too many presenters. This then leads to panelists and presenters ‘needing’ to cut into question time or audience discussion sessions, and in the worst scenario cutting into their fellow speakers presentation time.
Similarly the links between topic and each component presentation within the panel are tenuous given that the speakers have not had the opportunity to ‘rehearse’ or try out their presentations prior to the scheduled panel. There is never any acknowledgement that some pre-session thinking about the other presentations could lead to a more nuanced and valuable session.
All I can say is please, please don’t read papers. There is a huge difference between a written text and a spoken one. These differences can mean the difference between poor communication and a vibrant session with engaged audience and presenters.
I could list many other Conference fails, but think this sums up quickly my experience as a returning ( now junior) academic of some advanced years trying to learn from my colleagues across HASS disciplines. Academic silos do not help develop interesting new discussions at Conferences or seminars.
Here, here! I both agree and am culpable. I can’t count the number of (health related) conferences where I can only retain a tiny fraction of the proceedings 24 hours after the event. Any notes I have made are rarely if ever referred to either.
One successful format we have used for our organisational research conference for the last 2 years are ‘virtual posters’ session. We had no space to display posters so we project them on the screen to the whole audience and presenters get 3 minutes to describe their project. We provide hard copy versions of the posters, at modest cost, and all but one of around 15 presenters who have participated have kept to their 3 minute target. In the 2 minutes for questions slot, the brevity of the presentation format is catching and question are usually relevant, direct and concise. Three minutes is enough to give a flavour of a project and participants are encouraged to speak directly to presenters afterwards to learn more.
I am certainly going to explore some of your other ideas. And thanks for articulating what has been in my mind for some time – especially re the Q&A session!
Hooray, glad it’s not just me. Totally agree, but I do think academic conferences are the worst. In my experience at least business people actively want to communicate with someone, how their work is received by the audience doesn’t seem to factor high with academic presenters.
Readers might enjoy the spoof ‘How to give the perfect science presentation from Prof Andrew Maynard
Most presenters use their PowerPoint slides as their script, rather than talking from note cards. They stand with their backs to the audience and just read off what we can read ourselves. We can also read a lot faster than they can talk! (I have suggested a few times, that the presenter remain silent so that we can read the slides, saving us lots of time).
Proposed new rules: no slides allowed with more than 25 words on it; any presenter reading directly from the slides will be forced to serve as a discussant for all subsequent papers at the conference; a random member of the audience is appointed time keeper for every presentation & given a rubber mallet…
Just a few modest proposals.
Andrew Maynard captures my thoughts perfectly with his delicious spoof. I would add additional points: (13) stand with your back to the audience and (14) read your slides verbatim, no matter how long it takes because you can talk slower than the audience can read.
Agree, agree! also a lot of conferences are too expensive for many people in a position to change practice to attend. I think that there needs to be far more audience participation in conferences. Many of the presentations are very dry and don’t reach out to a diverse audience.
I went to orphan care research symposium in May. I had never attended a symposium prior it, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. But it was engaging, as each speaker had a time limit of 10 minutes, and speakers were set up in pairs: one a scientist presenting research, another a practitioner in the field. Then we would have round table discussions about both speakers. After this plenary session, we had breakout sessions with a choice of three different speakers for workshops. Then we came back for another plenary session after lunch, but seating was swapped up.
Interesting perspective. I agree conferences can be a waste of time…
But I’d say at 95% of conferences/workshops/seminars I go to (attended by researchers: economists, some psychologists) a) there are no panels (manels, fanels, whatever) b) there is ” realtime … instant audience feedback” all right. It’s called questions. c) almost nobody reads a paper.
btw, are you serious about “twitterwall”? I seriously hope we keep on talking about ideas that cannot be expressed with 140 characters…
Been to a few of these and yes it can be painful. However I did go to an amazing conference recently organised by The National Autistic Society – they had some amazing speakers – most had few slides – just really interesting stories to share. And the panel q&a was great as each speaker was truly learning from their fellow speakers and you could see real live discussion and collaboration taking place. I think personal stories resonate much better than slides of facts and research – guess it depends on what the conference is about but most conference topics can be presented in a much more engaging way.
I also agree!! Here is a post I wrote about just his topic and a conference format that aimed to beat some of your gripes:
Duncan, enjoyed meeting you at RTI International. I agree with your “conference comments.” I tend to listen to the key notes, mingle outside the sessions, and avoid the “bring and brag” panels. To counter this, we established a Global Center for Youth Employment – a virtual organization of over 40 organizations. We host “unconference” meetings and ideathons – aimed at collective generation of ideas, collective research, and measured impact. See our recent blog:https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/we-out-big-ideas-peter-joyce-eric-johnson-rti-global-joyce-ed-d-?trk=pulse_spock-articles Would welcome you to join us – maybe for the Ideation in NYC? Let me know if you might come! Best, Peter
Yeah, I too agree. The conference is a time-consuming process and also it is too much expensive. There are many formalities to hold a conference. The presentation could be more interactive and interesting so that more audience will participate. Thanks for sharing the thoughts of the conference!
The answer is just attend the conference dinners. I have had the most productive conversations over food and wine and have found out out more about what reaseach is going on then and my very good connections.
Finally someone says what many of us are thinking! I always have the most productive conversations over coffee, during lunches or on outings.
Great piece Duncan. I have been invited at a few occasions as a professional facilitator to do exactly what your blog is suggesting: making conferences better through process design, dialogue formats, and encouraging two-way communication. On the bright side, in my networks there is a lot of experimentation with interactive, learning-ful formats that really make the most of the time and curiosity of the people who are in the room. This is not to say that it is the *only* way conferences should be run; in fact I strongly believe that form follows function and at times panel discussion (if moderated well) and keynote presentations (if informative and engaging) are GREAT. But a lot can be learned by the different formats that professional facilitators bring in when they help run conferences. I was lucky enough to be invited to a few such conferences and offer conversation styles that were truly self’organizing: 80 researches set their own agenda in 20 minutes and created ten parallel presentations/workshop tables just by the virtue of me letting them self-organize into a “Open Space” style. They rated it as a very fruitful conversation. I hope more of that could be brought into traditional conference formats as to maximize how people make the most of their time there https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/turn-your-conference-learning-event-marco-valente/
Hi Duncan, great post. I have been thinking about this for a long time since I now rarely go to conferences anymore, for the same reasons you outline here. As a facilitator I tried to turn that dissatisfaction into ideas for how to run a conference into a more participatory event. Note: there are great ideas in conferences that we should definitely keep, and I see the landscape changing, but more can be done for sure. I blogged about how I “facilitate” when I am invited to moderate and set new interactive discussion formats at conferences https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/turn-your-conference-learning-event-marco-valente/