Suggestions for Conference Organizers [Repost from Concurring Opinions’ Archive]

[In 2007, I guest-blogged at the group law professor blog Concurring Opinions. With the demise of that blog, I am now archiving my guest posts on my own blog. This post first appeared on February 7, 2007.]

Symposia/conferences are an integral part of my academic life, so I spend a lot of time attending them (and traveling to/from them). For example, during one particularly frenetic 18 month period, I took 34 business trips, and the bigwigs in our field travel way more than me.

I find conferences very helpful to my academic work. They can be a terrific way to learn about new ideas and meet new people. When I present, I get valuable feedback and an opportunity to evangelize my work and ideas. In theory, over time, repeated presentations could help build a fan base of people interested in an academic’s work and eagerly awaiting his or her next brilliant contribution.

These benefits don’t come free. Each conference requires significant time preparing a presentation and traveling to/from the conference (plus the actual time at the conference). All of this time has an opportunity cost; I could spend it on other professorial duties (such as writing articles) or wringing some valuable personal time out of my schedule. In my case, when I travel overnight, I leave my wife alone with our two young kids—a decision that puts significant burdens on my wife and, as a result, usually triggers some costly counter-demands from her (i.e., “want to go to that conference at Podunk U? Fine, that will cost you a kitchen remodel”).

To facilitate a cost-benefit analysis about the decision to participate in a conference, conference organizers should provide some basic information as part of every invitation, such as:

the event’s date and location. This seems obvious, but in some cases the date is flexible (such as a standalone lecture/workshop) or not set in stone. Usually, the timing matters a great deal—not just because of express conflicts, but also because of workload balancing during the semester, other deadlines, a desire to include some vacation time on the trip, weather issues (including the risk of getting stranded), etc.

any paper requirements and expected deadlines. A paper requirement is a significant request because of the time required to do it. I can prepare a satisfactory talk (by my standards) in a matter of hours, but it takes me weeks or even months to write a paper, even a “short” paper. Deferred deadlines help somewhat by creating more runway to get the work done, but it doesn’t lessen the workload.

what expenses are reimbursable. Usually, law school conferences cover travel expenses for invited presenters, but there are notable exceptions, such as work-in-progress events. Therefore, organizers should clarify expense coverage in the invitation. While law professors usually have a travel budget to cover some conferences without asking for money from the dean, the budget usually gets burned up quickly, and asking the dean for money is never fun, even if the dean is willing to grant the request readily.

In the rare cases when an honorarium is being offered, this definitely should be highlighted in the invitation!

details about the talk’s structure and audience. In some cases, the conference organizers will assign a precise topic; in other cases, the presentation will be part of a topical panel; in yet other cases, the topic is totally up to the presenter. Topic selection affects the amount of preparation work required; it’s easier to minimize preparation when speakers have complete discretion about topics (the topic can then recycle from a previous talk or coincide with a current research effort).

It is also helpful to know about the audience. Not only does this ensure that any topic will be relevant to the audience’s interests, but the nature of the audience can affect the amount of required preparation. Often, it’s easier to prepare practitioner presentations than academic ones (except when the talk is being recycled). In particular, if other academics are going to be critiquing my work, I will want to prepare a more bullet-proof talk, which increases the amount of preparation work substantially. Finally, I generally prefer larger audiences to smaller ones, although a sophisticated audience, even if small, for a work-in-progress event can be very compelling.

Some Tips to Conference Organizers

I’ve participated in many terrific conferences, but I’ve also experienced many duds. Some suggestions to conference organizers about ways to improve the event:

* Keep speakers to stated time limits. Otherwise, long talks cut into the time available to subsequent panelists and valuable Q&A/discussion time. Therefore, conference organizers should designate moderators/time-keepers for every panel, provide constant information about time remaining to speakers (big LED count-down clocks are very helpful), and ensure that moderators cut off speakers who run over their allotted time.

* Schedule adequate breaks throughout the day. First, we all have biological needs! Second, an audience’s attention can wander if a session goes on too long. Finally, and most importantly, the breaks provide extremely valuable social interaction time—this is a key opportunity for people to catch up with friends, debate points about a presentation, provide feedback to the speakers, etc. Don’t skimp on the break time!

* Some must-haves throughout the day: bottled water (hydration is so important!), caffeinated sodas, snacks (both sweet and healthy), and an Internet connection! And directions to the nearest bathroom.

* Name badges should display names in large letters so that I don’t have to stare at someone’s chest.

* Skip the speaker’s gifts. I know it’s the thought that counts, but most end up in the trash.

* Provide speakers with clear instructions on how to get from place to place (or, even better, provide a chaperone and transportation). Even though it’s possible to figure out direction from the Internet in advance, it usually takes some time, and no one knows geography as well as locals.

* Solicit speakers’ AV needs well in advance of the event, especially if a computer and projector aren’t going to be available automatically.

* If the conference isn’t providing lunch, provide very clear instructions and directions about where to go for lunch.

* Please reimburse expenses quickly. I hate having to harass for my reimbursement.

Ilya Vedrashko provides some additional recommendations about designing trade conferences.

Do you have any other suggestions for conference organizers, or want to take issue with mine?