Conference dos and don’ts – the organiser’s perspective

Conferences are challenging, exciting and exhausting. In addition to that, when you’re the one organising the conference, they’re also a lot of work. I just finished a conference I organised with my colleagues and I thought I list some of the things that make conferences better and some things that are better avoided.

Let’s start with the dos.

If it’s an international conference as was the case with ours the person corresponding with the participants should be fluent, or at least proficient, in the language of communication. It also helps if the person in contact with the participants is familiar with the university and the city. In our case, I was the only Potsdam local whereas my colleagues all live in Berlin. It would have taken them quite some google searching to figure out questions about the city – ranging from how to get from bus stop x to uni to nice restaurants in the area. Having lived here for ten years, I know alternative bus routes by heart.

Always answer emails within two days. Otherwise they will spam you with emails asking whether you’ve received their previous email. On the one hand this is annoying. On the other hand many participants, especially the young researchers, have less conference experience and are simply nervous. But of course, there is always the entitled boomer that will harass you during the weekend.

Have enough snacks and coffee. I cannot stress this enough. You can conduct a case study on mob violence right then and there when the coffee is about to run out. Also allow for enough time to actually snack and have coffee. Old adage has it that networking and the best conversations happen during coffee breaks.

Regarding coffee breaks, tea is a must and alternatives to milk, such as almond or soy milk are a nice touch. And don’t be cheap when it comes to cookies and biscuits. Sitting and listening is hard, so people need chocolate to recharge. Keep your conference crowd well-fed and they will forgive other mishaps.

Bring tupperware. Because there will be leftover food and us poor millenial PhD students can always do with free food.

Moving on to the don’ts

Running out of coffee, obviously, is the worst case scenario.

Don’t cram the day. Starting at 9:00 is tough enough, don’t make everybody sit through a whole conference day until 19:00. Nobody can concentrate that long, or sit still for that matter. I know that an additional day of panels is expensive but half a day already helps a lot to slow things down. Have your guest arrive early during the first day and continue with a short panel during the afternoon, have a relaxed second day and one short panel on the moring of the third day so that everybody can travel back during the afternoon.

Don’t assume everyone will have an actual powerpoint presentation. There is always someone with a fancy alternative format (or a pdf on reading mode). Have someone of the team be ready to help (the boomers) with modern technology.

Don’t take rude behaviour personal. Every conference has a diva and a creep. These people behave entitled and creepy everywhere. They’re not doing it just to personally insult you. Enforce boundaries when necessary (especially with the creeps), keep smiling and put them on the list of people you’re never going to invite to a conference ever again.

And lastly, don’t present a paper if you’re part of the organising team. It’s so much work and you’ll never really get into presentation mode. I dreamt of the powerpoint I forgot to finish. Being constantly worried about something else really took away from the participant’s experience.

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