Conferences: Can we do them better?

Posted on April 22, 2011


Conference season is about to being in the UK. While conferences go on all year long, around April, May and into the summer a huge number of conferences take place i.e. why i call it conference season. Unfortunately, if you have been to one conference you have been to pretty much every other conference. If it is a small conference someone does a opening statement which is followed by a series of presentations, many horribly given. This is possibly ended with a summary which tries to link together the wide range of papers into a coherent statement, sometimes successfully but not always.  If it is a large conference then there are a series of these opening statement-presentation-closing components put together, many times with conflicting times. This results in you ether trying to see multiple talks by leaping between sections, usually very unsuccessful as no one follows the time table, or being stuck sitting through multiple presentations just to see one you are interested in. That one you might be interested in could be a complete dud of a presentation.

We have been doing this for over a hundred years in archaeology with almost no innovation. Yeah, we have power point presentations instead of slide shows but is that really that much of an improvement?

For one of my jobs I work for Gengage and on Wednesday we hosted a half day conference. While, I mainly work on the post-production product work (I’ll discuss more on this in a sec.) I do help out with the planning and day of work. There are a couple of things that I have seen that would work well in an archaeology conference. One, is that after 2 to 3 presentations a 20 min. break is taken and people are broken into small discussion groups led by facilitator. I find it to be a much more effective form of question/discussion time. Instead of getting one point of view you can get multiple inputs from other people in the field, many experts in the subject as well.

Another innovation is to use a voting system to ask questions of the audience. This is basically a small remote that is handed to the participants that allows them to vote yes, no, 1, 2, 3, true, false, etc. for whatever question you put up on the screen.  Most conferences are at universities, and most universities have a system like this set up, so logistics in most cases would not be a problem. The votes are tallied right in front of you but it is anonymous, so you actually get what people are thinking. It’s a great way to see how your presentation has influenced the crowed and if you delivered the results you were hoping for.

We use the clicker system in our presentations by asking several generic questions at the beginning of the seminar and then the same ones at the end. Most of the answers at first were don’t  know/undecided and by the end people had made up their minds, some even changing their preconceived notions (my goal when I present). Why do we guess on how well our presentations went or if we got across the right point when we could check it in real time and make corrections?

The last thing I think we could do to improve a conference would be to video tape the presentations and in post-production splice the feed with their power point presentations (it’s what I do for my job). Then put the presentations up on the web (see an example here). The AAA (American Anthropology Association) does it for some of their keynote speakers but it would be great if they did it for every presentation because:

  • it allows people who were not at the conference to benefit from viewing the presentations
  • it allows people at a large conference who had conflicting talks to see benefit from viewing those they missed (Also those on the last day of conference or in the early morning after the social that many people for different reasons miss)
  • it will allow speakers to view their presentations and improve their presentation skills (maybe)
  • you reach a larger audience which means your ideas travel farther- higher citation rate- better career- tenure- etc.

These videos could even be put on YouTube at no cost. Other than a few hours of post-production and the logistics of getting the video equipment (most universities let you borrow equipment free of charge for educational events) the extra time commitment is not that great. The results though are a much wider spread and exchange of ideas. Isn’t that the goal of conferences (plus socialization)?

Anyone else have some thoughts on this?