16 June 2011

Conferences are broken and awesome at the same time

Last week, I blogged from The Crustacean Society meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. Given the long plane flights, and that I paid for the entire trip out of my own pocket, was it worth it?

I had a split view after the conference.

Part of me said, “Conferences are broken.

I’m getting impatient by the low level quality of talks at scientific conferences. I don’t mean the quality of the science, but the quality of the presentation of the science.

People are still reading those damn lists of bullet points they’ve made in those canned PowerPoint templates. I am 99.9% sure I was the only person to use Prezi. I was not the only person to deliver a presentation with no bullet points, but that number was small.

Oral presentations should be the highlight of the conference. They are ostensibly the reason we are  holding the conference. Instead, talks are so weak that they are the least interesting thing about the whole affair.

Not every talk was poor - especially not yours, dear reader. But if you were there, did you feel energized before going to the coffee break, or was the coffee break sweet release?

And I ate more lunches and dinners alone than I would have liked. I suck at making conference food dates.

But part of me said, “Conferences are awesome.

I had a lot of good, productive conversations. At the opening social. In the poster session. At the banquet. A few in the coffee breaks.

There were points in my talk that I thought people didn’t respond to, but I found out two days later that they had the desired effect.

All of those talks made me glad that I hadn’t just connected over Skype. The actual physical meeting still has advantages.

If I were organizing a smallish conference like this, I would try to:

  • Schedule more featured talks from speakers at the top of their game who give kick-ass talks. Scientists who can make you laugh. Scientists who can bring a tear to your eye. Or just the ones with awesome photos. They’re out there.
  • Shake up the contributed talks. I’ve said before I would love to do an Ignite! session at a conference. Another might be to put more effort into giving speakers input on effective presentation, or have a “What not to slide” workshop.
  • Ask some people to try talking about their research in panels (no slides permitted) on similar themes instead of single speaker talks.
  • Try to facilitate lunch and dinner outings. Maybe designate a few of the locals to act as “hubs,” to say, “Hey, I’m going to have lunch at a nearby sushi place.” Nobody should have to eat alone at a conference.
  • Make sure people have a chance to view posters before the formal poster session. And more than one poster session. “All posters up for four hours, odd numbers present first two hours, even posters present last two hours” doesn’t work. People get trapped in front of posters and don’t see others. Not having all posters up at the same time allows people to see other posters.
  • Have fewer tracks of programming as the conference wears on. That way, as people leave, the rooms do not appear to be distressingly empty.

I don’t think I’d be quite ready to have one of those “unconferences” I hear about. But I do think the standard conference format could be improved.

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