A bang not a whimper

March 18, 2005

Want to set your career alight by organising a conference but don't want to spontaneously combust in the process? Olga Wojtas finds there are ways to make the process go smoothly and enhance your CV

Organising a conference may bring you 15 minutes of fame - but can you turn it into a longer-term career advantage? There's no need to be Machiavellian about it, but there are simple ways to negotiate the minefield of conference politics while earning some academic kudos.

One sure-fire way to get noticed is to have a government minister as a keynote speaker. There is always a good turnout to hear the latest policy, or the attempt to defend an existing policy. But inviting a minister can bring its own set of problems.

Rob Davidson, a conference management expert at Westminster University, warns that until a minister is in the building, you can never be sure they haven't found a more pressing engagement. "At the last minute, they can back out and send a senior (or not so senior) civil servant," he says. "If you can get a minister, it's fantastic, but you have to balance that with security and protocol, which can be time-consuming and expensive. They guarantee publicity but they also guarantee controversy, and that can be difficult to handle if half the attendees are booing."

Academic controversy, however, is an excellent draw and is something to aim for whether you're organising a conference or want to become the star of one. According to Glasgow University's Gerry Carruthers, co-director of an annual international conference on Robert Burns, "the way to make your name is to challenge what people take to be the commonsense view".

"Revisionism is in, and you will absolutely be bookmarked in people's minds," he says. "But make sure you've got the brains to back it up. I've seen people do it where they're challenging the doyen, and usually the great man or woman is deserving of that status."

Being provocative is almost expected at conferences now, Davidson agrees.

"If it's too bland and too general, it's too easily forgotten. It comes with the need to say something new. People are desperate to hear something new in their field, and if your conference doesn't (give them that), in my opinion it's failed."

But it is important to let the audience in on any arguments. "It's a very passive experience listening to presentation after presentation," says Tony Rogers, chief executive of the British Association of Conference Destinations and executive director of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers.

One of the key objectives of a conference is to disseminate information, he says. It is much better to have a plenary session with a keynote speaker (with audience questions if the auditorium's size permits), followed by delegates moving into discussion groups that may report back to another plenary session.

Presentations to small break-out groups are becoming increasingly specialised, and with perhaps four or five parallel sessions, a speaker may have a tiny audience. But Davidson doubts whether that should matter to the ambitious researcher. "To be slightly cynical, you don't need to care very much, because you've delivered a paper at a conference and, for your research CV, there's no indication that you were talking to only a man and a dog," he says.

The desire to beef up CVs can also motivate colleagues to help you organise the conference, says Eric McAdams of Ulster University - just remember to give them fancy titles and put them on impressively named committees.

Other academics warn of the need to distinguish between the "workers" and the "committee fillers" - people added to look good or for politics' sake.

The fillers will do nothing, except at the conference, where they will take the limelight while the workers are busy sorting out the blocked toilets, the lost vegetarian meal and the audiovisuals.

McAdams says a good conference organiser will ensure that workers get the glory they deserve by putting their photographs and biographies on the conference webpage, letting them chair sessions and writing them into the conference press release.

A snappy press release, promising at least one newsworthy paper, is crucial, Carruthers believes. And it need not be a catastrophe if the story is overdramatised or even misrepresented. That could lead to a bigger audience and you can use the conference to set the record straight.

Many academics who have organised conferences say sorting out the academic content is the easy part. They know what the issues are in their disciplines or at a broader policy level and who the big names are. You will even find people cold-calling to offer their services as speakers, says McAdams.

Just be prepared with your reply when they raise the issue of fees and expenses.

The other thing that organisers agree on is that anything that can go wrong will. Keynote speakers will cancel, there will be a rail strike and delegates will go down with food poisoning after the conference dinner.

"People will judge you and the conference on how you deal with it," Davidson advises. "A delegate could die, but that won't wreck the conference if you deal with it efficiently and discreetly. But a lot of academic conferences are still organised by amateurs, and that's where the risks can come in. Experienced conference planners have a plan B and a plan C."

It is the multiplicity of non-academic skills needed, from dealing with finance and health and safety to online registration, that causes the most stress. "Lecturers are not trained to run conferences, and should consider employing a professional conference organiser," Rogers says. The cost need not be prohibitive, he says. A professional organiser can be brought in for specific aspects, tailoring what they do to the size of the budget.

More information: www.abpco.org


Top tips on how to make it in conference organising:

* Insist on abstracts in advance so that you can plan the programme and avoid overlapping presentations

* Don't get stressed about histrionic press coverage. Any story is better than no story

* Get your sleep the week before. You'll have to be the first up and the last to bed during the conference

* Stay off the alcohol

* Keep smiling if something goes wrong

* Remember, something always will go wrong

* Or (perhaps the best advice of all) get a professional to organise it all for you.


Conference call

Emily Leach is a born-again conference goer. "I used to go to conferences at the start of my PhD because you were expected to go along," says the 26-year-old biochemistry PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia.

"It was what you were supposed to do, but it wasn't always terribly interesting.

"Then I went to the Nitrogen Cycle meeting in Delft, Holland, in 2003. It was great fun. The best way to describe it was that it was a great auditorium both for science and socialising. You always go round to the bar and have a couple of pints and that is when the science really can flow. You are relaxed and you can get talking to all sorts of people. You find that the middle-aged scientists can be the most up for it. They have been doing the circuit for years.

"I'm not saying people are drinking until they are out of it, but you can make friends and contacts who you can bounce ideas off."

Chris Bunting

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