July 01, 2022

An organiser’s guide to putting on a conference (as an ECR)

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/supernatural/

The last blog post by Francescaand Imogenis slightly different, offering final reflections in the form of top tips for making both the planning and running of your own conference as smooth as possible. Of course no two conferences are the same, with different themes, disciplines, durations, funding bodies and institutions all shaping the final product but they hope you find these suggestions useful in some small way.

Tips for the early stages of planning:

1. First and foremost, we would highly recommend organising a conference in a pair or small group, rather than going solo.

It was an immense help to have someone to brainstorm ideas with and to turn to for support. This may be a natural decision for those of you with closely shared research interests, as it was with our conference, but if this isn’t an option then still consider reaching out to people with experience in organising conferences who can advise you irrespective of their field.

2. Carefully cater themes and scope of the conference.

Having identified a broad topic of interest very early on (the supernatural), we then honed in on a specific and largely unaddressed angle of this wider theme (suffering) to fill a specific knowledge gap. To accommodate the interdisciplinary nature of the conference without making it a free-for-all, we kept other aspects as wide as reasonably possible (the pre-modern world, the typology of our suggested sites). For more on how to come up with interdisciplinary themes, check out our previous blog post.

3. If you can, get funding to support your conference.

This will enable you to charge less (or nothing) for tickets, to have catering, and to reimburse your keynote speakers. We secured funding from the HRC through their fellowship competition, which gave us a lot more freedom than we otherwise would have had. As ECR conference organisers, it was also very reassuring to have someone to turn to (other than each other) when we needed guidance. If you’re university affiliated, departmental and faculty schemes should be the first place to check for funding support. You could also approach a body relevant to your interests (such as the Society for the Social History of Medicine).

4. Speaking of funding, carefully construct and keep an eye on budget.

While this turned out to be less important for us as we ultimately moved to an online conference (which was much cheaper), we were required to make a preliminary budget as part of our proposal, so it made sense to make it as detailed as possible even in the earliest stages of planning. Update it as you go and agree what is high priority (e.g. expenses for speakers, inclusive food options) and what can be kept low cost.

5. Scope out your timeframe!

This was helpful for both big and small jobs, such as having specific dates by which drafts had to be finalised or emails had to be sent out, as well as larger windows carved out for more time consuming tasks, such as going through abstracts. Not only is this essential for the sake of the conference but for your own sanity as no doubt you’ll have other academic commitments to keep to. Moreover, it’s good to keep the rhythms of the academic year in mind, such as being aware of when terms roughly start and end so you’re not going to be met with a slew of out of office emails at the end of term or piling onto the usual barrage of work at the start of it.

6. It’s never too early to think about venues.

Think about your options for venues early in the planning stages. What requirements do you have for your venue in terms of facilities, accessibility, hybrid options etc? On-campus locations get booked up quickly, particularly if your conference is taking place during term time so you want to ensure you can secure one that works for you. If you have a particular venue in mind, this can influence when you are able to hold the conference.

Room booking

Room booking

Warwick’s room booking system allows searching by capacity and facilities, as well as providing 360 room tours online

7. Customising calls for papers

A good start is to look at others for inspiration. In conferences you’ve attended, what worked, and what didn’t? What caught your eye about the CfP? When writing the call, think of examples of the sorts of papers you want to hear (especially ones outside of your own field to help broaden the interdisciplinary appeal of the conference). Get someone outside of the organising committee to read over the call to check that it adequately explains the scope and aims of the conference.

Poster designs

Some example poster designs we found to be effective

Tips for getting it off the ground:

1. Jazz up your publicity and social media assets to give your conference a professional and identifiable ‘brand’.

In 2022, the importance of marketing is rather unavoidable - whether this means maintaining a social media presence or creating a unique look for your promotional materials. If you’re not confident with design yourself, see if you have any friends who’d be willing to help you out! We’d also definitely recommend setting up a dedicated conference email address to add to that professional feel, as well as to prevent your own email from getting swamped.

2. When it comes to dealing with abstracts, collation and organisation is key!

It goes without saying that you should allocate a generous amount of time to reading and debating the submissions you receive. We compiled ours in a shared Google sheets that could be worked on simultaneously by organisers, using discipline, period and keywords we associated with the abstract to help filter through them. We worked through several ‘rounds’ of narrowing down until we reached the number we had space for. Give yourself enough time to properly read through on your own and discuss them together - be open to the other’s opinions in terms of accepting/rejecting papers you may have different thoughts about.

Spreadsheet for abstracts

The spreadsheet layout we used as we went through the submitted abstracts

3. Be conservative with papers

While you may receive many exciting abstracts, all of which you’d like to find time for, it is important to be conservative about how many speakers you ultimately accept to ensure you don’t fill the day(s) with too many things going on. Synchronous panels might be a good option if you want to fit more than 12 speakers for a day-long conference, but remember that this limits your audience’s choice as to what papers they can hear in case there’s clashes, so being cautious about how many abstract you accept is very important.

4. Be generous with timings

In being conservative with the amount of papers you accept, it allows you to be generous with timings of the day and when it comes to compiling the programme for the conference, feeding in extra time for each segment of the day is a wise decision. Not only does this allow you buffer time in case anything goes wrong, but it also will allow you to run ‘over’ the allotted time when panellists got into engaging discussions during the Q&A portions of the day, which was really beneficial for the conference and isn’t something you want to cut short.

5. Be flexible

Things may change from your initial proposal/idea, either due to your own changing ideas, or because of factors outside of your control. We had been planning for an in-person conference for upwards of 8 months, but made the decision to pivot to online 3 months before the conference due to COVID concerns. At the outset of the conference, we had also initially planned to have two keynote speakers but soon realised this would create scheduling constraints and limit the number of papers we could include, so ultimately opted for one.

Tips for making the day run smoothly:

1. Practice is preferable for virtual conferences.

Having made the decision to move the conference online, we opted for Teams as our platform, as it was one we were familiar with and had an institutional licence for. Making sure you’re confident using the platform you choose and that you can explain its functions to attendees is essential, as not everyone will be familiar with it. Different computer setups, such as using desktop or browser versions of a platform, or even the system that their device runs on may alter their ability to interact with the platform. For instance, as we found out, people using desktop versions of Teams aren’t usually able to access chat. Ensure beforehand whether there’s anything you need to edit in terms of permissions to allow your presenters from external institutions to share their powerpoints; you may ask to have powerpoints sent to you in advance, just in case. We also asked speakers about to present to return a few moments early from breaks to check that audio, video and screensharing would all run smoothly during their papers.

2. Dedicate time to your opening and closing remarks.

We would highly recommend planning your opening and closing remarks in advance, and if possible, find some time to make final edits to the closing remarks during the conference day for finishing touches and tailoring - perhaps during the lunch break. We opted to split the actual delivery of the remarks between us, which created a nice back and forth and mirrored the way the conference came together.

3. Assign roles!

You can save time and effort in the lead up to the conference by assigning roles e.g. one person keeps an eye on emails, another handles social media. It’s also a good idea to do this on the day with your organisational team. For instance, we agreed that one person could monitor chat and incoming personal messages while the other was on standby for screensharing issues. Moreover, communication should be kept open between organisers at all times - as we were online, we used Whatsapp for speed and ease as well as to reduce the number of tabs open on the computer.

4. Make effective use of your chairs.

Bringing in panel chairs can also help lessen your stress throughout the day. If you have a large organisation team, you may be able to split up chairing duties between you, but as a pair, we felt we would have been stretched thin trying to do all this ourselves. You should obviously select chairs who will engage meaningfully with the panels, as well as being natural orators who can pose thought-provoking questions if participants are slow to ask their own. Equally, make sure you have prepped them adequately, making sure that your chairs are clear on how you want the conference to run, and it’s especially useful to provide them with a ‘crib sheet’ with all the necessary information.

5. Be friendly!

This is an academic conference but it is also an opportunity to be social with colleagues and peers and having a convivial and relaxed atmosphere will help engagement and put speakers at ease.

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