Making scientific conferences more engaging


In scientific conferences, the talks are often the least constructive part of the meeting. That’s my experience and opinion, at least. This is ironic, because at least in theory, the talks are the raison d’être of a conference.

When people fly in from great distances to be together, should we really be spending most of the day in dark rooms listening to canned talks from our colleagues? Should we be spending our time on things that we could just as easily do in a webinar?

Here’s an example about what more a conference session can offer: Mike Kaspari wrote about a session that he co-organized for the Tropical Biology meeting in 2015 that was particularly constructive and engaging, partly because they broke the mold of the typical organized symposium. Each person gave a 3-minute talk, and then the speakers were part of a moderated session that involved substantial audience participation. It was a great session. I had to duck back and forth because of a competing (traditional) session in a different room, but clearly after a few hours, the folks in this interactive session walked away with more. Can we have more of this, please?

The good news is this year I get to lead off a similar session at the Ecological Society of America meetings — also moderated by Mike Kaspari — in honor of pioneering ant ecologist Mary Talbot. This’ll be a series of 5-minute talks with plenty of time for discussion. The other speakers all give great talks, and we’ll have more time and opportunity to synthesize and extend after the talks are done. I don’t know how may sessions in this conference will feature such extended discussion.

I think there are some obvious reasons why talks are often stale. For starters, in the conferences I usually go to, you’ve got to submit an abstract six months in advance, guaranteeing that the title and abstract isn’t fresh. Speakers in a symposium often talk about older work that fits the organized theme. And in most 10-15 minute talks, at least half of the time is spent on minutia that is of interest to people in that particular sub-sub-sub-field, which could probably just be addressed by a conversation after the session ends.

In recent years, there’s been a shakeup so that we get more out of conference sessions. The Ecological Society of America conferences have been using both the “ignite” and “lightning” formats, both of which are five minutes long. The ignite sessions have slides that advance every 20 seconds.

Some folks don’t like these shorter talks, but man, I love them. Why is that? If you’ve got a point that you can make in 12 minutes, then if you plan ahead, you could make that point even better in five minutes. If you need 12 minutes to make your point and can’t find a way to communicate it in five minutes, I’m betting that you won’t be able to keep an audience enthralled for 12 minutes. The main reason I like these short talks is because folks spend more time preparing for them. I’m no slouch when putting together a typical talk, but it’s clear that I (and everybody else) puts a lot more time into planning an ignite or lightning talk, because every second counts.

In a major conference I want everybody up at that lectern to treat our time like it’s golden. These short talks mean you can’t just step up there and wing it — you’ve got to prepared. And the good news is that, if the speaker doesn’t have their act together, we only have to tolerate it for a short period of time.

There’s another reason I love these short talks. This would bring more people into each room, and there would be fewer rooms. In bigger conferences, it’s absolutely crazy how many simultaneous sessions are running, often so that there are conflicts among talks that you want to see. But then you get into a session, and it’s crawling along like a high viscosity fluid. The more simultaneous sessions, the fewer people will see an individual talk. I’d love to trade away two thirds of my time for triple the audience. Moreover, while I’m in the audience I’d love to have more of my colleagues in the room so that we can talk about the that same presentation that we all saw together.

My favorite conferences have been the one-every-four-years “breakout” meetings of the NAS-IUSSI (North American Section of the International Union for the Study of Social Insects). I’ve only missed one since the first one was held in 1998. It’s just over 100 people in a room and poster session in the evening. Mostly graduate students are giving talks, and it’s usually held in some rural-ish facility where we have a chance to have conversations with one another. This intimate environment can’t be replicated in a big conference, but with shorter talks and fewer concurrent sessions we could create more of a shared experience. The bigger a meeting gets, the more scattered we are. I’m looking forward to the Ecology meeting in Portland in August, just because I imagine I’ll see lots of folks I haven’t seen in a long time, and meet people I’ve been wanting to meet. But I think the meeting will be so scattered, that it’ll be harder for us with shared focal interests to advance our fields.

If you could change how sessions are run, or what happens in scientific conferences in general, what would it be?

4 thoughts on “Making scientific conferences more engaging

  1. I like having a mix of session types, I don’t know that I’d want ESA to go to a sufficient preponderance of ignite/lightning sessions to substantially reduce the number of parallel sessions. That’s for a few reasons:

    -Different sorts of talks, and sessions, serve different purposes. I wouldn’t want to see ESA as a whole comprised mostly or entirely of any one kind of talk or session.

    -Quality of Ignite talks varies more widely than quality of regular talks, I think.

    -You can’t pop in and out of Ignite sessions to hear just the talks you want to hear. At least, I can’t! I’m surprised you did–can you say more about how that worked out for you? My understanding is that the desire of many ESA attendees to pop from one session to another to hear individual talks is why ESA won’t go back to the old system of 15 minute time blocks rather than 20. The 20 minute blocks are felt to allow a bit more time for session-hopping, though in practice I don’t know that they do since speakers often talk for 17-18 min. Personally, I’d like ESA to go back to 10-12 min talks in 15 minute blocks. It would cut back a bit on the number of parallel sessions while still allowing session hopping, and it would force people to axe ~5 minutes of introductory filler and dispensable methodological detail from their talks. But from I hear, the 15 vs. 20 min slots issue is one that splits the ESA membership down the middle…

    -Following on from the previous remark: individual Ignite talks are so short I wouldn’t want to try to pop in and out for individual talks. I think Ignite talks get their value, individually and collectively, as conversation starters. Personally, I’d want to sit through all the talks and the subsequent discussion/Q&A, or else not attend the session at all. But clearly your mileage may vary on this.

    -I’ve heard that some physics conferences are nothing but 7 minute talks, which are treated more as advertisements or conversation starters, much as posters are at ESA. It’s a speaker’s way of saying to audience, “Here’s what I’m doing, come talk to me about it after”. Is this the sort of model you’d like to see ESA move towards?

    Some further comments from me and others here. From the first year of ignite talks at ESA, so perhaps slightly outdated now?

    • Thanks for sharing the post and more, Jeremy. I like the idea of talks as prompts for further conversation, yes! Which is pretty much what happens even when folks give longer talks.

      As for hopping in and out of the ignite session + discussion at the ATBC meeting, it worked out horribly for me. There were a couple talks in other rooms that I felt I absolutely needed to catch, which meant that I missed out on a lot of the discussion. (Then again, if the meeting had more sessions like these, the lower the chance I’d be missing out on the talks that I felt I needed to catch)

  2. You might find it interesting to check out the concept of “unconferences” or “unseminars” – participant-driven sessions/events that flip (potentially many different) features of “classic” conferences/seminars. We crowd-sourced and wrote up a short article describing some tips on running such sessions here

    Always enjoy talking about this stuff – just ping me if you’d like to talk about it sometime (@AidanBudd on Twitter probably the easiest)

Leave a Reply