Challenging the traditional conference model

28 08 2015

keeping-the-audience-awakeAn interesting take on conference culture by Diogo Veríssimo (mastermind behind I Fucking Love Biodiversity).

Just a few weeks back, more than 2000 conservationists got together in Montpellier, France, for the 27th International Congress on Conservation Biology (ICCB). I have been attending these conferences since 2008, and once again had a blast. Yet as I went through the usual talks, posters, work meetings, and this and that social, I could not help but feel that the traditional conference model was hindering, not helping me, maximise my benefits.

In my experience of conservation conferences, the content is largely delivered via a one-way channel, and attendees listen passively until the chance for a question or two comes up at the end. If time allows, that is, and it rarely does. Given the huge costs (and the footprint) of these events, how can we maximise the outcomes of these meetings?

Let’s look first at what is currently the backbone of most conferences anywhere: the oral presentation. Currently, the gold standard for the vast majority of ICCB presenters is the 15-min presentation, and those who are denied that chance often say they have been “downgraded”. I find this unfortunate.

My biggest criticisms of our current approach to content management during a conference is that it leaves the discussion to happen informally and without the benefit of the collective knowledge that comes together at these meetings. Many conservationists are keen to avoid long-winded lectures in their classrooms, but when we come together, those concerns seem to go out the window. The Q&A after a talk should be the most important part of a session for either the presenter (expert feedback can save a lot of time and resources) and the audience (who otherwise cannot focus on what they think is important).

Giving sessions enough Q&A time, which I argue would have to be as long as the time given to presentations, would imply having fewer presentations — unless we have shorter presentations. The ICCB already has the speed presentation, a format that lasts just 5 minutes. Why not make that the default? Yes, presenting your content effectively in 5 minutes is an acquired skill, but not much different in kind from writing an abstract to a paper. Having presented in both traditional and speed format, I am convinced presentations strongly suffer from the law of diminishing returns, meaning the difference from the audience point of view ends up being small. This is particularly true if fewer talks means more time for the audience to interact and ask about the things in which they are interested, rather than what the presenter thinks they should learn.

Seminar BingoStill on the subject of talks, this year’s ICCB had many thematic session (a.k.a. Symposia) that are proposed as a package by participants. This is a positive trend as the organisers of these sessions are usually driven to work on that particular area and can serve as bridges between participants. Perhaps one way to explore this further would be to involve journals more in the process and create a formal mechanism for editors and symposium organisers to work together to publish some of the outputs of these meetings. The Society for Conservation Biology‘s Marine Section, for example, has been working with the journal Ocean and Costal Management to publish many of the outputs of the International Marine Conservation Congress meetings as papers. The Society for Conservation Biology with its two journals is in a privileged position to follow suit.

Secondly, I would like to stand up for the “ugly duckling” of conferences: the poster. In a poster session, the audience is the active agent, looking for whatever research they might be interested in, and the potential for face time with the author is much larger than in an oral presentation. Yet posters tend to be neglected not only in terms of academic training (hence why so many are less than appealing) but also in terms of scheduling, being normally scheduled for the end of the day (and often with overlapping events). Why not place poster sessions in the morning when conference attendees are fresher? And if posters allow us to have hundreds of presenters at the same time, then why not give them a bit more time and space? As a side note, I found it particularly encouraging to see Professor Hugh Possingham, a conservation all-star, standing beside his poster in Montpellier, an example I hope to follow at the next ICCB.

Then there are the plenaries. If this year’s ICCB has taught us anything is that the debate format can really galvanise the discussion around an issue and have an impact that I cannot remember another plenary talk at any previous ICCB having. I welcome more debates at forthcoming conferences. Conservation is not short on controversies, as the impromptu debate organised around Cecil the Lion has shown us in Montpellier.

Yet all of this might be secondary, or to paraphrase a colleague: “talks are what I go to when I have no meetings”. Even in the age of live-tweeting and Skype, conferences like the ICCB are prime locations for people to come together, discuss new ideas and start new collaborations. After all, isn’t this one of the core values of the Society for Conservation Biology?

This is, in my experience, from where actual outcomes come after all is said and done at a conference. As such, it seems to me that conference organisers need to become better at providing meeting spaces and facilitating the logistics of work meeting (e.g., having a designated “meeting point” to make it much easier for attendees to find each other). Another angle with room for improvement would be for conference organisers to enable those responsible for independent social events to learn about what else is going on so social events could be more evenly spread during the conference period and avoid overlap. After all you don’t want your participants missing out on the action.

A final word on conference size. The Society for Conservation Biology has adopted an interesting model of alternating global and regional meetings. This has the interesting effect of giving its members the chance to attend meetings of varying sizes, which is important to determine how much interaction participants get to have with each other; large conferences ironically tend to give participants less opportunity to interact (thanks Corey for this point!). If the ICCB meetings continue to grow as they have in recent years, the challenge will be to ensure their size does not become too large for their own good.

I could not finish without a word of thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology team (to which my wife belongs, in the interest of full disclosure) for all their efforts during the recent Congress. Running an event like this involves a lot of work and that must be recognised and appreciated.

Diogo Veríssimo




4 responses

30 08 2015
Reflections on ICCB | Megan. D. Barnes, Ph.D.

[…] are always lots of things to improve, but one that came up a few times – reflected upon by Diogo on Conservation Bytes, was presentation format – a strength of this years conference was the number, diversity, and […]


28 08 2015
Claire Wordley (@clairefrwordley)

Loved it. One point – just one – about the last cartoon – all scientists are white and male apart from two female chatterboxes. Stereotypes much?


28 08 2015

Well spotted. I guess ‘AJ’ (cartoonist) has some stereotype issues to get over (in defence, I neither drew or chose the cartoon).


28 08 2015
karenza t. wall

thank you.


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