How to… Organise a Conference (Online): A Dozen ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’
This week’s blog post comes courtesy of Naomi Adams, one of the organisers of our last NWCDTP conference, Research, Resilience, Resurgence. Here she writes about her experience of organising an online conference and gives few tips of dos and don’ts on successful organising and delivery that apply to any conference event, face to face or online.
Phew! It’s been a hectic past few months as one-fifth of the organising committee for the first-ever virtual version of the NWCDTP’s annual conference. ‘Research, Resilience, Resurgence’ (or ‘resconf’, as we affectionately christened it) aimed to explore the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the PhD process, particularly in the context of our current intra-pandemic climate. The conference ran over two days (18 October to 19 October 2021), featured 20 speakers in total, and attracted around 120 delegates from both Britain and abroad. Now, I’m adding a fourth and final r: Reflection. Below are considered a dozen ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ when organising an online conference…
DO: DIVIDE AND CONQUER
We began our first committee meeting (hosted via Zoom- what else?!) with the divvying up of roles and responsibilities. One member volunteered to draft a Call for Papers; another offered to contact potential speakers; yet another opted to explore potential avenues for online promotion. And while each of us shouldered our own set tasks, we remained more than happy to lend a hand with others’: the CfP had three eagle-eyed editors before its final form was circulated!
Remember: Successful conferences have happy delegates; Happy conference organisers successfully delegate.
DON’T: UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA
My own cog in the wheel was social media-shaped. We opted to use Twitter as our main platform, due to its already well-established academic community. Indeed, our tweet analytics showed that, thanks to some much-appreciated re-tweets, our posts were often reaching upwards of 1,000 views. Aside from our pinned tweet CfP, we also posted weekly ‘Resilience Case Studies’, intended to inspire potential panellists. Closer to the conference, we scheduled a daily tweet previewing each of our upcoming five panels, to tantalise the delegates’ academic tastebuds!
DO: GO GLOBAL
Thanks to our Twitter campaign, and the NWCDTP’s kind provision of mailing lists, we were able to attract speakers from far beyond the bounds of the Consortium’s partner institutions. While North West-based scholars made a strong showing, we received abstracts from around the globe, and accepted a couple of speakers based in the North East… of America!
DON’T: LIMIT THE LEGACY
One of our reasons for inviting the Bafta-winning interactive theatre troupe Coney (youhavefoundconey.net) to appear at our conference was a wish to extend the conference experience beyond the bounds of a two-day time-frame. Coney’s ‘Doctoral Adventure’ activities, scattered across the conference, were intended to leave a ‘legacy’, encouraging researchers to cement bonds formed at the conference in the months (or years!) ahead.
DO: SCHEDULE STRATEGICALLY
We decided to spread the conference over two days – comprising an afternoon then a morning session – for maximum accessibility. We were particularly conscious that other researchers may have had work or family commitments (school pick-ups/drop-offs, etc.) and did not want to exclude them. Our timetabling also made it much easier to cater for presenters from across multiple time-zones: no-one was required to present in the wee hours!
DON’T: FORGET TO INCLUDE ‘COMFORT BREAKS’
Admittedly, something we conference organisers were guilty of! Conscious of the likelihood of ‘digital fatigue’, as well as an inventory of inventively named, pandemic-induced ailments (e.g. mouse shoulder, tortoise head, hip grip), we tried to insert as many screen breaks into the schedule as possible. Given the tightly-packed conference programme, however, there were perhaps fewer than was ideal.
DO: TRY TO RECREATE THE IN-PERSON EXPERIENCE ONLINE
During the conference, one break between panel sessions was the half-hour ‘Ph.D. Tea’. Like the Coney episodes, this event aimed to encourage networking among attendees: an IRL experience difficult to translate to our current URL reality. To recreate the spirit of a more traditional ‘Mix ’n’ Mingle’, we sent out ‘Goodie Bag’ conference packs to all our Eventbrite sign-ups. Inside were a selection of hot drinks sachets and dunk-able biscuit treats, intended to be sipped and nibbled in break-out rooms. We even commissioned some bespoke tagged tea bags. Now that’s what I call a screen share!
DON’T: EXPECT EVERYTHING TO RUN TO TIME
We found that so-called ‘technical lag’ as delegates filtered through from one panel to another often resulted in a slight delay at the beginning of sessions. Thankfully, we’d designed a holding screen for precisely that purpose! Plus, spare pre-paper minutes were always well-spent in comparing our obligatory Zoom background bookshelves, or discussing the weather outside the windows of the various cities we joined from. (Quelle surprise, it was raining in Manchester!)
DO: PREPARE YOURSELF FOR TECHNICAL GLITCHES
Quite probably as inevitable in a virtual conference as rain in October in Manchester. Though we were fortunate enough not to encounter any major issues, we did encourage panellists to arrive at their respective sessions a few minutes before they were due to begin, thus allowing them to test out video/audio quality. The latter was particularly important as we had several musicologists among our speakers. Meanwhile, again aiming to ‘divide and conquer’, we devised a ‘Technical Support List’ to ensure that at least two conference organisers would always be on stand-by to tackle any tech troubles!
DON’T: DISCOUNT COLLABORATION
A PhD can often feel quite a solitary venture; over lockdown, via Zoom, even more so. Our aim as organisers of ‘Research, Resilience, Resurgence’ was to encourage collaboration and a sense of community. These papers involved a postgraduate researcher speaking alongside a more established academic, providing a great illustration of a supportive and collaborative scholarly culture in action. As conference organisers, we also encouraged the chairs of each panel to leave the Q&A discussion to the session’s end, facilitating interdisciplinary debate to reveal cross-currents between seemingly disparate subjects. Finally, we also welcomed engagement with our Twitter account throughout the conference, keeping it simple with the handle and hashtag both ‘resconf’.
DO: CHAMPION DIVERSITY
Aside from welcoming researchers of a variety of ages and stages, our conference was also proudly multidisciplinary. Talks came from the fields of criminology, creative writing, electroacoustic composition… and many more! We were also keen to make all our conference communication as accessible as possible. We selected dyslexia-friendly font for our CfP, programme and logo, as well as designing pdf.s via Canva to fit mobile screen dimensions.
DON’T: DOUBT THE PROCESS
On many occasions during the process of organising the conference, I was concerned. The arrival of abstract proposals was sluggish at first: were people not interested in our chosen themes? (No – actually, they were away on their summer holidays.) Would we have enough tea bags to fill the conference packs? (Yes – each one lovingly tagged with a personalised message by a local business start-up, Inspiring Tea.) Would people engage with the panels we put together? (Judging from the overworked Zoom chat function, a resounding YES.) Ultimately, the process actually proved pretty smooth. All five conference organisers are pleased to report that, thanks to the enthusiasm and professionalism of chairs, panellists, and delegates alike, we weren’t really required to harness our skills as resilient researchers!
Naomi is a PGR in English Literary Stylistics at the University of Liverpool. Her research applies an amalgamated version of Text World and possible-worlds theories to contemporary winners of the [Man] Booker Prize for Fiction, concentrating in particular upon hypothetical perspectives and scenarios within these works. For more information please see: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Naomi-Adam-2. Or follow her on Twitter @naomibibliomi.
If you’re a current PGR interested in organising the 2022 edition of the NWCDTP Conference, then please get in touch with your ideas at NWCDTP@manchester.ac.uk.