Programming at a Conference

The conversation started by All About Development was (and still is) overwhelming. Allow me to continue my thoughts from that sleep deprived and annoyed post with another one focusing on the programs/sessions that occur during a conference.

There have been a number of great posts that have been shared, written, commented on since that post last week. Check here, here, here, here, and here. I’m also still working on the schedule for the Google Hangout. I’m thinking next week this will happen.

I want to discuss the programming structure. This is nothing new for me. I started this conversation outside of a fantastic panel discussion at NASPA Region I conference in Sturbridge, MA. It was me, Dean Elmore, and Valerie Heruska talking about how there was no talk about Penn State or the economy in Greece at the conference. Two issues at the peak of their attention on news stations around the country and they weren’t even on the table for discussion. Why? Because we do conferences wrong and have been for years.

Disclaimer: I’m not going to argue the point of the professional development of programs. This is purely the process, accountability, and structure. Content I’ll tackle another day/night. 

How does a the call for programs typically go for a conference?

– E-mail goes out TEN months in advance announcing a call for programs (Let’s say May)
– Due date for submissions is SEVEN months in advance (This would be September)
– Successful proposals accepted and presenters notified FIVE months in advance (This is October)
– FIVE months later, the proposal written and submitted SEVEN months before the conference are presented.

We can do better.

How are programs selected?

– Members review and recommend which sessions get approved.
– See above. Yes, read it twice.

We can do better.

Are programs held accountable for what they submitted?

– No.

We can do better.

There are so many paths I want to take right now with this post try to follow along.

First, ten months. TEN months. You are telling me that a notice of ten months is necessary to get the amount of programs needed to fill a conference schedule? Are you telling your students now to plan for their housing deposit for the 2013-2014 housing year? Seems a bit like overkill doesn’t it? Heck, it practically kills any opportunity for someone who joins higher education in the Fall semester to do anything (assuming they are coming from out of industry and aren’t totally familiar with annual conferences). “Hey that program I did last semester (spring 09) would make a great program at the annual conference. I can’t wait to present it in the spring of 2010.” We can do better than this folks.

Asking for proposals seven months in advance of the conference seems a bit ridiculous given the technology we have now. Has this timeline changed since the advent of social media? E-mail? It seems like a timeline fit for a time of snail mail and fax machines. How could we not turn this around quicker to allow for more current topics?

I’ll get into what I would do in a second but let me get to this last point. Peer reviewed sessions. I was a first year graduate student and I was reviewing conference program proposals. This was great for my professional growth in the sense of giving me examples of how to write a good (or bad) conference proposal. Personally, this is a fantastic exercise. Professionally, you are letting first year graduate students decide what sessions get presented at a national conference? We can do better. No offense to first-year graduate students, but what training have you had to do this? Oh wait, it is just personal judgment. “Oh I don’t like Pixar movies so this session doesn’t really make sense to me. It probably won’t make sense to anyone else either.” See the flaw? I reviewed conference proposals for one organization that actually had a portal that let you see what other reviewers ranked it (and who they were!). So much for unbiased opinions. “Wait so this SSAO ranked this low, well I can’t rank it high then. They’ll see it and I can’t disagree with them.” Face meet palm.

Finally, I could write this fantastic proposal with all the bells and whistles. The conference could arrive and guess what? Whoops, the presentation didn’t take the form we thought it would. Instead of the promised laser show, we have some noise makers and will break out to small groups to kill time. Is anyone holding presenters accountable for following through on their proposal? If you say, “well the organization is it’s members,” please DM me or e-mail me so we can talk. My presentation could be terrible but guess what? It will still go on my resume saying I presented at XYZ conference. We must do better.

I’m not just about thoughts. Here are some ideas to propose to help move this “issue” forward.

Conference Proposals

First, I know most organizations have buckets that you can say your presentation falls into (leadership, technology, diversity, social justice, etc). That’s a fun way to characterize, organize, and advertise the sessions but there is room for improvement there.

Step 1: Self identify. “I’ve presented nationally and/or regionally…0-3 times, 4-6 times, 7-9 times, 10+ times.” This gives the reviewer some perspective and sets expectations appropriately. Would you stick around for a session if you knew it was from someone who has presented more than 10 times? I would. Guess who gets those morning sessions? Yup. The presentation “pros”, how’s that for a carrot? People will wake up for those. Yes, this is counter-intuitive. Why not give pros the prime time slot? Well, they didn’t get to be pros overnight. Someone had to give them a chance, and quite frankly, presenting to a half full room at 7:30 a.m. is not a way to reward a new presenter for putting themselves out there.

Step 2: Proposal identity. The conference theme determines 1 to 5 buckets/tracks for presentations. Presentations can only go in one bucket. One bucket must be current topics which means the timeline is truncated and much shorter than 10 months. Buckets are clearly defined, with separate rubrics, and specific reviewers. Buckets are structured into the conference. Day 1 =bucket A and B in the morning. bucket C and D in the afternoon. Day 2 = bucket C and D in the morning. bucket A and B in the afternoon. Day 3 = User created buckets voted on starting night of Day 1 and all day until night of Day 2. Could you imagine a conference changing mid-conference to appeal to the needs/desires of attendees by the last day?! The last day is user generated. WHO WOULDN’T WANT TO STAY TO SEE WHAT THEY VOTED ON AND CREATED?! Engagement starts as soon as the conference kicks off. Talk about being bold without boundaries….

Step 3: Send a sample. That’s right, this means no procrastinating. With the truncated timeline, if you are planning on presenting asking for a 3-slide, 60 second presentation preview for your session shouldn’t be a problem. (I’m sure many scripts look great on paper but horrible on film. This is no different for proposals.)

Conference Session Selection

I love the volunteer effort. I really do, I think I’ve benefited from volunteering my time to review sessions. Let me ask you this though, if you are building a house do you want a volunteer who has never held a hammer building your house? (Yes, I’ve done this with Habitat for Humanity but even they have supervisors watching the volunteers.) I didn’t think so. You want someone trained in what you are doing so you know if you are doing it correctly. How come we don’t? What ever made me qualified to say whether or not a presentation will be great for the conference and attendees? We need training. We need a better rubric. We need to have “volunteer” program reviewers have…*cringe* credentials to do so. Back to the house reference, house inspectors need to be trained to inspect houses. If a conference is our home of professional development, who the heck is inspecting it and are they qualified to do so? We can do better.


We need secret shoppers. Seriously. Don’t give me the “a organization is its members” sch-peal. Should a room of my peers give me enough incentive to perform well? Yes, yes it should. Would having someone there that is an official “judge” help step my game up that much more? Absolutely. What does this mean? It means that the review submitted by the judge is an official document from the organization. This translates into professional portfolio materials (see LinkedIn recommendations and/or justification for spending department money to present). The reviews that are returned to presenters FOUR months after the presentation are constructive how? Heck, four months later my presentation could have been revamped three times over and morphed into something different. FOUR MONTHS. WE. CAN. DO. BETTER. How can we not do live feedback forms that people fill out as the session goes online? How is this not possible?

If you want to say I’m all talk. Go for it. I hope to be in positions to possibly join conference committees (regional, national, virtual) when the job search process settles down and I can actually be settled in a region. I write as a call to action and believe me I’m ready to serve whoever wants to have me help them make these thoughts reality in any way, shape, or form.

We can do better. This is a call to action. A call to thought. A call to start a conversation.

What do you think of the conference session proposal/selection process? Have you seen something that works really well in a different industry? Engage. Find your voice and share it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think. 


12 thoughts on “Programming at a Conference

  1. Joe, love this post! Any “call to action” needs to start with some small steps, so let’s talk about what could be do-able for conference committees planning now for the future! Many of our associations have complex selections involving a wide range of people making them not the most nimble processes for quick changes. However, there are some things every conference committee volunteer can do.

    For example, one way to hold presenters accountable would be to look at evaluation forms we use for educational sessions. Do we even ask about what was promised vs. what was delivered? Participants are the best ones to tell us that.

    Your volunteer preparation item is also fantastic – we can start that tomorrow if we wanted to. What other immediate steps do you think are within many volunteers’ control?

    • Cindy, I know it’s cliche but really we need to stop asking “Can we do…” and start saying, “Ok, how can I…” and I think that starts with something that could be done easily.

      Why not create the buckets for programs to go be categorized by? From there, the schedule could be planned like I mentioned above. Yes, this means that all related sessions may be happening at the same time BUT why do sessions have to be 60 minutes??? What are we going to class? Is that because that’s the way it has always been?

      Why not give options for proposals to say:

      “This will be a 6 minute idea sharing presentation.”
      “This will be an 18-minute TED style lecture introducing new research, concepts, etc.”
      “This will be a 60-minute workshop with 15 minutes of lecture, 15 minutes of discussion, 30 minutes of doing.”

      Now you have a conference schedule that is complex depending on how you structure it but could you imagine being able to see five 6-minute presentations in the time it takes to sit through one long session that may or may not be relevant halfway through?

      I’ll take my chances with one of the five 6-minute ones starting more conversation than a “traditional” 60 minute presentation.

      That’s just one thing that comes to mind right off the bat.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. As always. Great thoughts and ideas Joe. Three items I’d like to add to the “suggestion” box.
    1. The best conferences I attend have presenters from outside the association who come to speak on their area of expertise and bring with them new and novel perspectives.
    2. Stop requiring that theory be integrated into every session. It’s like we’re trying to compensate and validate our “seriousness” as educators. I can’t tell you how much valuable time has been wasted by someone desperately trying to connect theory to their topic. There are plenty of presentations devoid of research and development theory that have been incredibly useful, practical and impacting. It should not be a requirement. It is rarely integrated well and instead becomes a a disconnected distraction from the core message and takeaways.
    3. In my experience, large committees of volunteers are not effective at program planning. Consensus, tradition and communication are real barriers to progressive and significant change. If you truly want to improve the experience, get a small group of revolutionary thinkers and doers together and give them the authority to make decisions without consensus nor approval from the executive team.
    There certainly has been recent evidence of associations across many professions showing an unwillingness to change much more than tweaks and changes on the fringe. I have seen a few progressive thinkers begin to experiment and challenge from the inside and that gives me hope. If unsuccessful, I am quite confident that a new generation of professionals will seek alternatives and create a vastly new conference experience over time.

    • Tony, sounds like BigIdeasEDU might show the “big guns” what a small, nimble, start-up mentality can accomplish while still having major impact and transformative experiences via a conference. I agree with all three of your points, especially the first one!

    • Tony – I especially agree with your second comment here – I occasionally see a great presentation grounded in theory, but by and large, there is a weak attempt to connect it. More importantly, if we are practitioners, we need to be discussing practice. It just makes sense.

  3. Joe – so much to think about here but I love the part about when proposals are due. Because within the two organizations I involve myself, proposals are due at my BUSIEST times of the year. Last month of the semester and first month of the semester. We’re in Higher Ed here. We CAN do better than that with timing. 🙂

  4. This is interesting–I haven’t attended a student affairs conference in five years, but I do attend academic conferences and they get some of those things right. For example, reviews apply and are selected based on their experience in the field. The time frames are similar although most academic conferences I’ve applied to require a sample paper or the paper itself prior (this is where they differ a lot–presenting research isn’t the same as presenting your best program in terms of timing AND most academic conferences request that you haven’t published or presented this work elsewhere).

    Great suggestions!

    • I wanted to add that while academic conferences do not lead the way in innovation in terms of structure of programs, they do offer more variety in terms of poster sessions, symposiums, etc — poster sessions would probably be great for a SA conference in that it creates the set up for the 6 minute conversation. I’ve seen some very lively debates around posters before.

  5. Joe – as always some great thoughts here. Initially, there is one thing in particular I want to comment on: sending a sample. Of all your good suggestions, I think this is the best! Just because someone can write a good abstract or session proposal that takes them months to prep, does not mean they will be a good presenter. Looking at a slide deck, video from a past presentation or even asking the presenter to…PRESENT their proposal via video would give some indication as to his or her ability to present. The reliance on a few paragraphs and some volunteer readers is old fashioned and troubling. I don’t agree completely with the experience piece because some of the best presentations I have seen have been from rookie presenters and some from veterans. However, giving everyone equal footing, we could have them provide demonstration of their presentation abilities.

    To your point of timing and making room for current topics, I have seen some orgs. go this way and I agree. For instance, at the ACUI annual conference, they had UnConference Sessions. Topics were posted on a publicly displayed bulletin board and selected the afternoon before they were to be discussed. Facilitators were solicited. This seemed, from my perspective, to be a great start. The sessions were only 30 minutes and were the morning of the last day. I think moving forward, they could look at longer UnConference blocks and perhaps scattered throughout. Nonetheless this is a step in the right direction and I hope that other conferences will follow.

    This is an old system that will take time, thought, intention, and meaningful solutions to change. These discussions need to lead to action within our organizations that many of us are a part of.

    Thanks for continuing this important discussion!

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