Organising Academic Conferences
There are many reasons why you would want to organise an academic conference: you get to play a key roll in developing or shedding light on your chosen field, you can read papers, hand-pick speakers, and establish yourself amongst your peers.
Many academics, however, will be wholly unfamiliar with how to tackle the administrative side of a conference and what actually goes into successfully organising such events. The prospect of attempting to do so will probably fill you with dread. You will, however, have a good idea about what papers are really pushing boundaries and who is carrying out ground-breaking research.
This guide aims to shed some light on the key practical considerations of planning and delivering academic conferences for first-time organisers. Even if you decide to get professional help and hire a conference planner, it is highly beneficial to understand the key components of academic conference planning.
Key Considerations – Contents
Planning an Academic Conference
Planning and running an academic conference is hard work. It requires you to invest a great deal of time and effort. Having said that, it is an immensely rewarding exercise that looks impressive on your academic CV, can help you further establish yourself in your particular field as well as providing access to your peers.
Who are your Audience?
The key to a successful conference is a happy delegate. This means that you need to put them first when it comes to planning. It’s hard to do this unless you know who your audience is and what they want. The first exercise when it comes to planning an academic conference is audience research. Who are your target audience? What topics interest them? What have they seen before? What can you do differently to deliver genuine value? What speakers would engage them? Where would they be prepared to travel to in order to attend your conference?
You are likely to want to pitch your conference at academics and researchers, but consider if your primary focus is on attracting postgraduates or scholars.
Choosing a Conference Topic
When it comes to choosing a topic for your conference, you have the difficult task of finding the right balance between mass appeal and niche focus. You want to attract as many delegates as possible but you also need your conference to have a clear and coherent focus. You will also want to select the topic from a field that you have a genuine interest in. As well as finding a topic that strikes the right balance, you also need to find an original angle on it so that your conference is varied and engaging.
Budgeting for an Academic Conference
Keeping on budget, avoiding making a loss, and charging the right amount are all very important elements and difficult to get right.
To charge or not to charge, that is the question. Will your event be free or will you charge delegates a fee? If so, how much? A well-organised engaging event with some high profile speakers is worth paying for. You will also find that you have lots of outgoings that you need to cover.
There are a number of costs associated with an academic conference. As well as venue hire and catering, you must consider the outgoings associated with getting your speakers to attend. Dr. Nadine Muller offers a useful overview of Academic Conference Costs.
As tempting as it can be to fly-over keynote speakers from across the globe, always remember the costs involved. It is still possible to find high-quality speakers closer to home and stay on budget.
Funding for Academic Conferences
From the outset, you need to consider how you will fund the event. There are a number of funding options available to you from professional bodies in your field to publishers to AHRC grants. Many universities will also have funds set aside for researcher-led initiatives. It may even be an option to look for a relevant sponsor – a business that has a strong tie to your field of research.
Academic Conference Time Frame
You should never underestimate how much time it takes to plan and run an academic conference. It is therefore advisable to start planning as early as possible. Given that you have to put out a call for academic abstracts and then review them, it is recommended that you start planning 6 to 12 months before you plan to hold the conference.
The following is an overview of the milestones you have to complete in the run up to the conference:
- Decide on your theme
- Apply for funding
- Set a budget
- Launch a Conference Website with a dedicated conference email address (do not under any circumstances use your normal email address)
- Issue a Call for Papers / abstracts
- Review abstracts and select your speakers
- Confirm speakers including any keynote speakers (tip from Katie Barnett – ‘send out confirmation emails before rejections’)
- Confirm a date for the conference
- Book venue
- Launch conference registration – advertise your conference, send out mailouts – see Promoting Conference Section
- Create a rough programme of presentations, panel discussions, breaks & networking sessions
- Book catering – this will be based on rough numbers – you will need to confirm numbers and dietary requirements closer to the day of the conference
- Ensure that participants have all the information they require about the conference
- Publish and share the conference programme with details of all sessions
Setting a Date
When setting a date for your academic conference, you need to check that there are no clashes with any other conferences or events. You will then want to check the availability of your keynote speakers. Once you have a date in mind, you then need find a suitable venue with availability.
When is academic conference season?
Academic conferences happen throughout the year both in term time and in holidays. Be sure to get the date locked in early and start promotion as soon as possible.
Assembling a Team
If you are going to organise and run the conference yourself, you will need a dedicated team to help you. This will be a combination of peers to help you review abstracts as well as a number of people to support you in the organisation, administration and financial aspects of the event. It’s important that everyone is given clearly defined roles. This should also make it easier to delegate tasks. Make sure someone is in charge of financial matters and budgeting. You will also need friendly people to man the registration desk on the day of the event.
Format of an Academic Conference
With your first few academic conferences, it makes sense to stick to a smaller scale. Keep the conference to a single day event with half a dozen speakers in a single strand. In the future, you can look to increase the number of speakers, run parallel sessions and even spread it over two days.
However, even within a one day conference there is plenty of potential to deliver a varied and engaging schedule, using different formats. You need to decide on the number of slots you will have in the day and how many sessions this equates to – this should include 20 minute presentation slots and panel discussions.
As well as having speakers deliver twenty minute presentations and allowing for q&as / discussion time after, you may also want to implement other formats such as panels as well as separate round-tables and workshops if appropriate.
When it comes to scheduling your academic conference, it’s important to leave plenty of time for networking. More on this later, but regular breaks with coffee and tea and time to chat are strongly recommended.
As well as having a single speaker deliver a presentation and then having a discussion, you can also make use of panels where you get more speakers together to discuss topics. You will need someone to chair to make sure the session format is adhered to. There are different ways of setting up panels including plenary panels where you have several speakers on the stage together.
Dr. Nadine Muller in her guide to academia series goes into some detail on the various formats academic conference can take. She suggests having panel formats, “For example: 5 panel sessions with 3 parallel panels of 3 papers.” It’s important to bear in mind that panels needs to be chaired by a suitable person and that by running parallel panels you risk disappointing people who can’t attend both.
Academic Conference Registration
Whether your conference is free or you are charging, you should still get people to register for the event. We have covered all aspects of event registration in detail in our post on Event Ticketing Platforms, but in summary you need an easy to use, affordable and fit-to-purpose registration platform and process. You should include a section for any dietary requirements in the academic conference registration form so that you can plan your catering.
On the day of the conference, you will need to have a registration area that can be used to provide delegates with name badges, conference packs and any additional information they require.
Selecting Speakers for your Conference
When it comes to organising an academic conference, the speakers are the most important aspect. The majority of presenters will be found through an open call for papers and from within your institute, however, you may also want to select keynote speakers. It is vital that you select speakers that are able to grasp and maintain the attention an audience with original and interesting content, presented in an engaging manner.
As a conference organiser you want evidence that the speaker can deliver an engaging presentation. Try to find out as much as possible about their subject area and level of experience.
We examine some of the tools you can use to find the speakers to make your academic conference a success.
Variety & Diversity
As a conference organiser your aim is to create as interesting and stimulating an event as possible. As we’ve mentioned the quality of the speakers is key, but variety is also crucial. Don’t choose too many talks from the same area of research. Think about what kind of speakers and presentations you want. It can be beneficial to have a mixture of senior academics, keynote speakers with wider appeal as well as some junior researchers just starting out in their career.
The right keynote speaker, usually an eminent scholar in the field, will help attract delegates and set the tone for your research conference. If budget allows you may want to select an international keynote speaker for your conference. With overseas speakers, you may find that you need to assist them with their UK visa application by providing relevant paperwork. Remember – you will be covering travel costs.
Academic Conference Chair
Having a chair for your conference is important – they help keep sessions on track and can host panel discussions. They can also introduce speakers.
Confirming with Speakers
Once you have selected your speakers, you will need to confirm with them in writing. You will also need to request any further details as to the content of their presentations as well as a bio. Make sure that any keynote speakers have also confirmed.
Remember: Have a list of backup speakers in case of cancellation
Check out our guide for more information about finding the right speaker for your event.
Academic Conference Abstracts
Part of the process of finding high quality speakers is putting out an open call for papers or abstracts around your chosen topic. You will need to set a deadline, even if it’s a fake one, to start the ball rolling. You can then extend this deadline if you don’t see the number or quality of abstracts you were expecting. Make sure your final call for papers leaves you enough time to programme your conference.
Call for Papers
When issuing your call for papers you should clearly outline the required topics in line with your conference vision. It should include a deadline and set-out when you will confirm the accepted papers, the speakers and announce the programme.
It is beneficial to include some pointers so that you receive abstracts that are easily appraised. You may want to include a word limit and ask that they cover their research context, methodology and how they might present their project. You will need to confirm with them that you have received the abstract.
Chances are you will receive more abstracts that you have presentation slots – this means that you have to be selective and pick those that have the best chance of making engaging sessions. You may need to enlist peers and colleagues to help with a review process if you receive a large number of abstracts.
You will already be in a position to judge the quality of the abstracts in terms of their academic merit, but you should pay serious attention to whether or not the speaker has the ability to deliver an engaging conference presentation.
Although only short documents, conference abstracts should still capture your interest immediately and make you want to read the paper – look out for ones that are well-written, interesting and engaging. The better the abstract, the more powerful a marketing tool it can be in helping spark interest in your conference and attract delegates.
Request that the abstracts also include details about what’s going to be included in their presentation and how they will present any data. Audio-visual elements are a great way of keeping an audience interested – look for presentation slides and video content. If details of their presentation aren’t in the abstract, send them an email and get more information. You are looking for evidence that the researcher or academic can construct and deliver a genuinely engaging presentation.
You should provide all speakers with information on how to get to the venue, details of their accommodation and also information on the running order of the day including who else will be presenting and on what topics. It’s also good practice to make them aware of exactly what expenses you will cover and if any fees will be paid.
It’s also important to communicate the following details about their presentation:
- The length and format of their session including if there is an allotted time for questions.
- The facilities, in particular tech and a/v, that the venue provides and are therefore available to them.
What You Need from the Speaker
You will need the following information from the speaker in advance of the conference:
- The content of their talks – ideally they will send over the contents of their presentation prior to the event
- Technical requirements – Mac or Laptop? do they plan to show videos? do they require internet access? do they have A/V requirements?
- Any dietary requirements
Academic Conference Presentations
Academic talks have a bad reputation. If you have ever sat through a scholar reading directly from their paper without looking up – you will know all too well how boring this can be. But this is changing and the standard of academic presentations should be high.
There are several issues you should be aware of when asking academics to present. It really helps to work with them beforehand and offer some academic conference presentation guidelines and tips.
When it comes to presenting an academic paper, many presenters are tempted to read directly from their paper. You need to make sure this doesn’t happen and that they actually write a presentation, using plain, spoken English where possible. The main point to impress is that they need to think about how best to engage the audience. This can involve using technology to enhance their talks, as well as following some general public speaking tips.
In the Times Higher Education, Farah Mendlesohn, professor of literary history at Anglia Ruskin University, even suggests that academics should point out anomalies in their research during their presentation to encourage questions: “A lot of young academics do not get questions because they are too good – their talks are too finessed and smooth…There is always an anomaly in your findings, so if you acknowledge it yourself, people will trust you more and it leaves room for an obvious question.”
It is also important that a presentation only contains one theoretical idea – there is not enough time to cover more and still maintain a clear focus.
When it comes to academic conference presentations, it makes sense to utilise all of the available technology to help keep an audience engaged. Using slides, data visualisation and even videos can really help.
There are also numerous online platforms that give attendees the chance to engage and interact with presentations, accessing slides, supporting resources, asking questions to the speaker, interacting with others in the audience and making notes. By using technology in this way, you increase engagement with the conference and improve the attendee’s experience. Sli.do and Lintelus all over this sort of service.
Important: When you use any technology, it’s important to have support if anything goes wrong. There is always the potential for something to not work, a file to go missing or other glitches to occur. Be prepared.
Academic Conference Poster
Academic conference posters are used widely in the academic community to summarise research projects and findings in a simple, easy to understand and visual way. They can be used within presentations by your speakers or afterwards to aid discussion around their research topic. These conference posters can also be used to raise awareness of your conference by featuring the registration details and sparking interest in a speaker’s presentation prior to the event.
The posters usually include an abstract of the speaker’s recent paper, visual representations of some of their data, along with some other images. Many research posters follow a similar format, often using a template, and are similar in size – A1 or A2. This is a good online tutorial guide taking you through all the design considerations including a poster template and advice on what to include.
Format of Academic Presentations
Academic Presentations should last twenty minutes only. Researchers who are passionate about their subject have a tendency to overrun. You will need someone on the day whose job it is to help speakers keep to their time limit and finish on time.
Choosing an Academic Conference Venue
Finding the right academic conference venue for your event is another very important aspect. Many organisers opt to host their conference in an academic venue near to a range of academic institutions.
Location is so important. You want the venue to be easily accessible by public transport and centrally located. It also helps if there is accommodation, bars and restaurants close by to help attract delegates. When it comes to London academic conference venues, you want to ensure that it is near major train stations and tube stops.
Academic Venue Facilities
Audio-Visual – Ideally you want all of the a/v equipment you require without additional costs.
Stage – You will want a stage for your speakers that is professionally setup and looks appealing.
Comfortable Seats with a Good View – Nobody likes a numb bum and maintaining audience engagement is key so make sure the seats are comfortable. It’s also important that every seat has a good view of the stage. Auditoriums like our Logan Hall work well, providing excellent views of the stage for all delegates.
Green Rooms for Speakers – It’s important that you look after your speakers and help them relax as much as possible before their session. A dedicated green room is a good way of giving them the space to prepare.
Live-Streaming and Recording Presentations – A key consideration is whether you want to film the presentations so that you can make the sessions available online after the event is over. As well as this, you may want to live stream the event so that virtual attendees from around the world can watch. There are many services available to help with this process, but bear in mind it will cost extra.
Networking – One of the main reasons why delegates attend academic conferences is to chat with other researchers, exchange ideas and debate issues with their peers. It is therefore vitally important to facilitate networking at every opportunity.
Make sure your venue has suitable breakout spaces and be sure to schedule in several breaks throughout the conference. It is always tempting to put in more presentations at the detriment of networking sessions – avoid this at all costs. Ensure that any breakout spaces are suitable for relaxed chatting and if you spot anyone that is alone or not engaging then step in and introduce them to people you know.
Catering at Academic Conferences
As we’ve mentioned, networking is really important and so is the food and drink. Many venues will have preferred catering suppliers so find out when booking what the situation is with catering. You want a menu that delivers in terms of impact and quality, but can be enjoyed by as many people as possible so avoid anything too exotic. When it comes to drinks, tea and coffee are a given but don’t forget plenty of water and soft drinks too.
You need to find out well in advance details of any special dietary requirements from delegates – this should be part of the registration process. Waste can be a major issue so make sure you get your numbers locked in early and confirm closer to the day of the event.
Promoting Your Academic Conference
It is not enough to meticulously plan your conference and expect people to attend. You still need to think carefully about how you can get the right people to find out about your conference details and this involves both marketing and advertising. Some people will become aware of the conference when you put out your call for papers, but you will also need a concerted second push to increase the number of registrations. You can include details of the speakers and their presentation topic to generate interest.
The following are some of the places you should consider promoting your academic conference:
- Personal Contacts – use your existing network of colleagues etc and utilise them to spread the word.
- Websites (including your own) – make a list of all of the relevant websites to your field and contact them – this should include bodies, institutions, societies, meet-ups.
- Social media channels
- Electronic Mailing Lists – these services send out alerts when new calls for papers are issued and new conferences are organised
- Email lists
- Mailing lists
- Academic Departments – contact heads of academic departments or their administrators. Many departments have a notice board or common room where such adverts can be easily accessed.
- University newsletters
- Departmental emails
- Online and Offline Journals – advertise with offline journals
- Academic Conference Poster
Many universities have internal advertising spaces that you can use – this can include TV screens as well as dedicated event listing pages on their website. It’s important to get universities and any other institutions involved in your conference as early as possible so that they can use their networks to promote your event. Departmental emails can also be sent out.
Many researchers actively search for conferences and subscribe to electronic mailing lists, such as H-Net which shares details of humanities conferences across the world. Make yourself visible where your audience would search to find academic conferences.
Once you have promoted the conference, you should keep registered delegates up-to-date with information regarding the event. This can include practical information on how to get to the venue, transport, car-parking and food options as well as the agenda, the conference schedule and contact details should they have any questions.
Academic Conference Website
You can create a simple conference website using WordPress. You can use this to share information with speakers and delegates. You should also setup the social media accounts for the conference and regularly populate these throughout the lifecycle of your conference.
Social media is a great way to promote your conference as well as engage with your academic community. Pick the channels that are most relevant to your audience. Keep them regularly updated with details of the conference but remember to share a variety of relevant content from other sources too. Encourage your speakers to publicise the conference through their social media so the reach is increased to their audiences. Also take the opportunity to share their content and have conversations with them on social media. Social media can really help build a buzz around the conference and should not be neglected.
After the Conference
Even once the conference is over, your work is not quite done. You will want to send out a follow-up email to all speakers and chairs thanking them for their contributions. You should also send out a general one to attendees thanking them for attending. This email is also a good opportunity to get feedback so set-up and include a link to a short survey. Feedback is very useful for identifying where you can improve your conference if you decide to do another one in the future.
And now, at long last, you can take a well-deserved break.
Academic Conference Venue London
If you are looking for an affordable academic conference venue in London then 20 Bedford Way delivers. As an academic venue, we are very experienced at hosting academic conferences. Our Logan Hall is perfectly suited accommodating 910 people but we also have a number of smaller spaces with all the facilities you need as well as plenty of breakout spaces to facilitate networking amongst delegates. We also have a/v technicians on hand to make sure everything goes ahead without a hitch.
If you are interested in holding an academic conference in London contact us on 020 7612 6143 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Lucey on How to Organise an Academic Conference
Dr Nadine Muller on Organising Research Conferences
Dr Catherine Armstrong provides Tips on Running an Academic Conferences