Ten Ways to Ruin a Conference

The secrets for hosting a truly deadly meeting.

Posted Feb 21, 2017

Planning a conference?  Trying to decide which conference to attend?  If you don’t want to rock the boat, or if you simply want people to check off attending a meeting, you can stand on the shoulder of giants.  Virtually all of the major national organizations in psychology, social work, criminology, and related fields have honed the art of throwing a truly boring, meaningless conference.  The following 10 strategies will ensure the minimum amount of learning and networking at your meeting.

1) Make the deadline for submissions as far in advance of the conference as possible.  A year is ideal, but anything over six months is good.  Ridiculously early deadlines make the information that is presented as stale as possible, and perhaps even already available elsewhere. 

2) Other advance planning is essential too.  One good strategy is to create an unmanageable program book.  Fortunately, there are several ways to do this.  You can make it so big and long that it is burdensome to read or even carry around.  Think Manhattan Yellow Pages.  If misguided colleagues are pressuring you to use one of the newer online apps, don’t despair.  You can make those unhelpful too.  One good strategy is to limit keywords to extremely broad categories, such as “social psychology” or “methodology.”  Another excellent strategy is omitting the abstracts from  the program book, to offer as little information as possible. 

3) Use the lecture format for as many sessions as possible, with very little time for questions or interactions of any sort.  It is well-established that lectures are the least effective teaching mode. In this day of YouTube and webinars, an emphasis on lectures is an even greater waste of resources than it was 10 or 20 years ago. 

Earn bonus points if you can hold the lectures in rooms designed for much larger audiences than you expect.  A largely empty room is a great way to suck the energy out of even the best talk.

4) It goes without saying that death-by-PowerPoint is essential to any miserable conference experience.  You can bolster the usual numbing effect by providing no guidance on preparing a good talk or suggestions for a reasonable number of slides per minute.  Also, it is helpful if people do not practice in advance. This will virtually guarantee that many folks will prepare too much material, get bogged down in background, and run out of time before they get to their most interesting findings, much less the implications for the audiences’ work. 

5) PowerPoint and other visual aids can be used advantageously, so don’t stop at encouraging people to prepare too many slides and never practice. Create a culture that rewards presentations that focus on the minutiae of methodology and statistical analyses.  The more that people eat up presentation time by reading demographic characteristics off their slides, the better.  Actually, just in general, the more that people read from their slides, the better. Discourage presenters from prioritizing key information to take away.  It is especially important to ensure that few presenters take the most important step of thinking about how their project connects more broadly to other research or practice.  Suggest that people emphasize their past accomplishments and discourage coverage of specific implications that people might apply to their own work.  Do whatever you can to keep people from talking about the reasons why they are passionate about their work.

6) If you cannot avoid some less structured, more interactive formats, such as poster sessions, which might inadvertently provide discussion opportunities, be sure to make these the lowest status events at the conference.  This will help ensure that they are primarily attended by students and others with little capacity to engage in mentoring or build new collaborative relationships. 

7) Devote as little time to skill-building as possible.  For appearances’ sake, you may not be able to avoid including some “workshops” on the agenda. Don’t worry—you can still make them fruitless experiences.  Find ways to suggest to workshop presenters that they, too, should focus on lecturing—a three-hour lecture is truly torture—and not allow time for practicing skills.  Encourage presenters to focus on past results and complicated curricula (bonus points if they are expensive and hard-to-access), so that no one leaves with any information they could realistically plug into their current workflow. 

8) Create a space so unwelcoming and intimidating that participants’ instincts are to walk around in herds with the people that they already know.  Dark, nondescript spaces with no windows are good. Poor signage and hard-to-read maps can help.  These will minimize any chance encounters outside of scheduled lectures.

9) Sharing meals is an excellent way to foster relationships, so be sure not to offer any food or drink.  Failing that, only offer food to select members of “in” subgroups or committees, so it becomes a signal of social hierarchy, with the hungry and thirsty people at the bottom, of course. 

Bonus points if you can choose venues where there are not sufficient meal options to handle the number of conference attendees.  This way, attendees will have to spend a lot of time standing in line at widely dispersed restaurants.  Double bonus if you can make it especially hard to get a good cup of coffee, and situate the coffee places so far from the meeting rooms that the coffee is always cold by the time people get back to the meeting.

In general, forcing attendees to disperse at regular intervals is good for preventing any social cohesion to arise.  Bonus points if you can keep them from sitting with the same people from previous sessions, which will also make it less likely for them to meet someone new. 

If anyone has any suggestions for stopping people from chatting with those next in line to them, I would be glad to hear them.

10) Finally, and this is a more advanced skill, attempt to reinforce people’s worst instincts to engage in downward social comparison.  Hold receptions and special interest meetings that limit participation to the organizers and their friends.  If you can figure out ways to encourage people to imply that practitioners, junior faculty, professors from teaching-oriented universities, or anyone without a Federal grant are “less than” other participants, that is ideal. 

Bonus points if you can make whole groups of people uncomfortable based on their personal characteristics, including people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ or have a gender identity outside the mainstream, people of diverse religious backgrounds or national origins, or people who have accessibility needs.  Practice obliviousness to the ways in which you are performing the dominant culture and assume that your way of doing things is some sort of neutral default.

It may take practice to reach the pinnacle of these strategies.  I’ll never forget the national psychology conference that was held in a convention center originally designed for monster truck contests and similar events.  I truly felt like Jack in the Giant’s den, a speck in a world built for oversize vehicles.  Once, the same organization decided to invest in modern technology by creating a hologram of the then-CEO.  If you’ve got the budget for it, that will truly eliminate all chances of human interaction, but you might have to build up to that.  It is also useful to choose a month where the weather is as bad as possible.  Think Florida in August or Canada in January, although again you might have to build up to that sort of flexibility.

A lot of institutions and individuals benefit from the status quo, whether they realize it or not.  Incremental scientific and therapeutic advances require fewer resources and less learning than many others, and keep many people serving the needs of their home institution, instead of the needs of science or people who are suffering from psychological distress.

Be aware that there may be a few radicals among you.  There are some who may suggest that conferences are precious professional opportunities to have human interaction.  Some might claim that once you go to the trouble to gather great minds and passionate souls together, you should let them interact.  They may even assert that conferences should be opportunities to transform, connect, and renew.  Worse, some of them may suggest that you adopt alternative formats that have been used successfully in other fields, and offer that there are people in fields such as communication who have studied how to improve these.  They may say that “it doesn’t have to be this way.”  All I can suggest is that you do whatever you can to stifle these voices.  Try reading aloud from slides at your planning meetings, that should do it.

© 2017 Sherry Hamby.  All rights reserved.  Dr. Sherry Hamby is the Founder and Co-Chair of ResilienceCon, a new approach to conferences, and the Director of the Life Paths Appalachian Research Center. Learn more about her work by visiting her websites or following Life Paths on Facebook.