Convening a Conference Session: A Recommendation Letter

by Stella Alexandroff

Different people benefit from conferences in different ways, with varying success and comfort levels. 

Not everybody enjoys the spotlight

You might love public speaking or you might feel nauseous from the very thought of walking up to the podium. You might ask yourself where on earth the advice originated from that you should picture the audience without clothes; a room full of naked colleagues with their eyes fixed on you would not necessarily make you feel any less uneasy.

You might love to mingle and engage in fruitful and inspiring discussions at poster sessions. You might find yourself face-to-face with a renowned scientist from your field, your first instinct being to ask them for an autograph (or a job), but after careful consideration you settle for feeling nervous and acting like a fool instead.

If you are like me, you might develop a whole new set of insecurities when standing next to your poster, trying to figure out how to attract readers and encourage conversations, but at the same time give them space. You might avoid dealing with this unsolvable dilemma by constantly wandering off to the nearest snackbar to stuff your face instead.

A declaration of love

Just to be clear: I love attending conferences. I love discussing science, I love talks, I love meeting people and I can deal with poster sessions as long as there are snacks.
Another thing I love is contributing to the organisation of a conference and seeing behind the scenes. An obvious and easy way to get involved is to host a session.

Last year, I convened a conference session at the EGU (European Geosciences Union) General Assembly in Vienna on behalf of our research project on annually resolved archives of marine climate change.

I would now like to share this experience with you.

Preparing a conference session

Many things need to be done in preparation for a session at the EGU. Here is a selection of steps to take if you want to recreate our experience from last year:

          Initial phase
  1. Define your session and submit it to the conference website.
  2. Have your session proposal accepted by the organising committee.
  3. Advertise your session on all mailing lists and social media channels you can think of.
  4. Advertise it again on the exact same channels, as well as directly to the heads of research groups you wish you were working with.
  5. Wonder whether you have been advertising too much and are being obnoxious.
  6. Decide that the last thought was ridiculous, because your session is probably what the world has been waiting for, and emails sometimes get overlooked.
  7. Advertise it one more time.
  8. Mark applications for financial support that were submitted to your session.

          Main preparation phase
  1. Read through all the abstracts you have received. Transfer those that don’t fit your session to another one.
  2. Estimate how big your session’s audience will be and request the appropriate room size.
  3. Name sessions you don’t want to clash with because they’d attract the same audience. Decide whether or not to be honest when asked about your availability, and on which days your session absolutely cannot take place (We all know nobody wants the early Monday morning or late Friday afternoon…).
  4. Be assigned the late Friday afternoon because you were being honest.
  5. Tell everybody who calls Friday afternoon the death slot that they’re wrong - it’s the Grand Finale, the cherry on the science cake, and it’s what you wanted from the beginning anyway.
  6. Now you know how much time your session has been given and how many oral presentations it can host. Divide all abstracts into oral and poster presentations.
  7. Keep in touch with the authors to make sure they know what’s going on and that they’re still coming. Worry about that last part and wonder whether they’re really all coming.
  8. Make back-up plans in case an oral presentation has to be cancelled at the last minute: Tell poster presenters they are welcome to fill that slot with 1-min talks. Practice your juggling skills for good measure.
  9. Find three judges for each author participating in the Outstanding Student Poster and PICO competition. Be surprised by how much time it takes to find enough people that are both suitable and still around on the Grand Finale Friday evening.

Let’s talk about talks

As a chairperson of an oral session, you are responsible that everything works smoothly. You have to make sure all slides are uploaded in advance, you have to keep everyone on schedule and you have to be ready to ask questions at the end of each talk in case the audience doesn’t have any.

I had previously co-chaired sessions myself, and my track record included highlights such as me falling off the stage and me lying about there not being enough time for more questions because I simply couldn’t think of any (yes, I’m not proud of it!). 

I clearly needed to do a better job this time, so in the months leading up to the EGU conference, I had been watching conveners at other conferences closely. To me, the best chairpersons were those that managed to be discreet while also making the presenters feel at ease. They’d give the next speaker a nice introduction. They’d lighten the mood with jokes or make everyone feel welcome with good-natured remarks. After each talk, they’d seem genuinely intrigued by what they’ve just heard.

Conversely, the worst chairing I’ve witnessed involved the convener asking the audience repeatedly and for a painfully long time whether they really, really, really didn’t have any questions for the speaker, eventually even pointing out individual people in the audience. The speaker did not deserve this awkward scene to be what we would remember from their presentation. It made me so uncomfortable that I started to look for snacks.

I'll just leave this here...

The session (or ‘Another declaration of love’)

All in all, the pre-conference preparations took much more time than I had anticipated, but that can largely be attributed to my lack of experience, my tendency to overthink and the fact that I didn’t ask for help enough.

The session itself went really well; the Friday afternoon was indeed the cherry on the science cake for us and the room was virtually full. Both the high-quality presentations and the responsive audience made our jobs as chairpersons extremely easy. I didn’t fall over and I didn’t lie about time constraints.

I learned a lot throughout the process and it was fun to see how an abstract you have read ten times translates into a presentation, how the poster judges work and how the audience reacts. Above all, I see it as a privilege to convene presentations from a research field that is dear to me, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Stella Alexandroff
School of Ocean Sciences, Bangor University, UK

If you have questions or comments concerning Stella's post, please leave a comment below, or send her an email. You can also connect with her on Twitter or ResearchGate.


  1. Excellent and fun contribution!

  2. Another tip is to anticipate applications from international students and researchers. Depending on visa entry requirements for people, this can require personalised letters of the purpose and duration of visits on university letterhead paperwork and be prepared well in advance for visa application procedures. Keeping this in mind at early planning stages boosts plurality and inclusivity, diversifies perceptions, knowledge exchanges, and collaboration. Having someone in the event planning who is interested and actively responsible for the sensitivities of international travel and that will spend time to liaise between potential participants, the host institution, and the relevant authorities (if necessary) improves the opportunity for internationalisation of a conference/workshop/meeting.

    1. That is a very good point, thanks for bringing it up! On a related note, it is also useful to be aware of travel grants that researchers from different parts of the world may apply for - apart from those provided by the conference in question. That was a big topic in our pre-conference communication with authors (which I couldn't get into in this post due to length contraints) and the next time I'll be better prepared for that.
      I absolutely agree that a good convening team should take a proactive approach and facilitate international participation, starting at the advertising stage.


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