Some time ago my friend, colleague, one time co-presenter and writer, and two time guest (1, 2) blogger on this very blog Michael Free contacted me. He wanted to get a conversation started about what people want from conferences here on ELT RRR, writing:
Some of us ELTs have to attend them, others don’t.
Some teachers (really) like them, others (really) don’t.
Speaking for myself, I love a good conference. A chance to hear about new research, talk shop, and hopefully pick up a practical technique or two for the classroom as well as a few books. Of course, my reasons might not match with your reasons. So, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.
Before I do, I’d like to tell you why I’m asking. I’ve recently been asked to help organise a fairly large conference (a solidly packed single-day event, if you must know). In beginning to put this together, I’m wondering what, for you, makes the conference experience worthwhile.
I thought it would be helpful to start off the process with a (completely unscientific) survey so that the responses to the survey could give readers something to think about and add to (as well as agree and disagree with). Thank you very much to the 30 people who responded! The questions were a joint effort but most of them were from Michael Free (thank you Michael). Below you can find the survey questions and the answers related to attending conferences with some minor edits for clarity and organization. Responses on presenting and organizing conferences will be in subsequent posts.
As you read the responses I wonder, what do you think of them? What would you add? What would you cut? What is interesting or surprising for you?
The respondents were based in:
The US (2)
As a conference attendee, what do you want in a conference?
- Opportunities to discuss what we’ve heard, but informally and not because that’s part of a session.
- To learn new and inspiring things and to meet good people.
- An interesting range of presentations that are not scheduled before 9:30am. Not too many parallel sessions because the odds of me wanting to really see than one or two of the presentations end up being very high.
- To be energised, inspired, learn new things
- Pleasant venue (comfortably heated rooms, not a massive space to trek around, convenient location, etc.), quality talks (original, well-researched, professionally presented) and well organised i.e. speakers encouraged to stick to timings, technology working, no ridiculous queues for coffee!
- How many answers do I get? All of the following are important: a good venue, good organization, friendly hosts, great presentations (even though that is often out of the hands of the organizers) interesting group of participants. Something new to learn. A good audience if presenting. Wifi.
- Well-grounded, well-argued, well-illustrated presentations – preferably innovative
- New ideas, knowledge, support, time to network, etc.
- “Big Name” plenary speakers! Current and relevant info about ELT; networking opportunities; freebies from publishers!
- To learn something
- Yes: Thought-provoking ideas backed by data/theory; new & practical classroom activities.
No: preaching to the choir (please present at a conference targeted for administration instead).
- Good ideas and good thinking, preferably backed up by evidence
- New approaches on ELT
- Variety of topics and session types.
- Interesting sessions, interesting people, food & drinks, maybe fans (‘groupies’) recognising me
- Healthy balance between plenaries, sessions, and free time to talk to people. Spacious but clearly laid-out venue. Engagement with participants via social networks (official updates and shares!)
- To come away having learned stuff or not wasted time.
- The last few conferences that I have been to have been a little unsatisfying from a presentations point of view. I wonder if this is less a function of poor presentations than just where I am in my development right now, and also the fact that it’s actually pretty difficult to tackle a topic in depth in 45 minutes or so. I also can’t remember the last time I saw a decent plenary. Recently I have got much more out of conversations at conferences, and especially those with newer teachers. I’m keen to see what happens with the demo classes at ExciteELT: I think those could be very interesting. Overall then, I’d say I want a chance to deal with the smaller stuff of teaching, that doesn’t always make it to the “big idea” presentation stage.
- Interesting presentations, good research, strong speakers
- Thought provoking and inspirational ideas for improved teaching, opportunities to discuss and network with colleagues, learn about R&D, clarification on any government changes in immigration law, visas and exams.
- Networking opportunities and exposure to a variety of points of view.
- Useful thought provoking stuff
- Knowledge and meet others
- Practical ideas based on theoretical knowledge
- Something different. Something new. Something true.
- New teaching ideas, current research, connections with other teachers
- Materials or books
- If a session is practical, lots of take-home ideas. If it’s theoretical, I want it to be really theoretical and high-level, not banal or oversimplified.
As a conference attendee, what is absolutely essential?
- Good coffee that’s not outrageously expensive (for reals).
A very practical glance-and-go conference handbook-schedule with accurate, quick-glance/one line summary of each presentation.
- Good visuals
- A variety of useful workshops, exchange of ideas with colleagues.
- Interesting conferences and events organization
- Theoretical knowledge
- Good organization. Without that, the rest (above) can get lost. Ok, and wifi. But seriously, a conference team that works well.
- Accurate locations and room numbers in the conference program, a variety of topics addressed
- A location that is easily accessible from an airport in abroad and a major train station of in Japan. 10 minute breaks between presentations. A welcome reception for networking/bonding with others.
- A variety of presenters.
- Interesting and varied sessions and that the summary is accurate about what we’ll hear.
- Conference schedule shouldn’t choke the attendees.
- Interesting talks
- Good organization
- Good organization -sessions in the correct rooms, not many cancellations, a good schedule to plan what to attend.
- A wide choice of quality non-commercial talks, workshops, etc
- Learning something
- I thought about this, and I don’t think anything is totally essential (not even a venue, if you don’t include the internets in that definition). If I am there physically, somewhere to charge gadgets is probably top of my priority list.
- Proximity to restaurants, WiFi
- Clear programme and lay-out of venue, WiFi
- That the learning is useful and relevant, although not always mainstream. Easy access and good facilities.
- Learning something, meeting people.
- A chance to network
- People talking about more than what’s usually talked about. I get pretty tired of hearing the same old things all over the place all the time. I want to hear people sharing what works for them in their particular context – especially if it’s some outrageous thing that should not really work but does.
- Transparency in the conference abstracts; NO disguised marketing
- One decent talk minimum.
- Current and relevant info about ELT in presentations by great speakers.
As a conference attendee what is useful, but not essential?
- Publisher/promotional talks. I know they pay the bills, but they usually have to bribe people to attend and have very little bearing on practice.
- Bookstores and editorials showrooms
- Wifi? Coffee. These help but anyone can live without them.
- A bag and printed schedule
- A job searching center, with interviewing, can be a really great add-on.
- Good food and a lot of coffee on-site
- I quite enjoyed the wine and cheese event at this year’s [KOTESOL] International Conference. I’d like to see that kind of stuff encouraged more, but with more of a teaching focus. Kind of like a chillout room at the conference where the interested can go and find people to chat to.
- Good coffee. If it’s not on-site, it’s essential to be able to get some close by.
- Food options around =)
- Lots of Q & A time
- Discounts on books during the book fair.
- Places to meet other people
- Convenient location
- Free stuff.
- Freebies from publishers.
- Commercial talks. I rarely (if ever) go to them, though that could be just me 😉
- Updates on relevant government legislation: any new or changed requirements; updates on R&D.
- Book exhibition
- Venue in an interesting, easily accessible location.
- Solid vetting of speakers~no terrible presentations
- meeting other teachers
As a conference attendee, what do you usually hope to take away from the conference?
- New ideas for research and teaching
- Ideas, useful contacts
- New ideas for content, methods, projects…
- New connections; broader perspectives; new learning; renewed enthusiasm for teaching.
- Ideas for improved teaching and a feeling of being part of a mutually supportive group of professionals.
- Memories of and ideas from conversations with other teachers; new acquaintances; ideas that would speak to me and that I will be ready to follow up on
- Ideas, information, excitement,
- A new way to think about something
- New ways of looking at things, new skills and new/stronger friendships with people in my field.
- Lots of new connections and at least one new idea.
- Something I didn’t expect is always welcome. New ideas, better ideas, new people. Especially that last one.
- One idea to use.
- Some reviews of speeches
- Directions for further reading/investigation
- Increased motivation
- Big thoughts, questions, connections.
- A sense of community. Thought-provoking ideas; a few handouts, links, activities, or articles to revisit later.
- Lots of ideas + some connections for networking.
- Lots of things! For me though, what goes on between sessions (meeting peers, networking, etc) is just as valuable as the timetabled stuff
- Ideas on how to improve as a teacher or questions to reflect on my teaching
- An idea to think about more later and/or an inspiring way to approach learning.
- Good ideas and new thinking
- New teaching ideas, current research, connections with other teachers
- New ideas, professional contacts, memories, etc.
- New ideas for classes
- New ideas for practice and new perspectives on practice
- Ideas about new trends, a sense of what is/isn’t working for teachers in ELT (and why/why not)
In another survey potential attendees said they prefer quality speakers over speakers with “star power.” What, for you, are the characteristics that make a quality speaker?”A related, indeed overlapping, question is “What makes for a quality presentation?”
- A quality speaker has a good story to tell and can tell it clearly and maybe adjust on the fly if needed. The difference between quality and star power is if you feel like you are getting the same attention to the work of presenting and preparation if there are 5 people in the room or 150.
- It’s kind of like quality teaching – the speaker lets the audience know where they are starting from, builds from there, encourages (but does not force) participation, and leaves the audience feeling like they have explored a new way to think about something.
- It should make people think. Shouldn’t be only theoretical.
- A presentation that delivers what is promised, well-organized materials, engaging content.
- I get why someone would say they want quality speakers instead of speakers with star power and yet it’s those people with star power who often bring in people who might otherwise not be there to share ideas that might not otherwise get shared. When we get a Tom Farrell or a Dorothy Zemach or a Shelly Sanchez Terrell or a Penny Ur (giving quality presentations and working with people throughout the conference) then that’s something good. And what makes for a quality presentation? Real ideas, connection with the audience, a bit inspiration. and confidence (but not over-confidence) in the ideas being shared. I particularly like speakers who say things like “well, I could be wrong but …”
- Theoretical background to what they are saying.
- NOT preaching to the choir — it is absolutely the worst to be told in detail all about things in education that are primarily out of the hands of teachers to change and in the hands of administration to be informed about (in other words, wrong audience for the content; don’t tell us what we already know but can do very little about).
- A sense of wanting to help people to do stuff better in their classrooms.
- Quality presentation includes questions, visuals, discussion and a q&a session
- A quality pres is one that a) tells me something I don’t know and b) is not just someone’s opinion. Also, enough with the ‘5 ways to use a [tech] in class.’
- Good speakers engage with the audience instead of preaching. Their slides are not all full of text, but they may choose to share some important quotes or other written information that is a little text heavy. Good speakers Don’t have to be funny, but humour is appreciated.
- Relevance and preparation. Knowledge of the audience.
- People who know the area they are talking about in great detail, can connect different ideas. Someone who makes even a potentially boring topic interesting and engaging. I don’t want to see a presentation by someone who has just had a look in a few of the common ELT textbooks. I can read the texts myself
- While I’m guilty of responding “Big Name” presenters to the first question, I have certainly attended conferences where the “Big Name” presentation was not particularly relevant (or in my opinion “good”) to me or my teaching situation. However, it may have been great for another so each to their own – participants can always move around. The bottom line is this: Depth of knowledge from a subject matter expert is essential. A presenter with character will certainly go a long way but (excuse my French) attendees can smell bullshit a mile away.
- An innovative topic
- Confidence, good timing, a small number of carefully chosen key points, time at the end for questions (that are thoughtfully answered), and the ability to still deliver the talk if PowerPoint falls over.
- A quality speaker for me is someone who knows their subject, is passionate about it, and delivers it in an engaging way. A quality talk is well prepared, researched thoroughly, rehearsed, and highly relevant to the audience it is pitched at.
- Quality speaker: a speaker who knows the topic well and communicates effectively. A quality presentation: The presentation flows logically and involves more than platitudes. Concrete examples are given.
- An enthusiasm to communicate something they feel strongly about. It doesn’t matter if they have “star power” or not.
- New ideas, comfortable speaking, solid ‘presentation skills’, aware of the audience
- A quality speaker, for me, does not overuse jargonisms, does not sound superior, does not state the obvious. A quality speaker shares stories. A quality presentation is honest and feels right, because the presenter, again, has a story to tell. A quality presentation is NOT a dry presentation of research data.
- Someone who knows their topic well and who understands their attendees’ needs. Someone who won’t beat about the bush, but would use their time to maximum effect.
- Passion, knowledge, interactivity, preparation, respect of time limits, clear and appealing visuals.
- Effective communicators with a clear message that links the theory to the practice and gives me something I can use in the classroom
- Concision, NOT reading aloud, precise timing, discussion time, economical and unobtrusive use of resources e.g. PowerPoint, humour
- Well planned, prepared and rehearsed. That they have something to share – something they’ve tried, researched or thought about – that’s worth passing on.
- Knowledge of practical realities.
- Wit, humour – but not at the expense of content, content, knowledge of the topic, occasional references to research, possibly mentions of and links to other sessions presented at the same conference and last but by no means not least well designed PPT/Prezi slides
Have you ever seen anything that made a presentation particularly fantastic in your opinion?
- Yes, when speakers interact with the audience
- The above and elements of surprise.
- Ideas presented in thought-provoking ways. Ideas that are informed by theory, research, or experience that serve as a spring-board for trying it yourself.
NOT pedantic, but well-informed.
Brief chances during a presentation to talk about, process, or experience the content with others in the audience/colleagues.
When a presenter or their posse shuts down that one kook who is asking unrelated questions/trying to upstage/control the presentation inappropriately (the more swiftly and diplomatically they do so, the greater the “teacher take-away”!).
- Speaker getting into the crowd and talking.
- Fact packed, challenged preconceptions, and funny
- I remember a very satisfying pronunciation talk where the guy basically admitted he had no idea how to teach it, and just turned it into a big sharing thing. I thought that was cool.
- Paul Nation (quality star power) giving a 90 minute plenary without notes or PowerPoint slides. He has such presence you just want to believe everything he says and yet … I also once saw a presentation from a completely unknown person (meaning I have no idea who it was really) which was all about how she took a group of students who thought they were failures, gave them a few tools, and led them forward into making a video documentary about how their lives sucked and why they were working so hard to make their lives not suck. We learned about the kids, the city, the poverty, the whole thing. Then we saw the video and we cried with a kind of joy.
- It’s almost always the speaker for me. Engaging, well prepared, solid message
- Engagement with the audience – catching the audience’s attention (usually some kind of ‘hook’ but interesting / surprising facts work well!). Not relying on slides (not reading). Knowledgeable about the topic and happy to interact with the audience – asking and answering questions.
- A good mixture of preparedness and (easy, natural, unforced) connection with the audience
- I once saw a presentation on writing research findings that could have been dry and boring, but was incredibly engaging. They involved the audience in many small tasks.
- One of the best ever was a Paul Nation plenary with no slides and seemingly no notes. There was a brief handout on each seat and he balanced theory, information, and a good anecdote or three.
- Fantastic presentations have a lot of audience participation that is not forced
- I think it has a lot to do with expertise with the content and being able to present well i.e Scott Thornbury and Ken Wilson = inspirational. David Nunan reading form slides full of text = checking social media
- One of the speakers were guiding us for pair working and it worked very well.
- Conviction, even passion, on the part of the speaker, but not dogmatic or hectoring
- My favorite presentations are the ones that caused me to try something new because they gave me a clear idea of what they new thing was and they convinced me that this new thing would be useful.
- Yes. The presentation file simply wouldn’t open. Laptop was swiftly turned off and the presenter delivered an engaging talk, without referring to any notes.
- Involving audience.
- An amazing command of lecture skills~like an actress
- Presenter being at ease and enjoying the time with the audience makes it fantastic enough.
- Russ Mayne’s 2014 IATEFL talk
- I’ve maybe been lucky but, in the short time I’ve been in ESOL, I can’t remember a presentation that was boring or felt like a waste of time. Some are more pedestrian in their style than others but I’ve never found any tedious. Of course, a touch of humour usually makes a presentation memorable.
Additional thoughts as a conference attendee:
- Back to back talks, many running at the same time, is unnecessary. Much better to be more selective with number of speakers and build in ample time between the sessions. Most attendees I meet at conferences are, like me, just as interested in sitting down and talking over coffee (or something stronger) as they are in attending talks.
- Ensuring that although the theme is adhered to, that there is sufficient variety.
- Scheduled time as some people come from out of town.
- I don’t like when presenters decide to use PPT and then skip half their slides.
- Too much dross ant EFL conferences makes it hardly worth anyone’s while going. I really don’t know why people go when you,could read a book which is cheaper with better info. I think conferences are just about networking.
- Make them affordable. Too many conferences can only be afforded by those with research budgets and good salaries. JALT in Japan is too expensive for everyone. Also, conference organizers in general: get over yourselves. There are lots of conferences in the world. Just because you’re organizing one doesn’t mean you can learn from other people organizing conferences.
- Free coffee is always good.
- Conferences are well worth the effort. They refresh your thinking and re-energise you. It’s good to make new contacts and feel part of a professional and supportive community.
- Think of logistics~minimize buildings, floors, etc. Keep It Simple
- Having affordable food options or enough healthy food options can make a conference experience much nicer!
- Plenaries or sessions should not start before 10 am
- Friendly, welcoming atmosphere created by the organisers and helpers.
- There should be room for reflection in any conference. Some quiet time where attendees can do anything else other than attending talks or sessions.
- Long breaks are good for networking
- Potentially off-topic, but themes can be overrated. When they work well and are organic to the conference they add a lot, but often seem to be just something that has to be there. Especially true of big conferences. Sometimes I really prefer a small tightly knit conference
- I don’t want to be shilled.
- I just want to learn and get new ideas.