Everyone loves going to conferences. Along with learning via presentations on new topics and case studies, it is also an excellent way to find possible work opportunities and meet other similar people. It could also mean visiting a new city, soaking in the sights (if you get a chance) or trying out something different.
Ever given a thought to how a conference is organised and what goes behind getting the logistics sorted out behind the scenes before the delegates arrive at the venue? From the presenters to the venue, from food menus to delegate goody bags, from sponsors to prizes; it can provide some exciting challenges, especially if you are not in the city where the conference is to take place.
I have been fortunate this year to help with finding potential speakers, sponsors, helping out where I can with sending out conference updates to members and whatever else I can assist with. I am even more privileged to work with someone who has been organising conferences for the ASTC (NSW) and now the TWIA for the last few years, and had excelled herself every year. It takes an extreme level of planning and a fair amount of persuasion, diplomacy and efficiency to get the show up in place.
I decided to ask Janet Taylor, the organiser chief for the TWIA 2015 conference and she was more than happy to share her thoughts on this.
a. How long have you been organising the conference?
I can’t remember when I first started organising the conference but it was about 8 years ago. At first it was a joint venture with the late Susan Harkus. She made it such an enjoyable thing to do, that it didn’t frighten me to be involved. In those days we had to do some arm twisting to persuade people to present. Susan was very good at that part.
b. How do you select the conference proposals? What do you look for, in a presentation/speaker?
First of all we start with a theme and then issue an invitation via our publications for people to present. Nowadays we have potential presenters approach us (or me) with an outline of their presentation. If I’m not familiar with a potential presenter, I try to find someone who knows of them or their skill. I also try very hard to meet them but at least I will speak to them on the phone. I can only judge their suitability by the usual things: has someone recommended them, how well they know their selected topic, how suitable the presentation would be. Sometimes I do get it wrong.
I go through the appraisal sheets from the previous years’ conference to see if I can use any topic or presenter suggestions. Otherwise, the program could end up being only about topics that I’m interested in. I do try to maintain an interest in all the TC developments that I can, to try to ensure my interests don’t get too narrow. That’s one reason why I stay involved with Southern Communicator ─ I’m force-fed other viewpoints.
The other thing about a presenter is where they live in relation to the conference. The more locals the better. Less logistics.
c. What would be your worst nightmare when it comes to organising a conference?
I’ve had two worst nightmares: One was presenters offered to sponsors. We knew nothing about them or their presentations until a week or two before the conference and had no contact with them at all prior to the event. Would they turn up? Did they know anything about their audience? In the last instance of this, they were a success but my nerves nearly didn’t last up to the day.
The other was when a presenter contacted me on the morning of his presentation day to say his wife had gone into labour and he simply couldn’t present. I had to agree, I didn’t think he’d be able to concentrate even if he did his duty to us.
d. How easy/hard is it to reject a presentation proposal and how do you do it without losing friends?
I’ve usually had a good reason for rejecting a presentation and it hasn’t been because I didn’t think it would any good. (That might be the reason, but there’s usually some other one to use). Only one person has fallen out with me “You’re a very difficult person to deal with!” Me?
e. What’s the best conference you have ever attended? What made it special?
I’ve attended a lot and I can’t think of one being better than others. The Ark Group conferences (which ASTC members could attend free of charge) were always very good with excellent presenters. I’ve no idea how they found some of their presenters, but it might help that their staff are professional conference organisers.
f. In your opinion, what does a good conference look like?
The venue is the most important factor.
Then the conference room: no pillars, a high ceiling and a reasonable temperature (I’m still waiting for that aspect to be right).
Decent food and coffee.
After that, delegates who are prepared to talk to other people, not just those they work with. I used to be an absolute wall flower so I’m always on the alert for people who aren’t mixing. I can get quite bossy then as I don’t want them wasting their attendance. In my opinion, one of the major benefits of a conference is meeting the other delegates.
About Janet Taylor
After the birth of her son, she decided that she’d need to give up her 24 hour a day IT job (which she loved) and try to find something she could do from home. When she discovered that there was such a job as technical writing, she decided that was perfect for her. She’d always done the user guides and training for all the systems she had developed over the years. In her first job, she had to join a professional society and ASTC (NSW) seemed to be THE ONE. After she’d been a technical writer for about 5 months, the society appealed for someone to handle the marketing. She was certainly qualified to do that and felt obliged to offer her services. Unfortunately, it involved being on the committee and attending meetings. However, 20+ years later, she is still on the committee. (Her son is now 32 years old and she has never yet managed to work from home.)