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Opinion

Rethinking Conference Formats


icons of people sitting around tables that look like globes, illustration

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Conference travel is considered one of the main instruments to foster networking and to get feedback for ongoing research work. Here, I focus on engineering and CS conferences, which usually accept full and short papers, conference presentations (including workshops and other conference-style events), and published proceedings. Before the pandemic, almost all renowned conferences required authors to present on site and papers got excluded from the proceedings when authors failed to attend physically. During the pandemic, we were forced to rethink this organization and most conferences moved to the virtual space. In the current post-pandemic environment, some conferences returned to onsite meetings only, but most of the conferences were forced to go hybrid. The reasons for this are manyfold: Not traveling to remote conferences is more climate friendly; it is cheaper; many countries struggle with new visa requirements and authors do not get permission to enter the respective country on time; but the most cited reason is saving time and being more family friendly. These are all good reasons and I struggle to decide whether to restart going to conferences and to how many.

At the same time, everybody observes the same trend in onsite, hybrid, and virtual events: participants subscribe to all possible events and barely participate. What used to be a lively event with many questions to address slowly transitions to a dull screen with black boxes or half-filled rooms. I have even heard about people participating in several virtual events at the same time and have often experienced people leaving the main conference for some other virtual events. Hybrid events require an additional very high technical overhead and still exhibit frustrating delays and dropouts. Furthermore, even the most sophisticated tools for collaboration and online conferences cannot substitute for the spontaneous discussions during breaks and social events. The usefulness of conferences, even the top ones, is slowly diminishing.

Before we turn into what I call ConversTation, let us review quickly the available presentation formats at conferences. These typically include stand-up presentations (organized into parallel tracks or in a single track), posters and demos, as well as a special Ph.D. forum. I will ignore other parts of typical conferences, such as panels, keynotes, or meetings of professional groups. A presentation is typically 10–30 minutes long (tending to shorter times recently), where the author is first given the chance to present her work and then to answer some questions from the audience. A typical setup is shown on the left side in the accompanying figure. The presenter is giving his best, while the audience is "off"—most do not pay any attention. This is not due to disinterest or bad intention. Not all topics in a conference are of equal interest to all participants; the presenter might be very inexperienced and the presentation difficult to follow; and last but not least, we all get easily distracted by a single email or message to suddenly discover the presentation is over and everybody clapping. Virtual formats worsen presentation formats even further by making the audience fully invisible and allowing for even more distractions (child care, getting a coffee, exercising, and so forth).

uf1.jpg
Figure. Impressions from our research workshop before and after introducing ConversTations.

Poster and demo sessions, where each author prepares something to show and the audience can move freely, is surely more effective. Most of my colleagues state this is the only session they still enjoy and, together with the social events, the only reason to physically attend. However, this format also has some drawbacks. Some posters get overcrowded, while others stay alone. A poster is not clearly visible in a virtual setting and very often the presenter must prepare slides and make a presentation—which confuses participants who expect an asynchronous event.

Workshops tend to be more interactive and efficient, even with traditional stand-up presentations. However, I believe this is rather due to the smaller format and more focused topics. Workshops could profit from the proposed ConversTation format too.

In summary, we must better align the interests of presenters and audience, make the audience more active and the format more personal.


The usefulness of conferences, even the top ones, is slowly diminishing.


I do not claim the proposed ConversTation format is not without drawbacks. However, it is an easy-to-use format, which only insignificantly deviates from what people are used to and is better suited for virtual events than the traditional styles. I also did not invent this format. I first encountered it as a participant of the ICT4S conferencea before the pandemic and I actually do not know who came up with it.

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The ConversTation Format

The format is rather simple, but requires more organization than scheduling presentations. There are three important assumptions:

  1. Not everybody in the audience wants to hear all presentations.
  2. Presenters get more feedback from a motivated audience, which is not "obliged" to hear their presentations.
  3. Smaller groups develop different group dynamics and tend to discuss more than large groups.

ConversTations work as follows:

  • Each presenter sits on a table with four to seven listeners. While presenting, she is not strictly following a stack of slides, but speaks freely and uses graphs, printouts, or demos to support her presentation. Listeners are allowed to ask questions anytime.
  • Usage of laptops/tablets/smart-phones is explicitly discouraged (apart from the presenter).
  • The seats on the tables are limited and fixed.
  • The discussion tables are positioned close to each other (not each in a different room) to simplify table change after session expiration.
  • Each presenter repeats his presentation several times with different listeners—optimally three times.
  • Listeners must make their own schedules to follow. Not everybody gets a seat in all desired presentations.
  • To organize the scheduling process, the presentations with slots and table assignments are pinned on large pin boards, where people can pick up a colored sticky note of a desired session. If they redecide, they can put it back.

Clearly, this version is for onsite events and it works much better on-site than virtual. However, it can be easily adapted to fully virtual or hybrid events. For hybrid events, some of the listeners can be online and "sitting" on the same table in a laptop, facing all other listeners. For virtual events, all the organization needs to be transferred to the virtual space and individual virtual rooms set up for each "table."

How is this any better than an old-fashioned stand-up presentation? First, the audience has the choice—and can select which presentations to follow, which increases the interest and the motivation of the audience to actually listen. For the presenters, they get motivated listeners, and they present several times with different audiences (which might completely change the course of discussion). An example of what such a discussion looks like is shown on the right side in the figure: everybody is fully engaged. There are two drawbacks of this format: it is unusual and the overhead of running it is higher. From the presenter's point of view, they do not get to practice stand-up presentations. Even if they prepare a "normal" presentation, the experience shows they get interrupted quickly with questions, discussions, and ideas. At the same time, my experience also shows that after running a couple of rounds, people get used to the new format, and get so excited they do not want to return to the traditional style anymore.

Challenges. The first challenge is to schedule the program. Each presenter needs several slots, the slots of one presenter should not follow immediately one after another, and of course a single presenter cannot be on two different tables at the same time; a full-fledged example is available.b

The next challenge is to explain the format to the audience. The best option is to clearly explain the format on the event booklet (digital or paper), to reserve some time to explain it during the event and to have several scouts to answer questions, observe and correct. The most critical part is to explain how to make your own schedule. The details of it will unnecessarily lengthen our discussion here, but you can check the website for details. An example of how it looks like is shown in the middle of the figure: it is a fun and very "physical" process. Another challenge is to keep people up to the format. People who did not get a seat at their desired slot (for whatever reason), tend to simply pull a chair from somewhere else and sit at that table. Here, the scouts must interfere: they should politely explain you need to take a free seat at another table and, if needed, they must explain the idea over and over again. It is true that some participants get frustrated by the new format and even get angry.


We must better align the interests of presenters and audience, make the audience more active and the format more personal.


Let me also mention the most striking side effect of this format: it is tiring! Most people are used to a more passive type of listening, while this format demands full attention over many rounds.

So far, I have applied this format to various events I was involved in: our joint research workshops with the Technical University of Hamburg (the group of Andreas Timm-Giel; https://www.tuhh.de/et6), the International Conference on Embedded Wireless Systems and Networks (EWSN) 2020 (https://ewsn2020.conf.citi-lab.fr), the OMNeT++ Summit (https://summit.omnetpp.org), the International Conference on Networked Systems (https://www.kuvs.de/netsys/2023/), and more to be confirmed. The original conference where I learned about the format—ICT4S—continues using the format too.

The feedback of the participants has always been very positive, even if some of them needed time to get used to it. I strongly encourage all future event organizers to check the ConversTation format. I am also very happy to answer questions and address further challenges through the dedicated website.

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Author

Anna Förster (anna.foerster@acm.org) leads the Sustainable Communication Networks group at the University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany.

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Footnotes

a. See https://bit.ly/48nQHkR

b. See https://bit.ly/3PrKpbe

I would like to thank the original inventor of this format: although I have not been able to identify the inventor, if you read this column, please contact me so you receive your well-deserved credit.


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