Running Effective Conference Sessions

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Sessions are topic-specific roundtable discussions which happen at conferences between Engineering Students' Societies throughout the year. The purpose of conference sessions is to:

  • have high-level discussions with other schools regarding specific topics
  • determine whether other schools face the same issues, run the same services, host the same events, etc.
  • share best practices among schools

The purpose of this article is to outline best practices for running conference sessions, in order to maximize the benefit of these sessions to schools attending conferences. In general:

  • most of the best practices for organizing sessions are carried out before the session
  • the responsibility of coordinating the planning of the session falls on the conference's host school/organization
  • the work of following up on specific, low-level details regarding the session topic falls on conference attendees after the session. For example, in a session on Engineering Student Society commercial services, the session itself can help attendees find out who runs similar commercial services, and it is then then their responsibility to follow up with those schools that run similar services to seek specific suggestions for improvement and share specific best practices, like best-selling cafeteria products, the best suppliers, etc.

Before Session

Call for Sessions

  • Conference organizers or hosting organization should make a Call for Sessions
  • Calls for Sessions should suggest sessions ideas and ask for further ideas. It should also state "no idea is a bad idea". The goal at this stage is to obtain as many ideas as possible

Discussion

  • A list of all accumulated suggestions should be sent out to relevant people (e.g. head delegates and hosting organization executives)
  • School representatives should be asked to prioritize the list as well as refine suggestions (make sure suggested topics are not too broad, too low-level, etc.)
  • Relevant individuals should be asked what they want to get out of the session

This pre-conference dialogue should be carried out via email thread and participants should be clicking "reply-all". An open dialogue allows for the greatest refinement of sessions ideas. Most importantly, it promotes thought regarding what everyone wants to get out of the session. Relevant individuals not attending the conference should also be invited to participate in this conversation.

Selecting a Session Chair

The discussion above will make apparent who is most capable of running the session. If that individual is not up to the task, the host school/organization can run the session while gathering significant input from participants before the conference.

Structuring Sessions

Ideally, an open dialogue will have happened while session ideas were discussed after the Call for Sessions, so it should be apparent what everyone wants to get out of the session, and as a result, how to structure it accordingly. The session structure should facilitate discussion of best practices, issues, and solutions, rather than each school simply stating what they do and how regarding the topic. While the structure of a session will nearly always be suited to the particular topic, there are a few best practices regarding session structure:

  • The session Chair should ask questions of participants regarding specific issues related to the topic
  • Inter-school interaction can be facilitated by breaking the group up into groups of schools with similar issues, if the group is large enough
  • "Straw polls" can be taken to determine what direction the conversation should go in. (for example, asking "who runs an 'accountability session' at their school" at a session on Executive Accountability)

During Session

  • Each session should have one Chair
  • Session should be run as planned beforehand
  • A member of the host school/organization should be recording main points and best practices. Templates should be available for this.
  • It is the Chair's responsibility to ensure discussion does not become too narrow or low-level.
  • The Chair should refrain from simply asking "what does your school do" and instead ask questions along the lines of "is anyone facing a particular issue pertaining to...". This allows attendees to find schools with similar issues and exchange contact information, to continue interacting after the conference and work on something useful.

After Session

  • Results of session discussion, especially best practices discussed, should be added to a central database of EngSoc services/operations/events that includes school contact information
  • It is the responsibility of session attendees to follow up with other individuals and continue more specific discussions after the conference