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18/52 How to plan a great conference session

Conferences are about connecting and learning, about inspiration and new ideas. Conference sessions obviously play an important part in this and I've been asked many times to write down how I plan and moderate conference sessions e.g. for MPNE and the advocacy tracks at the annual ESMO meetings till 2019.

So this is how I think about a great session at a conference

At the end of a great session, you leave the room full of energy and with something to think about- and ideally, some action to take.

A good session topic then tells people why the session is relevant to them and has a challenge or novelty- no one goes to sessions they think they already know everything about.

I always start planning any session with a short paragraph on context, motivation and what I want people to take home that I will also use in the speaker briefs and for the MPNE online programs.

A great session has great content presented in the right format. As for content, a great session usually deconstructs a problem and then, re-formulates it in a new- and hopefully, more constructive- way. (Abstract-based sessions can be a challenge in that respect- you have to deal with what you got- but finding both a common theme and differences between abstracts helps there to make for interesting discussion under a unifying conceptual roof.)

Only very exceptional speakers are able to keep an audience's attention over extended periods of time. However, not everyone with something important to say is an exceptional speaker and few people have the width to explore a topic in various dimensions during one single talk.

The answer to that is to tighten the format- find different speakers, each highlighting one particular aspect of the session topic and end in a discussion that allows to contrast and then, synthesise the learnings from the session. The intention is always to make every single speaker shine while maintaining the overall arch and energy of the entire session.

As for formats, I prefer 45 min (rather than 1 hour) for a less complex topic or specific education and 90 min (rather than 2 hours) for a complex topic. Being interesting for 90 min requires considerable preparation, so allowing for that is important.

Frame it

Sessions should have an opening frame- a welcome, an introduction to the topic and an introduction to the speakers. I often introduce all speakers at that point, often referring to the reason I invited them or previous exchanges we have had or some of their previous work, and mention how the different talks build on each other (they should do that!!). Introducing everyone at the same time means I cannot forget it later- that has happened- and also, there is nothing more awkward as a speaker than sitting on a stage waiting for your speaking slot without having been introduced. Also, I find there is nothing more terrible than someone reading out my bio from a piece of paper while I stand there waiting to give my talk, so I don't tend to do that to others but stick to the personal remarks and ask them to introduce themselves. Also means I cannot get any positions or titles wrong.

Similarly, a good session ends with closing that frame- leave some minutes to summarise the session, give the take-home message and to thank everyone for being there.


The best rule of thumb is to invite people because of what they have to say, not because of who they are. While one cannot always avoid political invites, they rarely make for great sessions. Personally, I find finding the right speakers is the most rewarding part of it all- it is like a treasure hunt. Once one has an idea about a topic, one can go looking and reading on who might have a relevant opinion on it. Invariably, one learns on the way which tends to improve the session dramatically.

Lengths of talks

10- 15 min are a good speaking time for most topics- anything less requires extensive preparation as being concise is a lot of work. And then, many speakers who look great at 15 min somehow then loose energy and end on a low at 20 min which is a pity (and violates the rule of making your speakers look good!!). If one has a lot of time to fill, 15 min talk and a pre-planned question therefore often work better- exchanges have more energy than just a presentation- than 20 min straight. I'll write another post on speaker briefs.

Session flow

Great sessions are full of energy - this requires a certain speed- but do not feel rushed- this requires the right planning with enough buffers for eventualities.

A beginner's mistake is to forget to plan for the session beginning. It is very easy to loose 5' at the beginning of a session- the room was not empty, people took time to sit down and quiet, there is some technical issue. Without a buffer, the session is late from the get-go and stressful throughout. Having 10 min to get started- for eventualities and the introduction that one can make longer or shorter, depending on need- is therefore a good idea.

Another mistake is not to leave time between speakers- people have to get on and off the stage and need to open their presentation. Having all presentations on one system is therefore always a good idea.

Add at least 2 min per speaker for your timing, also a good opportunity to e.g. invite them to the stage and while they set up, give some more information on the person or the topic and to link it to the previous talk. If you know that your speaker is shy or nervous or stressed already- do something to put them at ease. Audiences can be *brutal*- the mobiles are out in no time and people start leaving the room, none of which helps to increase a speaker's confidence. Saying something like 'I am very much looking forward on your particular take on x, I know you have been thinking about it for a long time' and sharing with the audience why you invited that speaker- you wouldn't have invited someone with nothing to say, after all- can make all the difference about how a talk goes, how it is perceived by the audience and how the speaker feels about it.

A good session feels like a story, with perspectives building on each other. If you know your speakers well enough, it's also a good idea to pay attention to their personal styles. Don't end talks on a quiet, technical talk before going into a discussion.

The discussion

Discussions can be a great way to end a session. After all speakers have shared their perspectives, discussions are the place to address discrepancies and deepen aspects that weren't mentioned in their talks. Good discussions feel natural and if one is lucky, they also happen naturally. Most often- they don't. As a session moderator, one has the job to keep the discussion flowing and interesting, to make sure everyone gets an about equal say and to integrate questions from the audience. A good way is to take notes during the talks one can refer back to and to ask about relevant things you know the speakers have an opinion on but might not have mentioned during their talks. Questions from the audience, in particular, a life audience, can be anything from really great to downright awful. There are the famous 'questions that aren't questions but lengthy statements' which can take a really great session down if one doesn't cut them in time. Thankfully rare but particularly unpleasant are personal attacks on speakers. Then, not having any questions can also be painful, so it is best to be prepared for all eventualities- have sufficient, but not endless time for the discussion. Have enough questions and topics to discuss even if there wasn't a single audience question and keep an eye on time to close promptly. Because of

The end

as that is what people remember and how they leave the room. A great session always feels to short- if you have to cut an exiting debate and have to tell people to please continue their discussion over coffee or over drinks *outside the room*- congratulations, that was amazing! And you achieved your goal to get people excited, interested and to carry the topic outside the room. The alternative, waiting until the very last question was asked and really no one has anything more to say is terribly deflating, everyone leaves the room ready to go to bed.... just as this is a poor ending to this paragraph ;).

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