Conference fever



The author presenting in Brazil in 2014


This is conference season in the English Language Teaching world. Here’s some advice on making the most of the conferences you attend.

*Plan ahead

Going to an out-of-town biggie? Book your conference spot and your hotel early, scope out nearby restaurants (and bars?), and scour the programme for the unmissables. In other words, plan it like a military campaign.

*Forget FOMO

If there are simultaneous sessions, you need to decide whether to go to the one that:

(a) you’re interested in and already know a lot about;

(b) you know nothing about;

(c) has a presenter you want to see.

My rule of thumb is always go to at least one (b) session. That’s how you’ll learn. And try not to worry about FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). You can’t attend everything.

*Attention, please!

When you’re in a session, take a break from texting or checking emails. If the presentation is boring or below your level, write a running critique. Take notes on how you would have given the presentation differently. Or doodle discreetly.

*Relate to your context

Think about how the presentation relates to your day-to-day practice. What can you use immediately? What can you adapt? What won’t work for you? Why?

*One key point

Distill each presentation to one distinct message. This is what Americans sometimes call “the takeaway.” What was the speaker trying to say? Did they get their point across? If you can’t summarize the talk in one line, it was probably either amazingly comprehensive or a mess.


Fifty years ago Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message.” We learn a lot from the “how”, as well as the “what” of presenting. Look at how presenters use language, imagery, their voice, sequencing, humor, research, and format, to make a talk interesting. This can help your teaching and/or your own presenting skills.

*Ask a good question

Many talks end with a question-and-answer session. It’s a chance to engage with the speaker and the rest of the audience. It isn’t the place to show off your superior knowledge. Remember: a good question is an invitation to think. Presenters always appreciate good ones, especially if your question breaks the ice. So think of one that relates directly to something the presenter said, and have the courage to go first.

*Make it visual

Information needs to be processed through different channels. (Artificial Intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky: “You don’t learn anything if you only learn it one way.”) Many people take notes, but their notes function like cemeteries: everything is in straight lines; everything is in black and white; things get buried and never come out. Try making a non-linear diagrammatic representation of a talk, using just a few words as captions.

a visual representation of a talk:

a visual representation of a talk:

*Say ‘thank you’!

If you can, thank the speakers immediately after their talk. Most of them probably aren’t getting paid much, if at all. A complimentary email also does the trick. If you get the chance, thank the organizers, too. Putting together a conference is a ton of work usually for no reward except professional satisfaction.

*Meet people

Conferences are social events. They are a chance to network and share stories. Some people hand out business cards; others chat to strangers during coffee breaks. You never know who you’ll meet. I’ve heard dozens of stories of writers fortuitously meeting editors or school owners coming across potential Directors of Studies in the lunch queue. Go for it!

*Visit the booths

Check out the latest books. Consider this a way to update yourself on what’s going on in the publishing side of the industry. And don’t miss publishers’ raffles, book signings, parties, or other free events.


The best way to learn something is to teach it. When you return to your school, teach your colleagues what you learned from the conference. It will force you to re-process and repackage the information and it will clarify in your mind what was relevant to your own teaching context.

*Giving a presentation?

That’s a post for another day.

Enjoy conference season.

2 Comments on “Conference fever”

  1. chukaiwa  says:

    Enjoyed that! Thank you. As a presenter myself, the reminder about the “takeaway” was (and always is!) a good one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s