Conference content: time to change our mindset?

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Conferences are where some of the most exciting, cutting-edge research gets presented – often for the very first time. As medical research charities, we have an opportunity to share these advances with our audiences, to tell them how research is making a difference in people’s lives. 

But with so much to talk about in a short space of time, how can we make the most of this opportunity? How can we keep our supporters updated with everything that’s happening?

I think this is the wrong question – and in this blog, I’ll explain why.


The problem that I see when it comes to reporting from scientific conferences is a matter of mindset – we have a Conference Mindset when we should really have a Content Mindset.

Let me explain.

The Conference Mindset says…

  • The conference is the most important thing right now
  • Other things happening in the charity are not our concern while at the conference
  • Everything that happens at this conference is important, and so needs to be relayed
  • We need to focus on the people presenting – no one else matters
  • It all has to happen right now during the conference (or at least very shortly afterwards)
  • All about the deadlines, and the quantity of stuff we get out.

The Content Mindset says

  • Our audience is the most important thing right now, and always
  • Other things happening in the wider charity are important too
  • Some of the stories unfolding here are perfect for our audience – but not everything
  • Stories don’t just come from presentations but can come from attendees too
  • No need to rush – we can spend time fleshing out a story later
  • All about quality, rather than quantity or the deadline of the conference.

The Conference Mindset is a bad place to be. It can result in poor-quality content for your audience and missed opportunities. And though it feels exciting to run on adrenaline (and conference coffee), it can also lead to stress and burn out. 

The Content Mindset sees a conference in a different way – that a conference isn’t a conference at all, but an opportunity to gather new stories and ideas.  

What kind of content is best?

What I’m not saying is that short-term content – the stuff that happens during or immediately after – isn’t worth doing. I am saying that the content you produce has to be matched to the audience.

Let’s look at it like this: The Conference Mindset leads to something akin to a 24-hour news channel – reporting on the facts. right here, right now. While, the Content Mindset leads to something more like a TV documentary – following a story further, exploring the context, hearing from different characters. 

Neither one is ‘better’ than the other, they both have their uses. But currently, at conferences, I think charities focus too much on the ‘breaking news’ type content and assume that’s what supporters want. In doing so, we miss opportunities to produce interesting and exciting stories. 

I know this because I’ve done it myself – scrambling to get out as much stuff as possible, without really thinking about why.

Yes, we could put out a blog about the ‘top five things from the conference’. But look at it another way – instead of rushing to put out one blog with five stories crammed in it, why not take our time and put out five really great blogs that do each of those stories justice?

Short- and long-term content from conferences

What could we be doing? Let’s look at the different types of short- and long-term content we could be producing instead. 

Short-term content

There’s one type of content that a lot of charities tend to produce at conferences. It includes live-tweeting, videos reporting, and round-up blogs – either daily or end-of-conference. 

As I said in my blog about live-tweeting from conferences, this type of reporting is more suitable for conference attendees – people who are at the conference already, or who would be there but can’t. For research conferences, this could be scientists, health professionals, or laypeople with a special interest (e.g. patient advocates)

This kind of live coverage, reporting on the facts, is perfect for them. And again, I’m not saying this isn’t worth doing. But remember who this is really is for. 

What about your lay audience? Supporters, people affected by a health problem, the wider public. What do they need?

Try as we might, this kind of short-term content isn’t suitable for the lay audience. I think it’s unlikely they’ll be chained to their smartphone or laptop watching your updates on Twitter. Or running to get home from work to make sure they catch your round-up from Day 2 of the Conference. Sorry. 

The kind of short-term conference content that will mean most to them will be related to what they hear in the news. Research presented at the conference will either be press-released or picked up by journalists at the meeting.

While this might not be ‘your’ content, you still have an opportunity (and sometimes, a responsibility) to get your point of view across to your audience. 

For example, let’s say a researcher presents the latest results from a clinical trial. The findings get picked up by journalists and reported on the evening news bulletins. You can now respond to that by putting together an expert comment (and/or a quick blog if you need). This will make sure that your lay audience knows what you think about the news. This kind of thing does need to be done fairly quickly, while it’s still in the news, otherwise, the opportunity has been missed,

Long-term content

Longer-term content is where you can really focus on your ‘lay audiences’. The key to this is to think of conferences as places to gather ideas and stories.

A couple of different ideas for sources:

  • Conference presentations: This includes the cutting-edge research announcements, but also debates and ‘big-picture’ sessions looking at the current state of the field, or the future direction
  • People at the conference, but who aren’t presenting: your favourite researcher or patient advocate might not be presenting, but they might still be there. Why not sit down with them and ask them about their current work? 

You can also think more strategically about what’s happening at your charity, and how you can support that. Consider this: hundreds of people connected to your cause are going to be in the same room for the next couple of days. Researchers you fund, big-name researchers who you never get to meet in person, healthcare professionals, and maybe patients too. Use this opportunity wisely!

The content you might be able to gather at a conference could include:

  • Thank you videos from your researchers to supporters. This could be general, targeted for a specific donor, or related for a specific event (e.g. thanking your London Marathon runners).
  • Decent photos of your researchers to use at a later date, or ‘stock photography’ of workshop sessions (if appropriate and with permission). Or even photos for a mass participation fancy dress day you’ve got coming up – be that Christmas jumpers, silly hats, or feather boas. 
  • Quick quotes from your funded researchers as to why other researchers should apply to your next grant funding round
  • Marketing materials e.g. good quotes from researchers or patients about why research is so important.

How do we plan this?

“Yikes Richard, this seems like a lot!”. Ok, I’ll admit it does. But hopefully, you get my point – conferences can be so much more than reporting back session by session. 

Here are a few starting points to help you plan get into the Content Mindset and execute this strategy.

Before the conference

two people with laptops and a pad of paper

What’s being presented?

  • News stuff: try and find out what (if anything) is being press-released by the conference, or anything you expect will hit the headlines. Prepare comments in advance if you can. Accept that you might have to do this on the fly, and work with PR colleagues to come up with a plan
  • Non-news stuff: Have a look through the programme. What talks look interesting, and definitely worth going to? (Accept you might not identify everything beforehand.)

Who is attending the conference?

  • Your funded researchers – whether they are presenting or not.  
  • Other researchers that you aren’t connected to (e.g. big-name international researchers you’d love to meet)
  • Lay people you’d like to meet, such as patient advocates or supporters

Book in time

  • Related to the news stuff (i.e. things are being press-released) – do you need to book in time with the featured researchers? (The press release will usually explain how to do this).  
  • If there are people you need to speak to, book time in advance – don’t count on bumping into them!
  • Even if there’s no one you specifically want to meet, consider a ‘social’ event – take some people out for a coffee, a drink or dinner. 

What else is happening at your charity?

And how could you best support that? For example:

  • Research – do you need a speaker for a talk? A host for a lab tour? More applicants for an upcoming grant round?
  • Fundraising – can researchers record a thank you video? Are you looking for a case-study for your next fundraising appeal?
  • Marketing – do you need a patient or a scientist for a magazine article, or publicity campaign? 

Content plan – get organised

  • What short-term content will you be doing at the conference? (e.g. live-tweeting, round-up blogs etc)
  • Is there anything you might need to respond to (i.e. news)?
  • What stories do you hope to gather for later on? Come up with a target e.g. four really great stories. 
  • What other activities (e.g. filming/photography/quote gathering) will you be doing, and when?

During the conference

an auditorium with people watching a conference

If there’s more than one of you, have a plan for who is going to do what. For example, if there are two people, one person can focus on short-term content, and the other doing ‘story gathering’. Swap over if the conference goes on for more than one day.

I’ve already shared my top tips for live-coverage of conferences in this blog.

Here are a few ideas for story-gathering:

  • Think about your audience – e.g. supporters and people affected by the condition. What would they want to know? What are they most likely to be interested in?
  • Keep an open mind – something that might not have seemed interesting in the programme might turn out to be fascinating when it’s being presented.
  • Ask other people – Let other attendees be your eyes and ears for talks you couldn’t go to. Over a coffee break, you could ask someone what talk they’re most looking forward to, or the best / most surprising talk they’ve seen. 
  • Keep an eye on Twitter conference hashtag – what are people tweeting about the most?  What’s getting people fired up? 
  • Use the opportunity – If an interesting story pops up at the conference, see if you can quickly grab the researcher(s) involved. You can arrange a time to have a chat, either at the conference or afterwards. 

After the conference

two people discussing a project

Have a debrief. Gather together the ideas for stories. What are the most exciting ones? Is there any part of the story is missing? What are you going to do next with them? Who are you going to speak to? 

For content created at the conference (e.g. thank you videos) what needs to happen with them next?  

Remember – aside from the research which hits the headlines, YOU get to choose when you update your supporters on exciting things that happen at the conference. By changing your mindset around the conference to think about collecting stories – rather than rapid-fire reporting – you can make sure that your audience knows how research is improving people’s lives.

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