Enhanced Conferencing: Some Lessons from Our “Put Butts in the Bleachers” Contest

by Tom Critchfield (Illinois State University) and Derek Reed (Institutes for Behavioral Resources, Inc.)

In a recent series of posts, we mentioned that the professional conference hasn’t changed much in several hundred years. We proposed, about 51% whimsically and 49% seriously, that conferences might borrow tricks of the trade from barnstorming baseball teams to spice up their offerings.

Specifically, we mentioned these three strategies (described here in conferencing terms):

  • Sideshow: Fun/enjoyable stuff that has nothing specifically to do with the conference agenda, but you get to experience it if you attend the conference.
  • Fans first:  On some kind of intermittent schedule, arrange personalized special experiences for individual patrons who show up at the conference.
  • Modified rules: Change selected aspects of how conferences operate, so they can achieve their core goals in a more exciting and entertaining way.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of our discussion, we described examples of these techniques in baseball. In Part 3 we suggested that the same techniques could be applied to spicing up the professional conference, and we announced our contest, in which we invited readers to submit ideas, fanciful or serious, for making conferences better. It’s now time to examine the contest results.

Overview of the Entries

We received 34 convention-upgrade suggestions, in most cases from people with quite a bit of convention experience. We’re grateful to everyone who took the time to weigh in, and sorry that space doesn’t permit reproducing all of the entries.

Although we had a bit of fun with designing the contest, we expected to receive mostly serious suggestions that would fall under the Modified Rules category described above. That was partially correct. By our count exactly half of the entries in some way addressed the experience of consuming conference presentations. Consistent with our assertion that the professional conference has failed to evolve enough over its centuries-long history, presentations were frequently portrayed as too long and passive, with some solutions, in the spirit of our “Modified Rules” category of innovations, including changes like these:

  • Speed networking events where everyone talks to someone new every 2 minutes. Food and drinks and lounge seating with more of a living room feel in small sections. Attendees stay in their seats, but presenters move from group to group.
  • Fireside chats with big names instead of symposia.
  • Increase audience interaction through tools like ParticiPoll.
  • Shorter symposium talks with 45 minutes of discussion after.

The majority of the entries, however, were in the spirit of our “Fans First” and “Sideshow” categories of innovations. Many aimed to boost the entertainment value of presentations, but in ways that some of you may regard as frivolous. In parsing these, it may be useful to focus less on topography and more on function: Details aside, the authors of proposals like these are telling us that the same old/same old of conventions is not working for them. In some cases, they just want presenters to be less stiff and dull:

  • Require emeritus members to give one talk while playing 5 minutes of table tennis, indoor golf (mad men style), or shooting into a door mounted basketball hoop somewhere on the stage. Set the demand by duration or tell them they can’t stop until they score a certain number of points.
  • Problem: Our conferences are mind-numbingly passive. Solution: All invited speakers are required to act out at least a portion of their talk instead of using words, like a huge scientific game of charades! Audience members guess the take home points that are acted out and win prizes for success. These parts of the talk that are acted out could be strategically lined up wit the learning objectives for the talk (just sayin’), cuz who even knows the learning objectives for any of those things anyway?
  • Problem: Boring talks. Solution: Fun with Formats. Accepted presentations are assigned a particular format they must adhere to (i.e. Iambic pentamer, haiku, etc.). Talks are identified in the program by format, not topic.
  • Problem: Conference and talks are too stuffy. Solution: Stuff the stuffiness. All talks are delivered via hand puppets.

In other cases, entrants clearly long for sessions that are more interactive than the traditional I-talk-you-listen presentation.

  • Problem: Talks are mostly boring and people want to be on social media instead. Solution: gamify the entire conference through an app that encourages people to post as much as possible while at the event. Selfies, pictures with your besties, your favorite behavior analysts, kissing that blue bear in front of the Denver convention center – nothing is off the table (well, I suppose a few things should be off the table). Instead of frowning upon our obsession with social media, just own it and encourage people to share everything and anything from that platform. Rewards at the end of the conference for the most creative selfie, highest number of pictures with Ph.D. behavior analysts, etc.
  • Create a call for spoof submissions (posters, panels, etc.). These will be seeded into the program and attendees will be encouraged to find as many in the wild as possible. The largest number of true positives wins a fun prize AND the largest numbers of false positives (lol whoops sorry your real talk sounds real silly) gets a prize as well.
  • Fans first: Develop a big sib/little sib program whereby [attendees] get paired with a “big sib” from the field and they get to …. sit in the front row of their presentations/ get to make them play drinking games at the bar / get to guest present during their talk / select outfits for the big sib to wear / get invited to all the cool lunches the big sib goes to.
  • Problem: Lack of attention at talks. Solution: Trivia treasure hunt. Speakers embed phrases, quotes, etc. in their talks according to a pre-selected theme (e.g., 60s rock lyrics, Star Wars dialogue, dystopic science fiction novels). Audience members who correctly identify the most of these trivia treasures get prizes.
  • Supply each conference room with a jukebox and audience members can select the background songs for the presentation. Again, possibly judged by an umpire who awards a fancy hat for the audience member who selects the best matched song for the presentation (“Increasing autoclitics in 3rd graders with ID” = Bonnie Raitt’s “something to talk about”) The same can go for poster session, or you can add flash mob karaoke to the poster session.

And then there were proposals that, in various ways, would allow conference attendees to feel more involved and/or less anonymous outside of formal sessions.

  • School swag day where everyone dresses up in swag/colors of their alma mater.
  • Reserve several locations of the conference site for “guerilla found art” and allow people to build (solo or in groups) found art using only items given away at the expo booths. Post every day so people can see the evolution, prizes for tallest, widest, and most kinetic sculptures.
  • “ABAI member since (year)” on name tags.
  • Reserve a portion of the gallery in the expo for “behavior analytic shitposts” including ridiculously simplistic or hilariously inept figures and drawings found in real behavior analytic texts.

A Comment

It would be a mistake to dismiss the contest entries as simply good fun.

We are embarrassed to admit how much time we spend in bars at conferences, but this gives us a special perspective on the entries, because in bar conversations — and we’ve participated in a LOT of them — it’s almost de rigueur to unload on the terrible presentations you’ve heard and to complain about the long days of too much sitting. Pretty much everyone we know agrees that behavior analysis conferences are a lousy experience, which is an odd observation for a discipline that supposedly specializes in learning and behavior management.

Once you think about conferences through the lens of behavior, there’s a lot to talk about. Watch for a future post on this theme.

And The Winner Is….


You didn’t think we’d announce a winner without the print version of a drum roll, did you? Click here to see how the judges ruled.