How to Make a Scientific Conference More Engaging

PCMA Catalyst community members shared some ideas on how to shake up scientific conference sessions. PCMA’s Catalyst community offers members a platform to ask each other questions, share ideas, or, as the website says, “communicate and collaborate.” Here’s a sampling from a recent Catalyst discussion. “I work for a nonprofit scientific society in behavioral medicine and we have one annual in-person meeting with about 2,000 attendees,” Angela Burant, meetings manager for Executive Director Inc., told the PCMA Catalyst community. “We are trying to think of new, innovative things to do at the meeting other than the typical symposia, keynotes, panels, posters, and paper sessions. This year, in place of some sessions, we are doing debates. We have thought about doing IGNITE-style presentations as well. Does anyone have other innovative ideas they would be willing to share to make a scientific conference more engaging? Or does anyone know of some good resources to look at for how to improve a scientific conference? Any suggestions would be appreciated!” We are going through the same process. We are looking to add some interactive sessions that will stimulate more networking and conversation (think ASAE-style sessions). One idea I saw online was taking the normal paper presentation slot of 30 minutes and offering a 10-10-10 session — 10 minutes of presentation, 10 minutes of discussion at your table, and 10 minutes of sharing your conversations with the rest of the room. — Barry Schieferstein, Director, Conferences and Meetings, American Society for Nondestructive Testing This is not really a presentation format, but I have a health-care association client that employed the TikTok model for a demo and competition of a procedure. There were teams of doctors and they all presented in a TikTok fashion and then the audience voted and selected the best one. It was great fun and did a great job of engaging attendees. Happy to discuss further if you would like more information. — Barbara Kay, DES, President, BKay Consulting LLC Two formats spring to mind: Meet the speaker sessions, where a small group of attendees can have a more in-depth discussion about a presenter’s research. Campfire sessions [that involve] brainstorming new research topics and methodologies between interested parties. — Rob Eveleigh, Managing Director, Brightelm A Shark Tank–style competition. Pre-event, put out a call for potential contestants to submit their new research/innovation in your field. Select a handful of finalists and have them pitch their submission to a panel of “judges” live during your general session — have your production team incorporate slick video transitions and audio cues to ratchet up the drama gameshow-style. Judges [can] ask questions and debate the merits of each pitch. Ultimately, judges vote and select the best, most innovative, or most impactful winner for a prize — better yet, crowdsource the votes using ARS/polling and let your attendees pick the winning pitch. — Mark Decker, Executive Director, Client Relations, MB4 Productions

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scientific conference

scientific conference

PCMA Catalyst community members shared some ideas on how to shake up scientific conference sessions.

PCMA’s Catalyst community offers members a platform to ask each other questions, share ideas, or, as the website says, “communicate and collaborate.” Here’s a sampling from a recent Catalyst discussion.

“I work for a nonprofit scientific society in behavioral medicine and we have one annual in-person meeting with about 2,000 attendees,” Angela Burant, meetings manager for Executive Director Inc., told the PCMA Catalyst community. “We are trying to think of new, innovative things to do at the meeting other than the typical symposia, keynotes, panels, posters, and paper sessions. This year, in place of some sessions, we are doing debates. We have thought about doing IGNITE-style presentations as well. Does anyone have other innovative ideas they would be willing to share to make a scientific conference more engaging? Or does anyone know of some good resources to look at for how to improve a scientific conference? Any suggestions would be appreciated!”


We are going through the same process. We are looking to add some interactive sessions that will stimulate more networking and conversation (think ASAE-style sessions). One idea I saw online was taking the normal paper presentation slot of 30 minutes and offering a 10-10-10 session — 10 minutes of presentation, 10 minutes of discussion at your table, and 10 minutes of sharing your conversations with the rest of the room.

— Barry Schieferstein, Director, Conferences and Meetings, American Society for Nondestructive Testing


This is not really a presentation format, but I have a health-care association client that employed the TikTok model for a demo and competition of a procedure. There were teams of doctors and they all presented in a TikTok fashion and then the audience voted and selected the best one. It was great fun and did a great job of engaging attendees. Happy to discuss further if you would like more information.

— Barbara Kay, DES, President, BKay Consulting LLC


Two formats spring to mind:

  • Meet the speaker sessions, where a small group of attendees can have a more in-depth discussion about a presenter’s research.
  • Campfire sessions [that involve] brainstorming new research topics and methodologies between interested parties.

— Rob Eveleigh, Managing Director, Brightelm


A Shark Tank–style competition. Pre-event, put out a call for potential contestants to submit their new research/innovation in your field. Select a handful of finalists and have them pitch their submission to a panel of “judges” live during your general session — have your production team incorporate slick video transitions and audio cues to ratchet up the drama gameshow-style. Judges [can] ask questions and debate the merits of each pitch. Ultimately, judges vote and select the best, most innovative, or most impactful winner for a prize — better yet, crowdsource the votes using ARS/polling and let your attendees pick the winning pitch.

— Mark Decker, Executive Director, Client Relations, MB4 Productions

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