Getting the Most out of Scientific Conferences

Rodrigo Pérez Ortega

The first time Nick Mulcahy covered a scientific meeting, in 1998, he felt like a tiny boat bobbing in rough seas, with no compass on board. It was a cancer meeting, and the session titles were mostly indecipherable to him. Mulcahy couldn’t make heads or tails out of the presentations. “I was completely flummoxed,” he remembers. On top of being mystified by the scientific content, he was also clueless about the process of reporting from a meeting. He didn’t know whether to sit in the front or the back of the room. He had no recorder. And his notes were a mess: He didn’t talk to anyone or ask any questions—he just relied on comments from the podium.

After a few hours, in an act of self-preservation, Mulcahy found a pay phone and called his editor in Maryland. She laughed out loud when she heard how panicked Mulcahy was. But at that point, there wasn’t much she could do to help. “My first meeting assignment produced nothing but a lot of anxiety,” he recalls.

Now a senior journalist at Medscape, Mulcahy attends about half a dozen cancer meetings a year and writes an average of six to ten stories from each. “Reporting from a meeting is overwhelming, even for experienced reporters,” he says. But with experience and practice, he has developed several strategies—from how he does prep research to how he chooses sessions to attend and takes advantage of gadgets and social media­—that help ensure he’ll come away with captivating stories without losing too much sleep. “The more you do it,” says Mulcahy, “the better you get at it and the less overwhelming it gets.”

Advance Work

Perhaps the biggest key to successful meeting coverage is to begin preparing well in advance of the event. There’s no single best way of doing so—every scientific conference is different. “My strategy varies depending on the meeting and the technicality of the meeting,” says Kelly Servick, a staff writer at Science who regularly covers biology, medicine, and biotechnology meetings.

Journalists who are experienced at meeting coverage agree that the first and most important step is to go over the program weeks in advance, scanning abstracts to learn who will be attending, what topics will be discussed, and what the breadth and depth of the subject matter will be. Only then can you pick sessions to attend and prioritize them. (Remember to check out both talks and poster sessions.) Wading through the program book can be “enough to make your head swim,” Mulcahy says, but it’s the only way to get oriented and plan successful coverage.

 

 

Don’t stop at reading the program before the meeting begins, though. “Talk to as many people as you can,” Mulcahy advises.

Servick agrees. For large meetings with lots of concurrent sessions, she often calls session chairs or speakers to narrow down her options and create a ranked list of one to three sessions for each time slot. For smaller meetings with fewer sessions, she says, she tends to do less prep work but may still interview the organizer ahead of time to get a sense for the meeting’s overall aim.

Don’t forget to use your editor as a resource. Especially if you are not familiar with the field at a conference you’re attending, or if you’re not sure what angles to cover, ask for specific direction.

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Another key part of advance planning is contacting scientists you want to interview ahead of time, so they can make time in their schedule for you during the upcoming meeting. You can also ask fellow journalists who have more experience on the beat for guidance in advance of the meeting—though be aware that it’s not fair to ask them to give away the story angles they’re planning to pursue. Mulcahy also suggests that conference newbies study how veteran reporters cover meetings. “Go to their websites and read their stories, and copy their stylings,” he says. “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. If you do this long enough, you will develop style of your own.”

Should You Follow the Crowd?

Major meetings normally employ public information officers (PIOs) to put together a press program that includes news releases and sometimes briefings on the most important or newsworthy studies being presented at the meeting. “Good stories are more hit-and-miss than when a good PIO has made some advance information available to guide reporters,” says Harvey Leifert, former public information manager for the American Geophysical Union and now a freelance journalist.

“If that is in place, the job is so much easier,” Mulcahy agrees. A press program also gives you easy access to authors and outside experts without having to chase them after a panel. “It expedites the process,” he says.

PIOs can help bridge “the journalistic and the academic world at meetings,” says Ana Claudia Nepote González, communications coordinator at Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores Unidad Morelia in Mexico. In addition to organizing a formal press program, she notes, meeting PIOs can also help journalists locate and line up interviews with scientist sources, even if they’re not included in the press program. After all, PIOs are the expert organizers of the meeting, so they know what’s going on first hand. Journalists can make use of their expertise by asking for suggestions based on their publications’ needs and interests.

But it’s smart to think of a press program simply as an aid, not a replacement for enterprising reporting. For one thing, organizations, program committees, and PIOs have biases, and in some cases, conflicts of interest, that can color what goes into the press program. And PIOs may simply leave some of the best story ideas out of their press program. “My level of reliance on a press program depends on whether it contains actual breaking news briefings,” says Servick. If a press program contains only “timely topic panels,” she’s more inclined to go find her own stories.

Some journalists steer clear of meetings’ press programs altogether. “[PIOs] know what stories they want to tell, and they make it very easy for journalists” to tell those stories, says freelance journalist Aleszu Bajak. “It’s a waste of time if you’re chasing what the rest of the herd is chasing.”

 

 

Best Seat in the House

Where you sit during meeting sessions makes a difference—and your first question shouldn’t be “Where am I comfortable?” but rather “Where will I get the best reporting done?”

“I always sit in the front row,” says Bajak. “I don’t understand why journalists would sit in the back.” Being in front is important if you want to take photos during the session—either of the panelists or of the slides—for future reference.

Planting yourself in front also means you can turn around and read the name tags of people who speak up during the Q&A portion of a session. Since the people who ask questions are often working in the same field as presenters, they can often be the best sources to comment on the presentation. Finally, being in the front of the room ensures you can be the first person to approach panelists when they come down from the podium at the end.

At the same time, bear in mind that some sessions might not yield good stories. If you suspect you might not stay for the entire session, you might decide to sit in the back or on the edge of a row in case you decide to abandon the session.

Taking Good Notes

Every journalist has different preferences for taking good notes at scientific meetings. Bajak uses a reporter’s notebook; Mulcahy take notes in an unlined sketchbook. Bajak uses his iPhone’s Voice Memos app to record talks; Mulcahy uses a digital recorder with an external microphone. Both Bajak and Mulcahy say that when they hear a nice quote, or when a speaker starts to talk about something important, they jot time stamps in their notebooks so they can go back and relisten to the relevant parts. “I don’t even listen to most of the tape,” says Mulcahy. “I just go to the time points and listen to those.”

Other journalists prefer to use a laptop or a tablet instead of taking notes on paper. Servick takes notes on her laptop and records the talk with the Microsoft Word (for Mac) audio notes function, which records the audio in the room using the machine’s built-in microphone and makes digital time stamps as the user types in notes (other programs that sync audio with typed text include Microsoft OneNote, Pear Note [available only for Mac and iOS], and Notability]). If she needs to revisit something quickly, she can click that section of her notes and the program plays back the audio that was recorded when she was typing that material. “It’s a pretty decent system,” she says.

It’s Okay to Jump Ship

There is no shame in leaving a session if it’s too complicated or if the material seems dull or otherwise unlikely to engage your publication’s audience. “You get to a certain point, where you’re still processing what they were saying five minutes ago and they’ve already moved on,” says Servick. “There’s a certain hopelessness that ensues at that point, and I’ve definitely cut and run from sessions before, just because I thought my time would be better spent starting over and tying a different session.”

Servick says she typically decides to bail out on a session if:

  • The subject matter turns out to be highly technical and without obvious broad implications, or “is generally putting me to sleep.”
  • She’s so profoundly confused that she thinks it’s unlikely she’ll be able to catch up, even if she can snag the speaker for a few minutes after the talk.
  • There’s another session or talk about to start that sounds more promising.

Servick also carries a Sony digital recorder, just in case her laptop dies. When she wants to ask a panelist a question after a talk is over, she uses a Livescribe smartpen, which records audio while she writes in a special notebook that converts handwritten notes to type and also syncs with audio. Later, she can see the notes on the computer and click to listen to the synchronized audio.

Leifert mostly takes notes on his iPad mini, using an external keyboard and the Notability app. He often revisits audio when reviewing his notes, slowing down the replay to type full quotes accurately, he says.

Other note-taking apps and programs that rank among journalists’ favorites include Evernote, Penultimate, Google Keep, and iOS Notes, all of which sync notes between digital platforms, so you can take notes on one device and revisit them on another. Another option is Cogi, a clever phone app that keeps audio in a buffer; when you hear something important, you can tap the screen and Cogi backs up to record the last 15 seconds and keeps going until you tap the screen again.

Meeting Coverage by Hashtag

Social media, and Twitter in particular, is also a powerful tool when covering conferences with several concurrent sessions. You can’t be everywhere at once, but Twitter allows you to follow what’s going on—and see whether the grass is greener—in other sessions.

Most meetings—and sometimes even individual sessions—have an official hashtag, so looking for quotes, session photos, and potential story angles is easier than ever. (It should go without saying that if you quote a researcher based on someone else’s Twitter feed, it’s essential to independently verify that the quote is accurate.)

With so much information being presented, “Twitter helps you find the needles in the haystack,” says Mulcahy. “What people are really doing is putting the spotlight on things for you.” Twitter can also act like “a public, virtual notebook, where I can refer to my own tweets,” says Bajak.

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More Than News

Covering a scientific meeting can be an opportunity not just to report on new results, but also to build your network and get scientists to trust you, says Nepote González. Meetings are also a kind of early warning system for studies coming down the pike. Some scientific studies presented at conferences are still in progress, and learning about them at that stage gives you a chance to connect with the scientists doing the work, understand the context for the research, and ask to be alerted when the completed study is accepted for publication.

Besides being a source of scientific results, meetings can also offer glimpses into other aspects of the scientific life. Mulcahy, for example, recalls a talk at an oncology meeting during which a prominent doctor unexpectedly revealed his HIV status and the stigma he had faced. For Mulcahy, the moment lent unexpected personal resonance to a story that might otherwise have felt entirely academic. “Always be looking for a story,” Mulcahy says. “We are more than just data reporters. Of course, sometimes that’s all we have time for, but the job is a lot more interesting if you can find the politics or the human drama at hand. And it is always there.”

Other important and telling events can happen outside the lecture halls. At another meeting Mulcahy attended, an activist group of patients protested outside the meeting venue, and he was the only journalist that covered it.

At most meetings there is also a social program that includes receptions, award ceremonies, dinners, and parties. “They don’t usually generate straight news stories, but they can lead to more casual and frank conversations, and connect me with new sources I can follow up with later on,” says Servick. At medical meetings, Mulcahy also tries to engage with patients who attend such events. “It gives meaning and heart to all of the technical terms,” he says.

 

Rodrigo Pérez OrtegaCourtesy of Rodrigo Pérez Ortega

Rodrigo Pérez Ortega

Rodrigo Pérez Ortega is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He is a freelance science writer from Mexico City. He’s passionate about neuroscience and health journalism, and has been a contributor at TecReview, Medscape en Español, ¿cómo ves?, and others. His work has been published in English and Spanish, and he works continuously to raise awareness about science and science journalism in Latin America. Follow him on Twitter @rpocisv.

One Comment

  1. Meredith Walker says:

    Thanks for this article! I’m attending my first big meeting as a science writer, not scientist and I needed ideas on how to get the most out of it.

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