The ingredients of a great conference #WILTW

This is the 172nd #WILTW

I am returning from the inaugural “Don’t Forget the Bubbles” conference (#DFTB17). Devised by the team who host the website of the same name, this three day paediatric conference held in Brisbane delivered humour, tears and great education in equal measure. There is always a danger of eulogising the impact of an event you’ve recently enjoyed. The metaphorical social media ‘bubble’ re-inforcing a perhaps rose-tinted view of events. There’s also a bias in that it is much easier to share thoughts on events you have enjoyed than it is to publically criticise something you haven’t. Because of this I wanted to reflect on the core elements that made it special. Are there common themes of all great conferences, regardless of their underlying content?

So here are my suggested ingredients of a great conference. The recipe itself (i.e. the amounts and the way they are mixed together) is more elusive but I suspect influenced, perhaps in intangible ways, by the organising committee.

Consolidate knowledge 

I used to believe that conferences should always focus on new innovations but there is value in looking at common practice in new ways. Certainly no-one wants to listen to someone explaining their job to them, especially if they do it in a boring and non-engaging fashion. There is real benefit though in having personal practices challenged or affirmed. This may include ‘labelling’ the components of a particular approach or procedure in a way you may not have considered before. This aids understanding and also the ability to explain your own work to others in a more objective fashion.

While analogies can be over used, and sometimes simply contrived, they are a powerful way of changing the lens in which you see your own, or others, work. An example used at the conference was the instagram filter or facebook bias. When implementing change or delivering a project there are many things that happen that don’t go to plan or go disastrously wrong. These are often essential to the projects and are an important area of learning but like the blood and meconium staining of the freshly delivered baby they are often not the pictures the wider world see. We have a tendency to share the end product and its success, not the tears of frustration in the middle.


The audience probably should leave feeling they have new knowledge to apply. They don’t have to remember all the detail (a skill in the digital age is for presenters to provide sources of information for delegates to refer post event) but should leave feeling there is something in their practice they could change. For example the session on medical simulation provided a whole host of new techniques and approaches to try:


Put a speaker on a stage and let them talk.

While centuries of pedagogical practice are unlikely to change any time soon, there are other things that can be done at conference. The conference team experimented with an on-stage panel, led by a chair, who performed a review of 4 recent papers. As a panel member I really enjoyed the debate and it was nice seeing how the spontaneous nature of the session allowed unexpected variations in practice to emerge. I’ll be honest and say I think there is work to be done on how we can prepare and engage the audience more effectively. But you don’t know these things until you try. I hope the audience will constructively support, with their feedback, improvements and will be willing to try new presentation formats in the future.

Utilise a range of subject experts

In the case of this conference it was the use of children themselves. This is a potentially risky strategy but was handled with sensitivity and extensive parent engagement. As Liz Crowe highlighted in a lecture during the conference we are sheltering children too much from the real world, and as parents, too often make decision for them rather than with them. The use of patients is not without problems but led by #MedX, patient and public involvement in medical conferences will become increasingly common.

Provide a safe platform for difficult conversations

Some of the themes at DFTB17 were honest, raw and personal. Although it wasn’t explicitly acknowledged a culture was definitely present to allow a space for these difficult subjects to be discussed. There are very few medical specialties where ethics, morals or communication are not a fundamental part of clinical practice so facilitating this space should be considered at all events.

Allow people to laugh and cry

Related to the above is the importance of bringing the audience with you and extracting an emotional response from them. While 20 sessions of comedy followed by 20 tear jerkers is probably a bit much there is something powerful about shared emotion, both with the presenter but also with your fellow delegates. If nothing else I left #DFTB17 feeling part of a community, many of whom I didn’t get a chance to speak to, but with whom I felt I had a shared experience.

Listen, acknowledge (and respond where appropriate) to feedback in realtime

The organizing team sent out online feedback forms after each day. Obviously only a certain percentage of delegates responded but the team (having previously vowed not to look at them during the event!) were able to pick up immediate issues. They made themselves open and approachable and used twitter feeds effectively to respond to real time issues of capacity in break out sessions.

So thank you to the team. I look forward to #DFTB18 and perhaps a more complete recipe for the instructions.

What have you learnt this week? #WILTW

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