The view from behind the stage curtain

Conferences are the lifeblood of many industries, and scholarly publishing is no different. They provide opportunities for learning, networking, catching up with old friends and making new ones. We always thank the organisers at the end of the conference, but do we really appreciate the amount of preparation and ongoing work needed to make these events run so smoothly?

I have attended the Researcher to Reader Conference in London many times, which is always an enjoyable event, masterfully put together and marshalled by Mark Carden, Ruby Sweeney and the conference team. For the first time, this year I had the privilege of co-facilitating one of the workshop tracks which runs throughout the conference, and which is a cornerstone of the interactive nature of the event.

As I reflect on the last two days during my early-morning Eurostar journey back to France, I can say that it has been one of the most rewarding and exhausting experiences of my professional life! Generally, I don’t get nervous speaking to an audience – like many in our industry, I am one of the introverts who is far less comfortable mingling informally during a coffee break or dinner. Ask me to give a presentation to an auditorium full of people and I am usually fine. But this week was a little different.

Sat on this train, I am also minded to remember an old friend of mine from my days in my native Yorkshire. We spent much of our 20s and 30s socialising together (getting drunk), playing cricket (badly) and generally winding each other up. He is now battling cancer, diagnosed out of the blue with few if any symptoms. One of my few regrets about now living in rural France is not being able to share a beer with him on a regular basis, or for us to watch Huddersfield Town snatch another comfortable defeat from the jaws of a nervous goalless draw. I won’t name my friend here for obvious reasons of privacy, but my thoughts are with him, his wife and their family. If he reads this and recognises himself, I hope he forgives my reflections here!

In the dim and increasingly distant past, my friend asked me and another of our close friends to be his co-best men for his wedding (my friend’s intended happened to be to another of my old friends, so I guess I played the role of matchmaker to some extent!). That was the last time, over 20 years ago, that I had felt so privileged, so nervous and so apprehensive about an event!

Part of the nerves and apprehension stemmed from the very nature of the event – the most important day of our friends’ lives to that point. It wasn’t helped by my co-best man deciding he didn’t need to prepare for the big day apart from turning up with a few corny old jokes (“what an emotional day… even the cake is in tiers” etc). We ended up having a heated conversation in the church graveyard before the nuptials took place, and we agreed that my laid-back non-collaborator should run with his ad-libbed routine while I added the odd bit of colour. In my nervous anger, I may have also suggested he go and commune intimately with himself whilst reflecting on his selfish approach. We got away with it, largely because everyone at a wedding wants the speeches to go well, aided by generous amounts of liquid goodwill. And afterwards, we were best of friends again.

Which brings me back to the last couple of days, and in fact the last couple of months since my workshop colleagues and I all agreed to develop and run one of this year’s conference workshops. Thankfully, compared to the random best man’s speech all those years ago, we gelled as a team and the collaborative process before and during the conference was a terrific experience.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the physical and emotional exhaustion of this week! At the end of each workshop session, knowing smiles and complimentary words from participants who have been involved in running these events themselves provided welcome solace, before my collaborators and I huddled around our notes and the group flipcharts to discuss how we segue into the next session.

Part of the nervous exhaustion on my part was perhaps in the responsibility of delivering a significant part of around 30 delegates’ conference experience. Although, compared to the immense amount of work needed by Mark and his team to keep the show on the road for 160+ participants over two packed days, we were only being asked to deliver around 18% of the conference experience for around 18% of the conference participants. Small beer in comparison!

As an old sales hack, I have used the well-worn ‘swan on a lake’ analogy too many times to mention when discussing a software solution with a potential client, waxing semi-lyrically about how a serene UX/UI belies a dizzying array of super-efficient moving parts beneath the water. I wouldn’t describe myself as super-efficient in any way, but I know that delivering what seems to have been a well-received workshop this week has involved a lot of flapping beneath the surface by the entire facilitation team!

I hope we gave the workshop participants plenty of space and time to have useful discussions, and I hope we provided a framework to help them work towards some meaningful outputs which can be taken forward as projects, actions or further conversations over the coming months.

Could we have done some things differently? Yes. On reflection, we should have been more prescriptive about the seating arrangements in each session, to ensure a better mix of perspectives in each group. Would that have impacted on the outputs? Maybe. And perhaps a bit more structure around our respective roles and responsibilities as facilitators would have been helpful. But that’s tricky when you come together as a group of industry peers for a specific project at relatively short notice. Overall, I think our collegiate approach over the last couple of months and this week has worked pretty well.

Would I volunteer to do this again? Absolutely… but please don’t ask me for a little while, I need to lie down in a darkened room for a few weeks!

Finally, my sincere thanks and appreciation to my workshop colleagues Alice, Lizzy, Tony and Chris; our fantastically engaged and supportive participants; and the expert conference team of Mark, Ruby and Jayne Marks, for making our lives easier and more enjoyable than they might have been without their guidance. We will be sharing the workshop outputs in some form in the near future – most likely as a blog post or whitepaper.

See you all at London Book Fair, which should be a breeze…