What to know (and do) before covering a medical research conference

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: ACRM-Rehabilitation via Flickr

If you’ve covered medical research conferences for a while, you know the drill and probably have a variety of tips and tricks already internalized to ensure the experience and your reporting goes as smoothly as possible. If you’re thinking about starting to cover conferences, or preparing to cover your first one, it can be intimidating to know what to expect.

Taking several steps ahead of time — several weeks or months before the conference occurs — can make your life a dozen times easier once you arrive on site and become caught up in the frenzy of presentations and reporting deadlines.

I recently prepared for a conference that I had never previously attended on a subject I don’t typically cover. Despite those disadvantages, I had been to enough conferences to have a sense of what kind of preparation beforehand could make things easier once I arrived. Indeed, applying what I earlier figured out — mostly the hard way — made the experience less frenzied despite the usual overwhelming nature of a new conference.

I’ve compiled an AHCJ tip sheet of what to do before heading off to a conference to make your on-site reporting as efficient and as stress free as possible. Some of the tips should be obvious — such as studying the schedule and planning the sessions you’ll attend well before you arrive — but then again I’ve seen journalists try to wing it once they get there and become overwhelmed and frustrated as they miss out on sessions they didn’t realize were occurring. (Okay, by “some journalists,” I mean me on at least one or more occasions. Trust me, folks: no matter how good you are at improv, covering a conference isn’t the time to play it by ear.)

Other tips may be less obvious to newbies, such as checking all the days a particular speaker is available so that you can catch them on another day if you miss them the first time (or know they might not be around if they’re the type to stay only for the days they present).

Whether you’re a conference veteran interested in learning a new tip or totally green and planning for your first attendance, check out these tips for how best to prep.

2 thoughts on “What to know (and do) before covering a medical research conference

  1. Karen Blum

    Good advice, Tara! I would add the following:
    (1) Wear comfortable shoes — those convention centers are huge and you will spend a lot of time walking around/standing on your feet during poster presentations.
    (2) If you have time, case the posters *before* the actual poster presentation times so you have quiet time to review them, take pics on your cell phone or pick up printed copies and prioritize which stories are most newsworthy or who you want to interview. Once the session is on, it’s a mob scene.
    (3) If presenters at oral sessions don’t have their contact information on the slides or in the meeting app, rush the podium following the session to get their business cards. Always helpful for any follow-up questions.

  2. Aaron Levin

    Several more thoughts:
    –Go to PubMed ahead of the conference and look up the presenters’ recent work to get some background for the forthcoming talks.
    –Record the talks on your phone or a digital recorder. I don’t transcribe the entire session, but I use the recording to double check quotes or especially technical passages.
    –Use your phone (with shutter sound off) to shoot slides dense with data or bullet points. Yes, some conferences prohibit photography or recording, but most don’t. Check with the media relations people if you have questions.

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