Never enough meetings – the conference team

Event organising

Comprised of four PhD students, an ECR, and a member of non-academic staff, our team of six was well suited to the interdisciplinary nature of the conference and different members were able to take the lead on different aspects of planning. Undertaking conference organising is a huge task, there are so many different jobs to be done from locating funding and writing applications, designing and running the website, marketing, running social media accounts, keeping on top of emails, reviewing abstracts, organising keynote speakers, and scheduling the event. In short, there are so many tasks to be completed before the event even begins! It is therefore vital to have a committee with a wide range of skills and experience to take on the various roles and to have excellent communication between the team.

Keeping in contact – meetings, messages, and planning

With members working on different aspects of planning, many meetings need to take place and actions recorded. This ensures that all the work is equally dispersed across the committee. Our committee kept in regular contact using Facebook Messenger. We found we could easily get hold of each other quickly to ask for advice on issues –including tricky emails, submitting last-minute funding applications or double-checking certain jobs were being handled by a member of the team.

While this was a useful medium, it is not without its faults! It was easy to fall behind on an important conversation or to have missed the scheduling of a meeting. Therefore, it would be advisable to use a more formal medium for staying in contact, such as Microsoft Teams. Recording minutes at each meeting is also advisable, so the tasks that need doing are clearly defined and allocated. As far as possible, schedule the next meeting before the meeting ends, or keep a regular meeting slot allocated in everyone’s diary.

In the weeks running up to the conference, we met regularly, and the week before the conference took place, we met daily to make sure everything was ready. We also met after each conference day to reflect on what had gone well, issues that had arisen and tasks that needed to be completed in time for the next day. It is worth noting that conference planning demands a lot of time, so it is important for committee members to make space in their working schedule.

After the conference

While conferences can be exhausting to run, it is essential for the conference team to meet and reflect on the experience before taking time off to relax. The team need to consider whether the event will run again in the future and if so, to establish a workable timescale with committee members, taking on board everyone’s feedback and reflections. After the conference is over, there are several tasks still to complete, such as making sure invoices are paid and processed, and that thank you emails have been sent to invited speakers. Make sure the committee are clear about their roles going forward in the next stages of planning and post-conference work. Most importantly, acknowledge the hard work that went in to be able to pull off a successful online event!


This guidance material has been prepared by Brianna E. Robertson-Kirkland and Sophie Boyd.

Technology woes and technology benefits

Technology has become an invaluable tool, and conference organisers pulling together a virtual event expect most delegates will have the relevant skillset and tools to take part. However, this does not necessarily mean delegates can troubleshoot technical difficulties quickly and without assistance. During the first few hours of the Spheres of Singing conference, a few delegates experiencing difficulties continuously posted in the public chat, partly out of desperation to get the issue resolved quickly. Unfortunately, even though there were a small number of people experiencing problems, their public posts gave the impression these issues were wide-spread. From that point on, the team set up a tech support email and directed delegates to email in their queries. This gave us a better understanding of how many people experienced problems and the commonality of these issues. Here are three additional recommendations to help with technical complaints while keeping the event running smoothly.

    1. Ask one team member to manage the technical support email instead of attending panels. This ensures delegates are receiving support quickly. The technical support person may also have to meet via video chat to resolve certain issues, which is why it is useful they do not attend panels that day.
    2. Within panels set a protocol for who will manage technical issues/comments in the chat and let that single person take care of it.

Conference teams want to make sure the event runs smoothly, but six people answering one technical query is not helpful for the delegate. Assigning one person in each panel, who can direct the delegate to the technical support email ensures they are getting the support they need without receiving an overwhelming number of messages.

  1. Provide a drop-in session (or online registration desk) for delegates before the conference begins.

It is easy to assume all delegates will have a similar technical skillset, but this is not the case. Some delegates may feel very uncomfortable with technology and want to relieve their anxieties. Others may have very specific technical issues that can be resolved in a drop-in session. If anything, it is a nice opportunity for delegates to meet with a member of the conference team and ask any questions.

Creating barriers to access to prevent Zoom-bombing

Zoom-bombing has become a concern during the COVID-19 lockdown and can be really detrimental to any event. Zoom has updated their security in response to these threats, including recommending sessions are password-protected, a waiting room is enabled, and links are not shared on public social media platforms. However, there is always the concern a savvy hacker will manage to break through and interrupt an important event. Additional apps, such as conference planning apps can be used as another barrier to access.

We decided to use a platform called Whova to prevent Zoom-bombing attacks and to improve networking during the conference. Whova is an all-in-one event management app that promises full functionality for networking and Zoom streaming. All delegates needed to download the app to attend the conference, which added another barrier to access. We also realised with the numbers that had signed up; it would have been too time-consuming to check each person before admitting them into the sessions.

In terms of networking, Whova is an excellent app. It facilitates messaging and posting similarly to Facebook (posting questions, thoughts, queries to all delegates as well as private messaging participants). It also allows presenters to upload abstracts, videos, papers and slides and Zoom links can stream through the app. Whova worked well facilitating discussions, but some delegates had difficulty with the Zoom/Whova integration.

While the conference team had a positive experience with Zoom, we also recognise some delegates do not like downloading multiple apps onto their devices, particularly unfamiliar apps. Rumana Rahman, who posted on the Women in Academia Support Network Facebook group, commented:

Figure 1: Permission was granted from the original poster. The post was placed on WIASN 27 June 2020.

With so many apps available to facilitate video conferencing and networking, delegates can quickly become overwhelmed and confused. It is worth considering if a smaller, more manageable online event that does not require an additional app would provide a better experience for everyone involved. Alternatively, if a large-scale event is necessary and requires the use of an unfamiliar conference app, it is important to be transparent with delegates and explain why the app is being used, how it works and if it is integrated with software that is commonly known, such as Zoom. Just a little more context can help delegates realise why a specific form of software or hardware is being used and the solutions it offers as a result. This kind of transparency removes confusion and improves the delegates overall conference experience.


This guidance material has been prepared by Brianna E. Robertson-Kirkland and Sophie Boyd.

Providing guidance (speakers, chairs, and participants)

Most in-person conferences don’t provide specific guidance on preparing a presentation, beyond stating the time limit and when questions will take place. For the inexperienced graduate student, or indeed the non-academic, this can be particularly daunting and another barrier to access. Even seasoned conference speakers may have different opinions about how to present at the conference, which may or may not be in line with up-to-date accessibility guidelines. Some conference organisers, such as  Brianna Beehler and Devin Griffiths suggest giving extensive guidance to speakers an chairs, though most of their advice revolves around troubleshooting tech issues. The online conference is a real opportunity to provide specific guidelines that reflect the conference’s overall aims, its accessibility policy and code of conduct. Obviously, it is the speaker’s prerogative how they want to present, but pointing out some ways to ensure presentations are meeting accessibility needs could remove certain barriers for speakers and delegates.

Spheres of Singing made sure guidance was sent to speakers two weeks ahead of the conference. It provided guidance on technology, but also best practices for creating an accessible presentation. As a result, the majority of the presentations aligned with accessibility standards.

Further recommendations with regards to supporting speakers, asking the chair and/or Zoom host to meet with speakers 10-minutes before the panel begins to check they can share their screen, play audio, video and answer any questions. The chair and speaker can then decide how the panel will run, i.e. when questions take place and if questions will be asked in the chatbox or by unmuting delegates. Setting up a waiting room ahead of the session also ensures these conversations are private and do not talk place in front of incoming delegates.

Three supporting panel leaders: Hosts, chairs and co-chairs

We endeavoured to have a host, a chair and a co-chair for every panel at the Spheres of Singing conference. The justification for this was if anyone’s internet dropped out, at least two other people could step in to run the panel. However, each person did have separate duties. The host was responsible for starting the meeting and recording; the chair introduced the speakers and managed the discussion at the end, and the co-host managed the ‘chat’ discussion throughout the session and was available for light-touch technical support if necessary. Specific guidance was sent to chairs and co-chairs a few days ahead of the conference, and this included a scripted opening statement to be read out at the start of every panel. This is a recommendation that is rarely discussed in virtual conference planning guidance but is essential to the smooth running of panels.

We endeavoured to have a host, a chair and a co-chair for every panel at the Spheres of Singing conference. The justification for this was if anyone’s internet dropped out, at least two other people could step in to run the panel. However, each person did have separate duties. The host was responsible for starting the meeting and recording; the chair introduced the speakers and managed the discussion at the end, and the co-host managed the ‘chat’ discussion throughout the session and was available for light-touch technical support if necessary. Specific guidance was sent to chairs and co-chairs a few days ahead of the conference, and this included a scripted opening statement to be read out at the start of every panel. This is a recommendation that is rarely discussed in virtual conference planning guidance but is essential to the smooth running of panels.

Delegate guidance

Delegate guidance was made available ahead of the event and provided some technical support and a general FAQ. This guidance did appear to alleviate the majority of queries, though, in hindsight, it would have been beneficial to provide a video in addition to the written materials, so we could show the technology being used and how to navigate the conference schedule.


This guidance material has been prepared by Brianna E. Robertson-Kirkland and Sophie Boyd.

Scheduling and planning, time zones and breaks

Abstract submissions

Scheduling and planning really require time and careful consideration. Spheres of Singing invited abstract submissions through the Easy Chair submissions portal. This free website was useful as all the abstracts were kept together, and we could easily facilitate a blind peer-reviewing process. Easy Chair keeps the author information separately from the abstract, and it allows abstracts to be allocated to external peer reviewers. This was beneficial as we were able to recruit reviewers to look at the topics that the committee did not have the expertise to assess. Easy Chair allows reviewers to give comments and feedback to the author as well as providing confidential feedback to the organisers. Reviewers give the abstract a confidential score for accepting the abstract (e.g. strong accept, weak accept, reject) and the reviewers can also score level of expertise when assessing the submission. The system then ranks all abstracts to give a list of the strongest to weakest papers based on reviewers’ feedback. Overall, this allows for a more objective rejection of abstracts if there are too many to be included in the schedule or if there are papers that do not meet the standards for submission. We gave authors an opportunity to resubmit their abstract based on reviewers’ comments.

Once all the abstracts are in and approved, scheduling became the priority. Keywords provided by the authors during the submission process aided the scheduling and, in this case, were vital as Spheres of Singing covered a variety of disciplines, practices and topics. Key words helped us to group together talks that corresponded to each other, and from here, we were able to establish sessions that ran by theme or topic.

Parallel sessions

A decision needs to be taken as to whether the event will run with parallel sessions or without. This will depend on how many talks and workshops are planned and how long the days are going to be. Parallel sessions are possible online as multiple Zoom links can be sent to delegates. This is useful for large events as delegates are dispersed over different rooms and so there is less risk of overloading the system. Equally, plenary sessions that bring all delegates together into one stream can be useful and play an important role in the cohesion of your delegate community. Spheres of Singing organised sessions by theme or topic and parallel session ran based on these themes. We attempted to pair parallel themes that would have as little conflict between them as possible. Our schedule had two parallel sessions running on days one and two, and three panels on day three. At the end of day one and two, there was a plenary keynote that complemented some of the themes explored throughout the day. Day three concluded with a plenary Q&A with members of The Sixteen, followed by practical workshops.


When planning any conference, putting the schedule together takes time and often many drafts. One of the reasons for this is the availability of the speakers. However, it is perhaps even more critical for an online conference to check in with speakers to ensure they are free to present at the scheduled time. After all, the speakers are at home and may also have caring responsibilities or maybe attending the conference around their other work commitments. Patience and understanding can go a long way to building a good relationship with the speakers, mainly if they are dealing with challenging circumstances.

It is essential to consider the tools for scheduling and how you will map out your drafts together as a committee. We found Excel and Google Sheets were useful in planning each session because the spread sheet format was visually clear, and it was easy to edit as needed. We used the spread sheet to colour code the schedule by sessions, type of talk, plenary, and breaks. This aided with the visual clarity of the schedule. When transferring the Excel document into the final PDF version, we ensured that the colours we used for sessions enhanced the readability of the document. It is vital to include a key that explains what the colours represent and that the colours are accessible to colour blind readers.

Socialising on the online platform

Online spaces can easily lack the networking and socialising typical of an in-person event. To this end, it is important to consider how socialising can be facilitated and how many social events the conference might include. In lieu of a traditional reception at the end of Spheres of Singing, we scheduled an informal closing ceremony followed by a ‘BYOB’ drinks reception. Using Zoom’s breakout room function, attendees joining from across the globe were able to meet and chat in an informal and relaxed space. This worked well as it facilitated discussions between delegates about the sessions. Most delegates in attendance noted how much they enjoyed having a space to reflect on what they had learned at the end of the conference. On reflection, though we only scheduled one social event, we could have scheduled more informal sessions throughout the conference. Social sessions would have worked well as lunchtime meet-ups or at the end of each day. As such, this would have made the social events more accessible to those who were unable to attend on the last night, or who were unable to stay late into the evening.

Time Zones

One issue unique to the online conference experience are conflicting time zones. This post by Owl Labs provides useful suggestions for managing time zones and includes a ‘cheat sheet’ of key meeting times that are ideal for people meeting up across the globe. Spheres of Singing had several presenters from North America, and so we decided that our event would run from 1pm until around 7pm BST. This meant that the event started in the morning in North America and ran too late afternoon. Of course, the time change did not suit everyone. For example, the conference started in the evening and continued on late into the night in places like Australia. As it was recorded, we were still able to facilitate attendance, but it is worth discussing this issue with presenters if there are people presenting from different time zones.


Conferences can be exhausting, whether in person or online, so it is really important to schedule enough breaks. Most of our breaks were 20-minutes long and were scheduled roughly every hour. Breaks also play an important practical role in the running of the event. In Spheres of Singing, breaks were used to set up the Zoom room 10-minutes in advance of the session beginning. This time was spent ensuring presenters could test their presentations and iron out any technical difficulties with audio or video before audience members were admitted from the waiting room. This was especially important to facilitate presenters who were unfamiliar with Zoom and who were not confident with the technical side of the software. It was the role of a committee member to host and set up the Zoom sessions. As such, the breaks allowed the committee member to start the Zoom meeting and ensure it was secure before the session started. 20-minute breaks allow just enough time for all of this checking to take place.

It should be noted, being responsible for starting and stopping the Zoom meetings on time was quite stressful for committee members, especially when they had to end sessions before the speakers had time to answer all of the questions. Initially, the committee was a little more lax about sticking to the schedule, but it became clear it was vital to keep strict timings (more so than an in-person event). Also, since committee members had to start the meetings during breaks, they often had no time to stop. This makes the day extremely exhausting, so do bear in mind that 20-minute break is a suggested minimum length.


This guidance material has been prepared by Brianna E. Robertson-Kirkland and Sophie Boyd.

Why an online event? Accessibility, inclusivity and finances

Spheres of Singing was initially planned as an in-person event; however, it was reconceived as a virtual conference just before lockdown was announced in March 2020. This format has proved to be incredibly successful for a number of reasons, and we would like to take this opportunity to reflect on what we have learned and recommendations for organising large-scale online conferences in the future.

What was Spheres of Singing?

Spheres of Singing 2020 was a free, 3-day interdisciplinary conference on singing hosted by the University of Glasgow and co-organised by students and staff from the University of Glasgow, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and University of Edinburgh. It provided a unique space for practitioners and academics to share their research on singing. Practitioners and researchers were encouraged to share their practice, and we used the conference to capture this vital information and share it with the wider academic and practitioner community. Further information about the conference can be found on the website:

How many presenters?

Hosted on Zoom, the conference featured contributions from around the world, including 45 presentations, seven workshops, six open discussions and four lecture-recitals. There were contributions, participation and people tuning in live or asynchronously from the UK, US, Canada, India, Ireland, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand. The full conference programme can be found here:

How were attendees able to sign up for the conference?

We aimed to make the event as secure as possible. Even though attendance was free, we asked attendees to sign up via Eventbrite. Tickets were released 2-weeks ahead of the event. Attendees could also sign up for asynchronous attendance. This was made available 3-days before the event. There was no option to attend for 1-day as we didn’t feel this was necessary given the event was online.

How many were in attendance?

Initially, this conference hoped to attract approximately 100 people (speakers and attendees). Figures were modelled on previous conferences on this topic. When the conference moved online, we optimistically elevated the number to 150 people. Our Zoom-capacity allowed for 500 attendees, so we initially enabled 500 available tickets on Eventbrite, with no expectation we would sell out. Within 24-hours of the tickets going live, the conference was sold out.

Breakdown of overall sign-ups:

  • 500 people signed up to attend some of the conference live (including speakers).
  • 270 people signed up to attend the conference asynchronously.

Accessibility and inclusivity


An online event has the potential to impact accessibility massively. For example, delegates and speakers may struggle to attend an in-person event for a variety of reasons but are able to follow an online event from the comfort of their own home. Barriers to conference attendance is not a new discussion, as noted by Robb Travers et al. in their 2008 article ‘Increasing Accessibility for Community Participants at Academic Conferences Delegates’. Throughout the Spheres of Singing conference, delegates and presenters from across the globe, were able to attend freely. The fact we were able to attract delegates from eleven countries illustrates the scope of geographical accessibility an online event fosters. It is also important to acknowledge the positive environmental impacts of people attending from across the world without the carbon emissions of flying. we also provided an option to view the presentations asynchronously, which meant people could more easily access the event in different time zones (more details of planning for time zones is in section 2).

Removing the cost of travel and accommodation has visible positive impacts. As the Times Higher Education notes, the cost of conference attendance is a huge barrier to participation, especially for those who are not reimbursed for their travel and registration fee by an institution. This issue is also reflected in the feedback gathered from Spheres of Singing participants, where many delegates indicated they would not have been able to afford the travel and accommodation if the conference had gone ahead as an in-person event in Glasgow. Furthermore, we were able to offer the event for no cost. As such, we were able to reach a more diverse audience, including practitioners, researchers and interested enthusiasts who might not have been able to afford, or even justify the cost of attending. The conference was always planned as an inclusive event, where academics and practitioners could come together and discuss issues related to singing. The online structure allowed for a greater diversity of practitioners and researchers to be included.

Conference format

What the Spheres of Singing conference team have learned is that the format for academic conferences is not particularly inclusive. This article by Wired explores the issues with inclusivity and the overall experience of attending a conference, highlighting delegates can often feel exhausted and overloaded with information delivered in the “dry” conference format. In bringing together practitioners and researchers, it was vital to foster a space that was inclusive, and that offered an interactive experience. The feedback we had from participants, both informally and as part of a post-event survey, indicated that many people who had never attended a conference before, and who did not think a conference was ‘for them’ felt comfortable to enter into discussions, ask questions, or to simply be included in the online space through watching the presentations. This meant that we reached many practitioners and community members working and practising in singing, and ultimately, we met our goal of achieving practice and knowledge exchange between practitioners and researchers.

Academic language

However, it is essential to note that a conference taking place in a primarily academic space makes it more challenging to facilitate inclusion, particularly from those who do not think of themselves as belonging to the academic community. Moving to the online space and removing the costs associated with conferencing did not, in all cases, eliminate all barriers to participation. For example, it is important to acknowledge that the language used in academic conferencing, such as a “call for abstracts”, and “presenting papers” are not widely known or understood and are, therefore, not accessible. At Spheres of Singing we recognised that we needed to reframe this language and provide alternative methods to writing a 300-word abstract, or giving a 20-minute PowerPoint scripted presentation. To increase our accessibility, we gave speakers the option of talking through their proposed submission with a member of the organisation team over a phone call or on Zoom meeting. We allowed delegates the option of alternative formats for presenting, such as recording a short podcast or even videoing their presentation. One delegate used the alternative format to their advantage, by inviting the audience to look away from their computer screen, so they had a more immersive experience while listening to the recording. These recordings were played synchronously so that the delegates could still be asked questions in real-time. Going forward, we will look to further our use of non-academic language in our call for submissions and allow participants more flexibility in the format of their ‘abstracts’. The online sphere allows for this flexibility to be incorporated into proceedings and also removes an element of anxiety around presenting in an unfamiliar context.

Emails, website and Twitter

To ensure inclusivity through our use of language, we worked hard to set a friendly tone via our email correspondence, website and Twitter. The Twitter account was used to showcase our speakers, engage with our delegates, but also to reach as many people unconnected to the conference as possible. Tweets were informal in tone and engaged with the audience by inviting delegates to tag conference-related tweets with #SpheresofSinging. This built an online community who could share their experiences of the conference, but also created a positive space for delegates to interact. Some examples of Tweets that show the use of language to set a positive tone are found below:


Conference finances

There are lots of cost benefits to running an online event, as laid out by Inside Higher Ed. While online conferences avoid accommodation, travel, catering, and expenses associated with hiring a venue, there is still a cost in hosting an online event. The Times Higher Education points to this issue, stating it is not a guaranteed ‘cheap’ option. Hosting platforms and tech support, as well as fees for invited contributors, need to be budgeted. Spheres of Singing was awarded funding from the University of Glasgow to cover the cost of Whova, a platform on which the event was hosted. Furthermore, we were able to use the University’s Zoom access to facilitate sessions (more information can be found in our section on technology). The rest of the budget previously earmarked to cover travel expenses for our invited speakers and room hire was repurposed to cover the cost of our online overheads. Furthermore, since this was a music conference, invited practitioners giving workshops also needed to be paid. In this regard, our conference was unique as we were mitigating the difference between academics, who wouldn’t typically be paid for the contribution to a conference and practitioners do expect payment for their services since this is frequently their primary income.

While putting on the event for free did increase the reach and accessibility of Spheres of Singing, it is worth bearing in mind that a free event incurs a large number of ‘no shows’. While 450 tickets for the live attendance sold out, in reality, a maximum of 80 people attended the live sessions, though many more watched the recordings.


This guidance material has been prepared by Brianna E. Robertson-Kirkland and Sophie Boyd.