May 19, 2017

An insider’s guide to surviving conferences

Conferences--the familiar world of chief guests that don't turn up, boisterous panels and terrible coffee--are an integral part of the sector. Here’s how to brave them with your sanity and sense of humour intact.

2 min read

We all know the major seasons of India–hot, hot and rainy, sweater-in-Bombay (aka normal Bangalore), and sweater-in-Delhi. But there is another essential season for those in the know. And like Fight Club, you don’t talk about it–at least publicly.

I am referring to, of course, the conference season. Strangely coinciding with the cooler time of the year, the conference season is as eagerly awaited as the Indian monsoons, and is discussed even more.

For those lucky enough to break into this world, the initial experience can be bewildering. With that in mind, here is a handy field guide to understanding and surviving conference season.


Showing up on time displays too much eagerness–a rookie mistake. Delhi conferences helpfully provide an hour-long window for attendees to stroll in, greet each other, catch up with old friends (who they haven’t seen since the last conference three days ago), have a cup of tea, and then get to the inevitable hour-long wait for the delayed (bureaucrat/Minister) chief guest–who usually sends a deputy.

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Related article: 9 superpowers you wish you had at a development conference 

Said deputy makes all the right noises about how the chief guest is absolutely so sad to be missing this wonderful event, and that only the most urgent unplanned event made them send someone else. But everyone should know that they are firmly, 100% behind the spirit of this event–that water/nutrition/sports is critical. Absolutely essential–and they have always believed it.

There is a welcome address, an opening remarks session, and sometimes an introductory speech. They all are at once exactly the same, and completely different.

Rumour has it that Arnab Goswami watches the tape every Sunday to pump himself up.


Each conference has between three and five sessions that try to convince the already converted about the criticality of health/education/empowerment/nutrition/etc.–while being careful to not overemphasise on how to achieve better outcomes. That would be in poor taste.

Sometimes, there are presentations on actual evaluation studies, with numbers, graphs, charts and references to impact. This is the most popular time for networking sessions and catch-ups, and hurrying your funders out of the room.

Essential facts

The Limca Book of Records’ record for the most number of attendees in a panel discussion currently stands at 16 people packed onto a stage to speak about setting up a fund (no one can recall what for)–with 1.5 minutes to speak per participant. Rumor has it that Arnab Goswami watches the tape every Sunday to pump himself up.

Everyone who speaks in the dreaded post-lunch 2:30 pm slot always makes the same joke about having to wake people up after the lunch session. No one ever laughs.They’re usually asleep after lunch.

The closing remarks are usually the opening remarks, with a “To sum up a thought provoking day…” added at the beginning.

The most important thing

As with a wedding, sometimes conferences are remembered for the quality of the food they served up. One thing is uniform though across all conferences–the coffee is always terrible.

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Karan Malik-Image
Karan Malik

Karan Malik is Head of Programmes-India, British Asian Trust. Previously, he worked with the Social Impact and Development Practice at Boston Consulting Group. Prior to that, he worked on issues relating to maternal and child health and adolescent girl empowerment at Dasra. Karan has also worked with PRS Legislative Research and the Singapore Economic Development Board. He has a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton University, where he focused on International Development.