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What is a Symposium?

A symposium is generally defined as a meeting organized so that experts in a given field can meet, present papers, and discuss issues and trends or make recommendations for a certain course of action. Some definitions of symposium include a degree of audience participation that is less than that of a forum, thus implying a greater structure to the meeting format.

Symposiums have an implied academic aspect that distinguish them from seminars. After a symposium, attendees should come away having gained a greater degree of knowledge about a topic or a deeper understanding of an issue. They may have heard entirely new concepts about an existing subject or have been introduced to something completely new.

First Steps

Often the first step in organizing a symposium is to issue a call for papers on the subject at hand. This process is usually accomplished through trade publications and their corresponding websites, along with relevant social media platforms. An organizing committee can then choose the presenters based on their submissions. The call for papers has to be completed well in advance of the date of the symposium.

If a call for papers is not used, then the organizers of the symposium may pre-select the panel or panels and request that the individuals prepare papers on the subject. Meeting planners should choose a diverse group that is unlikely to repeat the same concepts, preferably reflecting different disciplines within the same field. An example would be a symposium on energy that would feature experts on petroleum, electric, coal, nuclear, and renewable sources.

Format of the Symposium

A symposium can take a number of different formats, which are determined by the number of presenters, subject matter, time for questions, travel, and—quite simply—the budget. However, a standard format follows this order:

  • Welcome remarks delivered by the hosts/organizers of the symposium.
  • Introduction of a moderator for the symposium who will in turn introduce the keynote speaker and the panelists, pose questions, and facilitate discussion.
  • A keynote speaker who will deliver remarks on the overall theme of the symposium. The keynote speech is typically presented before the panel discussion or during or after a luncheon.
  • During the panel discussion, the moderator introduces each presenter with a brief biography. The speaker will have a few minutes to speak on the topic and may give an overview plus his or her personal or professional perspective. After the individual presentations, the moderator guides a roundtable discussion among the panelists, often with pre-selected questions that have been sent to the panelists in advance.
  • The symposium generally concludes with a question and answer period. Often, the hosts simply take microphones into the audience. For a more structured environment, questions can be submitted in writing and read by the moderator.

Outcomes of the Symposium

In addition to publishing the papers submitted by the panelists, a symposium may also publish a comprehensive review of the opinions and any conclusions drawn from the discussions. A less formal review often takes the form of a “Notes from the Symposium” article in the relevant trade journals or online.