In my last post, I mentioned that I had covered a medical conference in Boston last week. I received a few emails in response, from people who’d read the post and had some questions about what medical writers do when covering a conference.

Anne Marie from St. Paul, MN, was curious about how, if at all, I prepare for an upcoming conference, and I promised I’d respond in the form of a post.

So here it is!



8 Things To Do Before The Conference

  1. Register:  As soon as you know you are going to be covering a certain conference, visit their online site & register. Be sure to look for a link for “Press Registration” – basically this allows you to register for free. You’ll likely be asked various questions like “Which organization will you be working for?”, and maybe details of their geographical location. Conferences differ in what they ask you as you register, so just play it by ear, and if they ask any questions that you can’t immediately answer, check in with your news organization’s editor for the answers.
  2. Check out the “Press Information”: This area of the website will provide you with all the information that you’ll need to do for that specific conference. The information may be updated as you get closer to the conference dates, so keep checking for updates that might be helpful for you.
  3. Request a letter of assignment: Ask the editor (of the medical news organization that has contracted you) for a “letter of assignment” for the meeting. This basically will be a note on company letterhead to state that you are working for them and need a pass to attend the conference, as well as access to the press room. This will be your entrance ticket for the meeting on the day!
  4. Select your presentations: Check out the abstracts – these don’t usually appear on the website until a month or so before the meeting, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for them every so often. Once they appear, spend some time pouring through them & select however many you need to report. Check your selection with the editor – just because you like how a topic sounds, doesn’t mean they will. Not everything is appropriate for their needs, so you can maximize the chances of your reports being published (and therefore you getting paid!) by sending the abstracts to the editor in advance so that he or she can give you the thumbs-up.
  5. Sign up for embargoed abstracts: Many abstracts will be embargoed until just a couple of days before the conference. When this is the case, the conference website may list an email address that you can contact to “subscribe” to embargoed abstract alerts. They may not end up being useful to you, but it doesn’t hurt to have them, just in case.
  6. Contact the authors: Most news companies like to have some kind of a direct quote from one of the researchers in your article. Naturally, you can save getting this until the day of their presentation, but be prepared to wait in line if you choose this option, and maybe even chase them around to finally get hold of them! And then multiply this wait by 10 articles, or however many you have to write. So emailing authors in advance can be very useful. Not only does it help you in your quest for a quote, but it also can be helpful for the author. Some people prefer to have some time to construct a well-thought-out response to questions, rather than just having to answer on the fly into your recording device. So you may have to dig out email addresses for the first authors by doing some online searching – not all abstracts include their email addresses – but it can be a worthwhile venture. Once you have their addresses, send out a polite email to introduce yourself and let them know you’re covering the conference and have selected their presentation to report. I usually attach my letter of assignment to the email, so that the author can see that I’m contacting them legitimately. And in the email, I’ll ask a few questions about the research study that will help get me enough information to use as a quote or two in the article.
  7. Start putting articles together: Conferences can be busy, and you might have limited time to complete your articles after attending the presentations. So to try to combat this somewhat, as a head start, I get my Word documents ready in advance for each article. Most news organizations will request that you forward a copy of the original abstract with your news article – so I prepare a 2-page document for each article. I tag the abstract onto page 2. And the first page I “prepare” as best I can for the actual article. I try to think of a title & get that situated. If I have a specific template to follow, I’ll get a skeleton of it in place so that I can just plug in my news information on the day – this might just mean adding in authors names, dates, the meeting information, my name, etc, etc. But it’s amazing how helpful it can be to get some kind of a skeleton in place.
  8. Check in with your editor: Often, you’ll be contracted to cover a conference many weeks or even months before it takes place. Other than checking in with the editor with your list of abstracts to cover, previous to that, there’s no real need to contact him or her. I’m someone who likes to be on the end of good communication, so I tend to treat my clients similarly and assume that they too are comforted by a well-timed email check-in, even there isn’t really anything to report. In the case of my last meeting, after my initial communication with the editor to accept the conference assignment, a few weeks of silence went by, and I then just sent a quick email to say hi, and let her know I was still on the radar, abstracts hadn’t yet appeared, but I’d be in touch as soon as they popped up on the site. I think it just breaks the silence a bit, and reassures the editor that you’re still in the game. And I think this tactic is especially useful if you’re reporting for an organization for the first time – it gives them some confidence that you’re responsible, professional, and reliable – and that you’re taking their work seriously. Then I tend to check in with the editor the day before the conference begins, just to let them know I’m ready and prepared. I usually let them know they can contact me by email at any time during the conference if they need me, and I’ll send my cellphone number too, in case they have any urgent last-minute requests.


And that’s it, really.

It sounds long-winded, but most of it is just habit. And if you’re working in science, likely you’ll be accustomed to doing much of this kind of thing in advance anyway, but as a non-media participant! So I’m sure a lot of what I’ve said will be second nature to some of you, but just with a slightly different angled approach.

So hopefully this has been helpful insight into preparing for a conference. It’s by no means a must-do list – everyone has their own approach – I know writers who do much more than this in advance, and some who do minimal preparation, instead saving everything for the meeting itself. Much of it will boil down to individual preference – some folk prefer to feel prepared, and others work better on the fly. There’s no single correct approach here.

But I hope it’s been useful in particular for new medical writers, or anyone who is coming up on reporting their first conference.

Feel free to leave any of your tips as comments too – everything will be helpful to new medical writers!


Image Credit David Castillo Dominici @FreeDigitalPhotos