Conference Countdown: Spotlight on the Syllabus

Your favorite conference is just a few weeks away, and that’s when you get… the syllabus. Or rather, a massive PDF that contains dozens of syllabi running anywhere from 100 to 300 pages. (Syllabi? Syllabuses? I prefer the former because it reminds me of words like octopi, but no matter).

What gives?

What’s Inside

Conference speakers prepare a syllabus for each lecture (described in more detail below). All of the syllabi are combined into a single PDF with a table of contents, a handful of advertisements, and a few other things. Together, the syllabi are collectively called the conference syllabus.

These days, most conferences offer the syllabus as a downloadable PDF. Many also sell printed, bound copies for a nominal fee.

In addition to course materials, the syllabus sometimes contains helpful-to-know conference information, such as:

  • A map of the exhibit hall and conference classrooms

  • Conference WiFi password

  • Short bios of the speakers

But Really, What Are They For?

Many moons ago, at Ye Inaugurale Genealogie Conferense of Olde, ye Conferense Elders gathered ‘round and Resolvyd to Compyle ye Knowledge of All Ye Elders into a Syngle Tome called Ye Sillybus

To be honest, I’m not sure when or how this practice originated. Generally speaking, each speaker writes his/her/their syllabus a little bit differently:

  • Some are organized in outline format, more or less in the same order that the speaker covers the material. Follow along as you listen to the lecture.

  • Some function like very detailed handouts: what are the main points of the lecture? What do you need to know when you go home and Do It Yourself?

  • And some are very minimal handouts, with only a few key points, maybe a list of helpful websites or books, and that’s it. Those are sessions were you kind of have to be there to understand them because if you miss the session, the syllabus won’t tell you very much.

Earlier, I covered different ways that you can choose between conference sessions. Perusing the syllabus can be a great tie-breaker. For example, if you’re deciding between one session with a very thorough syllabus and another with a very minimal syllabus, maybe attend the latter and read through the former on the trip home.

What Do You Do With It?

Some people, particularly those who buy a printed syllabus, like to follow along during the lecture. This works particularly well for syllabi in outline format. If you’re a note-taker, consider taking notes directly on your printed syllabus. That way, you can keep all of your materials in one place.

Personally, I’m a PDF person, but I’m also a (thorough, dedicated, obsessive) note-taker. When I’m attending a conference, I like to:

  1. Glance at the syllabi for the sessions I’ll be attending. This gives me an idea if I’m dealing with an outline format, detailed handout, or a minimal syllabus.

  2. Based on the syllabus format, I’ll take more or fewer notes during the session.

  3. Afterwards, I’ll read through the syllabus more thoroughly. If there were any confusing points, I can compare my notes with the syllabus while the material is still fresh in my mind.

There is no wrong way to use (or not use!) a conference syllabus. The ultimate purpose of every conference is to facilitate learning. Take whichever approach is best for you.

The Speaker Perspective

Clearly, I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff. It makes sense that when I started writing syllabi for my own sessions, I gave a lot of thought to the information and presentation.

As a speaker, I’m somewhere between a very detailed handouts and a very minimal handouts kind of person. I like to hit enough of the main talking points that folks can listen to the talk without having to take tons of notes (unless they want to). Then again, I don’t include so much information that attendees who have read the syllabus won’t learn anything new at the session.

I guess I’m a Goldilocks-type syllabus writer: I like to include a moderate amount of information.


Largely unrelated to syllabi: be sure to follow the hashtag #merylsNYSFHCpicks on Twitter to see my favorite New York State Family History Conference (#NYSFHC) sessions. And since I don’t have a handy picture of a syllabus—I usually opt for a digital copy—please enjoy this picture of my collection of ribbon badges from various conferences. (I went a little overboard at NGS this year.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to run through my presentation one more time.

See you at NYSFHC,


I paid a terrible price for those ribbons, by the way. Not in money—something far worse. The “On the Clock” ribbon text is made of glitter and it went EVERYWHERE.

I paid a terrible price for those ribbons, by the way. Not in money—something far worse. The “On the Clock” ribbon text is made of glitter and it went EVERYWHERE.