Symposium vs. Conference: What's the Difference & How to Plan One

Discover the difference between a symposium and a conference, and get tips on how to plan the ideal in-person or virtual event format.

Published on November 30, 2023 • Updated on April 24, 2024 • About 7 min. read
A picture of seminar attendees sitting in a venue

Deciding between a symposium and a conference for your next in-person or virtual event? Both can set the stage for an engaging event, but it's important to choose the right format for your organization and audience.

In this article, we'll explore key differences between a symposium, a conference, and similar formats. We'll also cover essential steps for planning both event types—including how to maximize audience engagement.


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What's the difference between a symposium and a conference?

What is a symposium, and is it the same as a conference? These two terms are often used interchangeably, as they both refer to formal business or academic gatherings.

However, they are completely different types of events. Let's compare symposium vs. conference in terms of scope, timeframe, size, and other defining elements.

Purpose and scope of a symposium and a conference

A conference is a large-scale event with numerous sessions—often with many occurring simultaneously. Whether you host a business or academic conference, it typically has a unifying theme, but individual sessions can cover a wide range of related topics.

In contrast, a symposium is a small-scale event with a much narrower focus. For example, the healthcare industry and academic institutions often host research-based symposia.

Organization and submissions

Symposiums have a background in academia. They often require potential participants to pitch topics or submit research papers. The symposium's organizers then approve the most promising topics.

Conferences also tend to have an application or submission process for presenters. The conference's organizers then assign speakers to individual presentations or themed group sessions.

Audience interaction during a symposium and a conference

At a symposium, speakers have dedicated time to present their research. After these presentations, symposiums usually invite audience questions and allow networking. As a result, symposiums tend to be more informal.

Conferences are generally more formal, but they can include many different types of session formats. For example, panel discussions focus on conversations between presenters, but workshops encourage audience engagement.

Event timeframe

As a general rule, symposiums have a more defined timeframe, as they happen over the course of a single day. In many cases, they can be shorter. For example, a conference may include multiple half-day symposiums.

In contrast, conferences have much more flexible timeframes. While they can certainly last for just one day, many take place over the course of multiple days or even a week.

Audience size

Of the two event types, conferences tend to be much larger. They may welcome hundreds of attendees, who may attend various sessions happening simultaneously.

Symposiums tend to be smaller. They often take place in a single room, which limits the size of in-person events. Virtual symposiums have the potential to be larger.

How do conferences and symposiums compare to other event formats?

Whether you're planning an in-person or virtual event, you have plenty of format options. Here's how other common event types compare to symposiums and conferences.

The difference between a seminar and a symposium and conference

A seminar is similar to a symposium, as it's an educational event that balances a formal presentation with informal discussion. However, both in-person and virtual seminars tend to focus more on training and less on sharing research.

What is the difference with a roundtable?

A roundtable is a conversation-based event that welcomes both speakers and audience members to participate. Of all event types, roundtables have one of the most informal formats, as they invite discussion from all perspectives.

How is a panel discussion different from a symposium or a conference?

Similar to roundtables, panel discussions are designed to create conversations. However, panels usually focus more on discussions between presenters and moderators. Conferences may include panel discussions as individual sessions.

What is the difference with a workshop?

Like a seminar, a workshop centers on training and education. However, workshops tend to be the most hands-on event formats. Both in-person and virtual workshops show attendees how to complete tasks and often include interactive components.

How to plan a symposium

Organizing a symposium or conference is easier when you have a framework to follow. Follow these steps to host a successful virtual or in-person event.

1. Decide on a topic or theme

Whether you're planning a symposium or a conference, this first step is similar. Begin by choosing a central topic or theme for the event. How exactly?

First, identify trending topics or themes in your professional or academic field. To choose between two compelling topics or to narrow down a longer list, then poll potential audience members and presenters.

Asking the audience isn't a requirement, but it can help you get buy-in from your audience. It can also help you eliminate topics with little interest and focus on themes with more positive responses.

2. Collect submissions

Once you've chosen the main topic for the event, publish a call for submissions in your professional or academic community. Explain the core theme and any sub-topics, and clarify the kind of presentation that would be ideal for the event.

Many conference and symposium organizers put out open calls for submissions. However, if you have specific speakers in mind, make sure to connect with them directly.

3. Choose speakers

Work with your fellow event organizers to evaluate the submissions and choose the most promising speakers. There's no one way to select speakers, but these guidelines can help:

  • Consider presenters who are well-known in the field and may draw a larger audience.
  • Look for speakers with underrepresented viewpoints to cover a wider range of perspectives.
  • Choose speakers with topics on similar themes so you can create a coherent schedule.

4. Confirm keynotes

If you're planning a symposium, skip ahead to the next step. But if you're organizing a conference, take time to plan at least one keynote speech. You may even want to plan one for each day of the event.

Keynote speeches clarify the main theme of the conference or the day's sessions. Experienced speakers or established members of the field generally deliver keynotes, which often attract large audiences.

Keynotes can be major selling points for the entire event, making them important to get right. Rather than relying on submissions, create a shortlist of potential keynote speakers and reach out to them individually.

5. Plan the event schedule

Once you've sent invitations to presenters and any keynote speakers, organize the event schedule.

For a symposium, the schedule will be relatively straightforward. In most cases, you'll plan a single series of presentations during a single day. Make sure to save time for panel discussions and networking.

For a conference, the schedule will be much more complex. Depending on the scope and size of the event, you may need to plan simultaneous sessions across multiple days. If you intend to include various formats—such as seminars or workshops—take care to balance the event types throughout the day.

6. Promote the event

After confirming the speakers and schedule, promote the event to your community. If you're planning a virtual symposium or conference, a platform like Livestorm can make the promotion process seamless.

With Livestorm, you can create custom registration pages that you can link to from your website, social media posts, email marketing content, or community forums.

Custom pre-launch registration page on Livestorm

Once attendees register for the event, Livestorm can handle email reminders automatically. With custom email sequences, you can encourage attendees to add the event to their calendar and boost attendance.

7. Design the event room

Whether you're planning a multi-day conference or a single-day symposium, branding is an essential touch for the event space. With Livestorm integrations like the custom design app, you can change the look of the room and add your company or institutional logo.

Custom branding

8. Host a dry run with guest speakers

Because symposiums and conferences are relatively formal events, it's important to give speakers an opportunity to practice in advance. By hosting a dry run in Livestorm, you can show presenters:

  • How the event software works, including controls and technical checks
  • What to expect when presenting and how to pace webinar content
  • How to interact with other speakers and attendees
  • What to do in case of technical difficulties

9. Prepare questions and polls for viewers

Audience engagement tends to work a little differently for conferences vs. symposiums. However, both can benefit from viewer interaction, which can make events more meaningful for audience members.

Question and Answer

With Livestorm, you can host live question and answer sessions with speakers, which is ideal for symposiums. The live polls feature can engage conference attendees, gather feedback, and provide ideas for future discussions.

10. Distribute the on-demand replay

Once the conference or symposium ends, the event still has the potential to generate tons of value. For example, you can:

  • Distribute the event recordings to attendees so they can catch up on content they missed or rewatch their favorite sessions.
  • Turn on-demand replays into lead magnets that build your community while promoting the expertise of your speakers.

Download Livestorm's virtual training templates for healthcare professionals. Set up and prepare your training sessions like a pro.

Livestorm for your next virtual symposium or conference

Planning a virtual symposium or conference can be much easier than you might think. With a live events streaming platform like Livestorm, you can run truly international conferences or symposiums with speakers and attendees from across the globe.

From promotion to streaming to engagement, Livestorm can set your event up for success. Here's how:

  • Pre-built registration pages and automated email sequences to increase attendance
  • Browser-based virtual event platform that anyone can use without a download
  • Interaction features like polls and live Q&As to keep viewers engaged
  • On-demand recordings to distribute and repurpose after the event

When you use Livestorm to organize symposiums and conferences, you can do more than just host a webinar. With our virtual event platform, you can share knowledge, connect your community, and create real value for viewers.