As you may recall from my post last week, I really do enjoy conferences. However, they are not always fun and games, so here is a list of things that I dislike about conferences, both from presenters and organisers.
1. Time. This is a pet peeve that could be for both aspects of organising and presenting. For organisers, both starting and ending the conference at an appropriate time is of utmost importance. It’s a little unreasonable to expect any sort of audience any earlier than 9.30 or 10 AM the morning after a conference dinner — especially one that includes alcohol — so please don’t ever schedule anything to start earlier. This is also appropriate for people who may be traveling in on a weekend/bank holiday. I was scheduled to talk at a multi-day conference where I was presenting on the last day and, due to other commitments, had planned on only making the day of my session. Yet I was presenting early on that last day and could not get a train in early enough, so would have had to go the day before and stay the night. But I was unable to do that due to my other commitments so had to drop out. Had I been later in the day I might have been able to attend.
The flip side of the time aspect is for presenters. Stay to your allotted time for a paper! If you have 15 minutes, speak for 15 minutes. If you have 20, speak for 20 (or less). But if you only have 15 minutes DO NOT speak for 20. This is both rude to your other panelists and inconsiderate to the audience and chair. Good chairs will let you know when you have 5, 2 or 1 minute left; great chairs will stop you after you’ve reached the time limit. It is your duty as a presenter to practice your talk beforehand. If necessary, build in some passages that can be cut should you be getting to the limit. Feel free to mention that due to time constraints you don’t have time to go into those details, but you would be happy to discuss them in the questions section; usually someone will ask a question about it. One minor addition for chairs: if it looks like there aren’t a lot of questions and other panels seem to be getting out, don’t worry about stretching the session to fit the time frame. It’s okay to leave early. There’s nothing more excruciating than trying to force questions out of people who just aren’t interested, or more interested in doing something else.
2. Topics. I don’t mean slightly changing your paper title or a shift in focus from the abstract, that’s almost a rite of passage for conferences. I mean changing your topic almost completely from what you originally planned. This is especially important if you have a PowerPoint (or Prezzie) to accompany your talk, because inevitably you’ll have some slides that are no longer appropriate. That smacks of laziness or ill planning just contempt for your audience. You could of course go with the due to time constraints bit for any extra slides, that’s fine, but don’t use only half of your slides with that excuse. Organisers work hard trying to put together coherent panels and if you change your topic significantly the logic of the panel dissipates, making everything seem disorganised. That is also rude. Another aspect of this is to be confident with your topic: don’t laugh, apologise or otherwise seem less than certain about your paper. If you’re not going to take your talk seriously, why should your audience? Furthermore, don’t use technical terms too much; or, if you do, be sure to define those terms. This is, of course, less important if you’re at a conference where everyone is of the same specialty, but in larger, interdisciplinary conferences not everyone has the same focus. What may be common parlance for you in an English department is not so common in History or Politics; be aware of that.
3. Food and Drinks. This is for the organisers: have good food and drinks available. There’s almost nothing worse than sitting through interesting papers to come to lunch only to have bland sandwiches and water. A wide selection of food may not be available due to budget, but at least provide tasty food; ideally a different lunch selection during multi-day conferences. Also, have fruit and veggies! The five-a-day is important; academics cannot survive on crisps and sandwiches alone. Plus, fruits are easily transported and can be saved for later (note, do not eat a loud apple during someone else’s talk). Also, having tea and coffee available during lunch, not just breaks, is essential. Sure, lunch may have fruit juices and water and other things, but sometimes all you want is a tea or coffee; more so if you were out late the night before.
I’m sure there are other things that should not be done to ensure a good conference, but these are what I can think of at the moment. Conferences rely upon both organisers and presenters, do your part! Also, be a good audience member and try to ask at least one question during the conference. Others have blogged about good questions to ask, I recommend you read it.