Navigating academic conferences
It’s conference season! Whilst there are some conferences dotted throughout the year, my main period of conferences is approaching, with some lovely big events coming up between April and July (namely Talking Bodies, DART-P, and of course, POWES). I recently attended a small, local conference, and had, shall we say, an "interesting" encounter with a rude researcher, that really got me thinking (and tweeting) about conference etiquette.
Perhaps it’s just one of those ‘spidey-sense’ things of being a psychologist, but I’m so aware of what goes on around me, with reflections on what I enjoy (and don’t enjoy) about these kinds of events. I’ve been attending conferences since the first year of my PhD, in 2014/15, so I appreciate that whilst that is only a few years, there have been stand-out events for me during this time.
I am extremely lucky that my very first conference was the wonderful Psychology of Women & Equalities Section (I wrote about this here), with keynotes that year being Reni-Eddo Lodge (who subsequently published the amazing ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’), as well as Katherine Johnson and Abigail Locke, both wonderful women who I now have the pleasure of working with to various degrees. It was (and still is) an inviting, inclusive, fun, and mind-blowing space, and set the highest of benchmarks for how a conference should be.
I should say, I had very different views prior to this of what a conference would involve – middle-aged white men in suits, stuffy rooms, boring talks. I didn’t feel that conferences had a reputation for providing value in the same way that I understand them to now. Despite my short conferencing years, there are some things I’ve taken away, that I wish I would have known (or come to expect) so early on, as well as some things still worth developing.
Because I am that person, I do a varying amount of prep before I head off to a conference. For me, the preparation means that I can relax and actually enjoy the conference for what it is, because otherwise, I’d be overthinking everything.
My presentation will most definitely be completed before I go. I’ll only present on what I feel comfortable with (but interestingly, I don’t ‘overprepare’ with scripts – I just like to talk!). Bring snacks! Wear clothes you feel comfortable in – I’ve never been to a conference with a dress-code (if you’ve seen me at a conference recently, you’ve seen my favourite red leopard print shirt!). I think increasingly important today is the use of social media (discussed more below), so I’ll check out the conference hashtags, who speakers are and if they’re on Twitter – it’s a nice way to get that ‘community’ aspect going before you’re there. Also, see what’s about! I like to go a little earlier to a conference when I can, so I can enjoy the local area (and usually seek out a good coffee shop).
I really don’t care for this term, though I guess it incapsulates the main idea. Networking, to me, presents itself as something quite false, as seeking out the ‘right’ kinds of people to talk to, because they’re going to get you somewhere. I detest that (and it's also really obvious when people do it). What I would say – from personal experience – be open to listen, don’t look around the room for other people whilst you’re speaking to someone, take an interest, and swap social media contacts.
I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone who doesn’t have some nerves about attending a conference for the first time and finding people to speak to, especially if they're on their own (we have a lot to learn from children about making friends!). I also need a little time to myself at points throughout the conference, so early engaged introductions are good. Social media is also a huge part of this process for me. Being able to tweet people beforehand, during, and after a conference is a great way to engage.
I love presenting. Maybe I’m weird. I just love it. I love engaging with the audience, I love discussion, and I live for a bit of ‘academic heckling’ (see bonus bingo below). There is most definitely a technique to presenting. I know I’m not perfect! But there are a few tools that I employ for this:
· I practice public speaking. This is literally my day job, so I am comfortable being in front of a group of disengaged people (ha). The trick is in anticipating your audience.
· When you know your topic area, but accept you can’t know everything, it’s a win. I’ve always been really passionate about my PhD work, but in the early days of presenting it, I’d worry someone else would 'catch me out' (hey imposter syndrome, is that you?!). Now, I still have the passion, and if someone asks me something I didn’t know about, or something I hadn’t thought about, I’ll acknowledge that, rather than pretend to know everything.
· I seek to replicate things I’ve liked from speakers I’ve enjoyed. This is something that continually develops, and that’s a good thing. Some stand-outs for me: in Katherine Johnson’s keynote at POWES, she used Prezi to wonderful effect, and whilst I haven’t got my head around that tool specifically, I do pay attention to my slide presentation, use of images, and journey through the talk. I’ve also seen Sara Ahmed speak a few times and she is just one of the most articulate and eloquent speakers, with a really clear journey being followed from start to end. I recently saw Sophie Scott speak, and her understanding of audience engagement and using (appropriate) humour made for a really engaging talk, even in an area that I'd usually not come across.
· My final takeaway, on reflection, relates to questions, and I’ve had a good variety, from heckle to mansplain to tattoo story oversharing! Plan for questions. For those times where the audience just sits in deep silence (if you have a pre-lunch session, it could be hunger, but it could also be there was SO much you covered, they don’t know where to start), throw out a statement like ‘this project covers so much, but I actually really find X interesting, and how Y and Z play a part’. Usually, thinking of a targeted area of your talk will get people reflecting. For when you get an ‘unsavoury’ response (I can’t help but smile at these, I guess I'm weird), thank them for their reflection, and depending on your confidence/experience, you could retort with ‘what I think you’re saying is X, so in relation to that, I think Y’, or ‘you know, I really hadn’t thought about that, but I guess X is interesting because Y’. Have fun with it! If the conference chairs are doing their job, they’ll field any issues. Do feel free to make notes of people’s questions (I did this - 1. as prep for my viva, and 2. to reflect on what has stood out for people).
Being in the audience
I might get in trouble for saying this, but I don’t think you should attend every talk at a conference (quelle horreur!), because (for me anyway) there’s no way I can stay switched on for that long. At my first conference, Lauren & I shared a room, and I distinctly remember returning to it at the end of the first day, attending everything, and my brain was broken – I couldn’t talk with her, let alone keep a conversation! And I definitely had an early night (though, ask Lauren about the 'snake in the room'...!). You need thinking space. It also means the speaker can see who is engaged – it makes a heck of a difference to not see a room of yawning people!
Engagement is changing – whilst it still might not be something everyone does, Twitter is my life at a conference (those who follow me will thoroughly know!). For me, I need to take active notes to learn something. Not just that – putting it on Twitter has a number of benefits. Others who are not at the conference / in parallel sessions get an idea of what’s going on, the speaker can see what the main stand out points are from their talk (I also use this as a tool for my own talks), and it gives you the opportunity to network with others in a genuinely engaged way. I like to share papers (and a lot of gifs), tweet speakers directly, and reflect. Give it a go! I might convert you.
I think as an audience member, we should always be prepared to ask a question. There is nothing worse than sitting in awkward silence! I will never forget being in sessions with Meg-John (again, at POWES!), and loved how they were genuinely engaged with every speaker, and always had a question to ask – not criticism, not just a thank you, but a real question.
The conference does not finish once the organisers have officially closed it. After every conference I’ve been to, I’ve gone away feeling inspired about something, or motivated to write, or have wanted to get involved in a topic somehow. My favourite was Luke, Tanya, and I having a good 4 hour conversation about feminism, life, constructs of time, and everything in between on the way back from POWES. We even stopped for coffee so we could carry on the conversation. When you get home, thank the organisers. Tweet the speakers you enjoyed. Write some blogs! Send papers to attendees you met that you think they’d enjoy.
Develop a good conference community.
Bonus takeaway! Conference Bingo
How many can you cross off?! Just because why not. It’s meant as a laugh. Thank you for those who tweeted me their conference takeaways! Enjoy!