I am going to attend a conference soon. But as much as I look forward to it (and to Rome, which I adore), I also know, it will be a time of frustration. But before I offer my rant, I’ll tell a story. About 15 years ago I attended one of large international conferences in pragmatics. As usual on such occasions, there were a number of plenary lectures which were 3-4 times longer than the time allocated to mere mortals like me. So, basically, I had 15 minutes for my paper, the plenary speaker had an hour. This in itself was (still is) irritating, but that’s life.
So, one day the conference come to a plenary and half an hour into the lecture, everybody knows something is wrong. The speaker has not yet started the lecture. She is still telling us about what she will not be talking about….Indeed, instead of an hour the plenary lasted an hour and a half. I was quite lucky, as my session didn’t start immediately after, the plenary basically messed up the timing of the entire afternoon. So, the plenary speaker finished after 90 minutes of speaking and the reaction of the audience was priceless. Everybody just got up and left. There was no applause – the chair in huge embarrassment tried to elicit some, nobody paid any attention. We all just got up and left in silence. I would have died of shame.
And that will start my rant about conference presentations.
- Don’t go over your allocated time. Anything, yes, anything, can be said in half the time you have, you’ll just need to prioritise.
- Don’t look at your notes, and don’t even try to look for things in your notes. If you haven’t got it, then you haven’t got it, believe me, no one cares.
- Don’t ever read your presentation. I am yet to encounter a presentation which was read and didn’t put me to sleep. I know, I‘m getting on, all the more, respect my attention span. Reading, which is inevitably monotonous, kills me!
- Don’t tell me what you are not going to tell me – I genuinely do not care. Like, really do not care. I barely care about what you are going to tell me.
- Don’t ever tell me, laughing nervously, that you prepared a presentation for twice the time and you will need to edit out half of it on the go.
- Please, speak to me, not to the slides, computer, or your imaginary friend who stands with an ear 10 cm away from your mouth.
- Take all the tweets about your ‘fab presentation’ with a shovel of salt!
Ok, now I’ll offer some positive advice.
- Please, please, please, show me that you care a little about your presentation and your research. Show me just a little bit of enthusiasm! Don’t make think that you really want to say: “Hail, Emperor, those about to die, salute you!” (If you’re well educated, you’ll want to say: “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant!”).
- Please try to grab my interest. Apart from those very few presentations that are immediately relevant to my work, I will not really make great effort to listen. It’s your job to grab my attention!
- Tell me a story, ideally tell me about your research through a story, or a number of stories.
- To my professorial colleagues (should any of them read it), I’d say: pick on your own size. I am hardened in battles (I have lost my conference scalp once – I won’t divulge who’s got it), I still care, but I understand the rules of the game I have played so long. But I saw once a very sorry scene. A PhD student made their presentation and it was, let’s put it mildly, rubbish. And a very eminent and brilliant professor basically wiped the floor with the poor student. There was blood on the floor and the student barely contained tears. It should not have happened. There is never need for this. But I am fair game, please don’t pull any punches. If you can demolish what I say with rational and reasoned arguments, be my guest. I shall welcome it! Mind you, though, you are also fair game. A good, proper debate between peers, with proper arguments is what we do! I positively hate all these lukewarm responses with Canderel-sweetened comments. Yuck!
And finally, the best advice.
- Practice, practice, practice. Don’t ever come to a conference not knowing how long it takes you say your presentation. Learn it by heart, if you need to. It won’t kill you!
And yes, I still practice (although it takes a tenth of the time it took 20 years ago). I never go over the time, in fact, I very often finish well before the time – I actually want the questions! I always try to make the audience laugh, they start listening. I walk, I gesticulate, I shout. And yes, I’m still nervous.
The best paper I’ve ever heard was a plenary delivered by Mick Billig at the ICLASP conference in Ottawa. The setting was prepared perfectly by Jonathan Potter (with whom I later danced during the conference dinner!) with a few stories about Mick. The lecture was a performance. I still remember the gestures, the voice modulations, the walking, the eye-contact. The audience were spell-bound, including me. It was perfection. And there was plenty of time for questions. No, I didn’t dare ask any, it was so out of my league.
PS. And here I have an extra point. If you think, your presentation which you read, ran over the time, put to sleep half the audience was acceptable, use exactly the same standard when marking your students’ presentations!