Build your conference karma

Many years ago, when I had to give my first few academic papers and the conference dates loomed sickeningly close, I’d be almost paralysed with insecurity and brimming with angst about what could go wrong.

I’d run through my paper over and over about a fortnight before it was due to be given; no ad-libbing for me.

The whole thing would be planned to within an inch of its life AND chockers with theoretical stuffing because there was a desperate need to make sure that what I presented would be considered ‘serious’ (and we all know that nothing says ‘serious’ like incredibly dense, almost incoherent jargon).

Thankfully, I evolved, and this entry focuses on things I’ve learnt in the past decade or so’s conference-going and paper-giving. That said, I’m not setting myself up as a presentation guru.

Usual caveat: These are only suggestions, based on my personal experiences.


This is how to make conference convenors love you:

  1. Get your abstract and registration payment in on time.
  2. Keep your presentation to time.
  3. Be organised, and familiar, with the audio-visual that you’ll need.
  4. Remember that Google (or similar) is your friend. Don’t write to convenors and ask things like ‘So, what’s the weather like in X?’ or ‘What currency do you use?’. After all, you’re supposedly a researcher, right?
  5. TURN UP FOR YOUR SESSION. (Yes, it is tragic that I even have to include this, but there it is.)

Alright, now you’re at the conference.

Your paper’s written (right? RIGHT…?), and you intend to turn up on time to give it. What else does a good conference participant do?

I’m glad you asked. A good conference presenter or delegate should:

Keep presentations to time.

I know I’m already repeating myself, but I do it out of love for the considerate conference paper. There are scads of academics out there who go over time during conferences or seminars. They’re given the time-limit and they just choose to ignore it, or are too lazy to account for it. Even if your paper is the absolute bees’ knees, it’s rude to go over time because chances are that you’re using up someone else’s time. It’s not all about you, you know. Usually, you’re on a panel of three or so, and the session has an allotted time. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s that limiting thing called a 24-hour day.

For example, if you’re given 20 minutes, this means you’re given 20 minutes. It doesn’t mean giving a 20 minute paper + showing your PowerPoint slides + telling that hilarious anecdote + concluding with a 3-minute video. Time your paper before you give it, including the whiz-bang audio-visual you want to use. It’s not that hard. I find that most early career academics are very good at keeping to time. Others? Not so much. Often, they think their seniority or reputation confers a more generous time limit; this assumption is incorrect and inconsiderate.

Things that may happen to you if you go over time (all from real experiences, albeit some second-hand):

  • Paper planes – or other objects – will be thrown.
  • The panel chair will set light to your paper, or ring bells, or start the room clapping.
  • Most of the room will start shuffling their feet, rolling their eyes, or clearing their throats.

Take part in discussions and ask helpful questions.
I find this a hard one to do consistently. It’s always much easier to take stuff in and just nod sagely; this is what I do most of the time. It takes more active listening and engagement to find a question to ask.There’s always the tricky situation of someone on a panel not getting any questions, while their panel-mates may be bombarded for the entire question-time allocation. The most generous and lovely academics I know will be the ones who ask the questionless presenter a considered query. Often, the presenter who gets no questions hasn’t given a bad paper; it’s just that people latch onto the others more readily.Of course, there are times when people have given truly horrendous papers and engaging with them meaningfully is much more difficult, and undesirable in many ways. I’ve seen very astute questioning of dodgy papers that didn’t destroy the paper-giver, but led the way for fruitful discussion within the session. This is certainly the ideal, and I only know a few folks who’ve pulled this off.

Attend the bulk of any given session.
I know there are vastly different opinions on this one. This is just my take on it. Increasingly, conferences are about breaking even and this means bums on seats, which means more parallel sessions than ever. In turn, this compound scheduling means that there’ll often be a clash between sessions you want to attend. As a rule, I think it’s bad form to turn up only for a friend’s (or Big Name’s) paper in a session and leave straight away. If you must leave, do it after the entire paper and question-time if you can, rather than when another person’s presenting their work (just imagine a dozen people fleeing the room when you get up to talk and you’ll see what I mean).

I’ve attended conferences where, during a session, various people in the back rows carry on their own conversations (not whispering). I’ve been told that my being appalled at this is because of a cultural gap and that, in some countries, this is ‘normal’ conference behaviour. I just wonder, though, whether those who are happy conversing through other people’s presentations are happy to have theirs similarly treated? If you want to chat with your mates, that’s fine; just do your peers a favour and don’t attend a conference session to do it.

Not stalk keynotes.
This may sound far-fetched and I wish it was a totally ridiculous thing to say. As a convenor and fellow delegate, I’ve seen people latch onto keynote speakers something chronic. There’s having respect and admiration for the work someone does, and there’s red-flagging yourself by popping up at every meal-break to hang with your favourite post-colonialist.

Some pointers on talking with keynotes or Big Names:

    • Try to have a specific question or topic you’re rocking up to talk about. Don’t just appear in front of someone and say, “Oh, X! I’m Y, and I love your work.” This just leads to awkward pauses and nowhere for the person to go, conversationally (unless they’re very socially functional…and remember we’re talking about academia here).
      • Ask simple questions about their stay so far in the country/city, what it’s like working at X institution, or if they’ll be attending a [future relevant conference].
      • You can ask for a copy of their paper and tell them what you found most interesting about it.
      • You can offer to show them the hottest night-club in town (I’ve heard someone do this, and the keynote took them up on it. Choose your audience, of course. I’m just going to take a moment now to scrub the image of bogeying academics from my mind….ah, that’s better).

BOTTOM LINE: You don’t have to front up and be Uber-Smart. It’s much better to stick with Welcoming and Friendly.

  • Don’t engage in a vigorous critique of someone’s work in front of that person when everyone’s having lunch. I think this is plain rude. Keynotes are beholden to conferences for the duration (usually), but this doesn’t mean that they’re ‘on-stage’ the whole time. If you have a critique, fine. Bring it up during the person’s session, or send them a query afterwards. Bailing people up to dress them down, to inflate yourself, is never a good look (you should also never mix that many metaphors in one sentence).

You get as much out of a conference as you put in. Stop rolling your eyes; it’s true. What’s also true is that the quality of conferences and the vibe that each one has is incredibly variable. Some will make you feel like you’re part of something smart, important, and very worthwhile. Others will have you bitching to all your friends and family about what a bunch of junketeers academics are, or what uninspired work is glutting the place.

When non-academic people ask me how a conference went, and I respond that it was ‘fun’, they assume that that means I was being paid to loll around in some exotic setting while they were stuck at their 9-to-5 salt-mine. They’re often right (cf. David Lodge novels). Conference circuits are a staple of academic life. Your colleagues become friends and often fellow travellers. You get to hear about the latest work in your field. You meet the Big Names and the early career enthusiasts. You present what you’ve been up to and (hopefully) get much affirmation and interest in what you’re researching.

So, my advice would be:

Go forth, go regularly, and don’t take any one event too seriously.

There’s always another conference and, even if you think you made a fool of yourself at one, you can rest assured that someone else made a bigger fool of themselves at another (and that’s who everyone will be talking about).

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

5 Responses to Build your conference karma

  1. Kylie Budge says:

    Thanks for this great post Tseen! I’d have to completely agree that you get as much out of a conference as you put in. It’s like the idea that energy creates energy. If you go with the mindset that it’s going to be a waste of time then it will be. But if you go there open and inquisitive and ready to learn then it changes everything. Having said this I will admit to still having problems with conference social events though!

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I have always had a rule that I never go to the conference dinner, which is diametrically opposed to what many of my colleagues would say. I’ve always preferred finding a small cohort of people I want to get to know better, rather than hanging with a mass of others I might share a room with for a few hours.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed researching it. ;)

  2. Rose M says:

    Great post Tseen! I keep going back to this one conference, because it’s just the perfect size to recognise enough smiley faces, but not to be missed if you decide to skip a day and go shopping, lie on the beach, sightsee etc etc (around 250 delegates). Plus this conference is always held at interesting places (which is an important factor when considering choice of conference!). I will only go to a conference dinner if: a) I know at least one other person who is going, b) it is free – or included in the registration cost, and c) the food standard of the conference makes it good enough to make it worthwhile!

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I think that any academic who says that they choose a conference purely because of the conference (and never the location) is LYING. Well, either that or so incredibly virtuous that I’ve yet to meet this mythical person.

      There are quite a few association/society conferences that can get tedious if attended every single year, but I’ve been to enough of them now (usually every 2nd or 3rd year) that I find them vaguely soothing because of the familiar faces and connections with developments in that specific field.

      Catch up soon.

  3. Pingback: Tseen Khoo + Jonathan O’Donnell - The Origins of the Research Whisperer - Networked Researcher

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