Reflections on doing an invited keynote

Donald Nicolson has worked in academic research since 2001 and is still an independent scholar, much to the chagrin of himself and his family.

In July 2018, he gave an invited keynote address to the Association for Borderland Studies conference in Vienna, from which this piece arose.

His first book ‘Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities’ was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Some people think it is not bad.

He can be approached on Twitter @the_mopster.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao | unsplash.com

Photo by Nathan Dumlao | unsplash.com

“We would like to wholeheartedly invite you to give the introductory keynote speech at our conference,” said the message on Research Gate.

“Oh yeah,” I thought, “Another scam conference invitation!”

But one that was not scheduled for Las Vegas or Bangkok. Working from the cautious maxim that I should not be so cynical, I decided to do some investigating, just in case. A one-hour Skype call with the Conference Chair convinced me that she and the conference were both real.

This was not a case of too good to be true. Very quickly, I had gone from cynicism, to shock, to pride, to excitement at being invited.

One year on from this invite, with said keynote done in July 2018, I am in a better space to be able to reflect on this. I learned a few things, and am sharing them here! 

Understand why you have been invited

Keynotes are often given by superstar Professors. I worked in Health Services Research, and so was probably unknown to the conference, which focused on borders, unless people had read my book. As a postdoc researcher with a chequer-board career, it made sense when it was explained that the conference had an initiative to invite young pretenders to present the keynotes. And the Conference Chair had read my book, which examined conferences. Therefore, she hoped that I would talk about problems with conferences.

A chance to shine

I could have just proposed to present a condensed version of my book, and used material I already had. But here was a chance to shine! So, I decided to sketch out an abstract that detailed further problems with conferences, and how these might relate to travel and borders. Any lingering doubts I had about the legitimacy of the invitation were dispelled when I saw my abstract, bio and picture on the conference website last December.

Ever the enthusiast, after Christmas I started to draft my slides. Some notes then followed. What I thought was done and dusted in January was only completed four days before leaving for the conference. I made my slides look like a newspaper in an attempt to play around with the iconography of a keynote, and with an aim to disrupt expectations.

Practice until you are sick to the back teeth

I treated the invitation as the greatest honour in my waning academic career, and so thought long and hard about how I would present. I swayed back and forth re-reading from print, paraphrasing from slide notes, or doing it sans notes. I practiced the latter most often because I found that the few opportunities I had to practice my talk were when my notes were not at hand.

I made good use of the family dinner table, as well as a long car journey with my brother (where, using the principle of a captive audience, I tried to remember and recite my notes from heart). It was watching AJP Taylor that inspired me to go sans notes (check out his lecture style).

By July, I was tired of presenting and tweaking, which indicated to me that it was good to go. I had a long opening gambit for those who did not know me from Adam. I passed this on to the delegate who was to introduce me, which gave her the information she needed, and freed up some space for my talk. I figured a dynamic opening speaking from the heart about how my historic brain insult had potentially impacted on my ability to travel to conferences. I was going all out to impress and prove my academic chops from the get-go.

Negotiate the time of your talk

I had not given much thought to the timing of my talk, which was scheduled to be at 18:45 (6:45PM). I noted a conference reception after it, and hoped that this would ensure a good turnout, because I know crowds often dwindle by nightfall. I only realised on the day that the reception event was for students only, taking place at 19:00 (7PM), and a kilometre from my talk.

My talk gathered an audience of 25-30 people. As I stood looking at the rows of empty seats, I realised that I should have anticipated the poor time slot and requested a different one, months in advance. I had hoped some of the Great and the Good would have hung around, and so maybe struck up a conversation afterwards but I failed to see them. Ironically, if it had been held in a smaller room, there would have been a much better atmosphere because it would have been full. Then again, the camera crew filming would have had to have decanted and set up their equipment again.

All the world’s a stage, darling

As I began to talk to the near empty hall, my feeling was that my efforts (the preparation and anticipation) had all been wasted; that any hope of starting a discussion, and using the event to promote my career (I had just finished a one-year research contract), was in vain. Despite being a seasoned public speaker at conferences, I was a little nervous even though it was such a small audience. I felt my vocal chords constrict tighter than a duck’s proverbial, and I feared that I might sound like one.

I was certain in the earlier months of preparation that I did not want to stand at a podium and talk. I prefer to walk among the audience. Good idea, but talking and walking up and down the theatre stairs proved too fraught with danger. Instead I went from left to right on the small stage, in an attempt to ‘work the audience’. As I began to talk, I could pick out my wife in the audience pointing to the Heavens above. It turned out I had the microphone too far away from my mouth.

I quickly found my stride and relaxed. Normally, I like to joke. Sometimes, a scripted joke, but often just something spontaneous. I had thought long and hard about this, and decided that: a) my jokes might be lost on an International audience; and b) joking might detract from the importance of the occasion. Nevertheless, I did a few spontaneous jokes, and one deliberate one, to a mixed reception.

“That would be an ecumenical matter”

I hate answering questions. I joked that my catch-all when answering questions at a conference is “That would be a research governance matter” (therein lay one of my spontaneous jokes, where I broke out of my monotone voice for a moment). I thankfully didn’t get asked any difficult questions at the end but nevertheless, as I said, it genuinely felt like the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I was referring to the Q&A; but it could have held for my keynote.

Post-match analysis

My wife, a colleague and I went to a bar-restaurant nearby for dinner and drinks. I noted in the packed crowd watching the World Cup semi-finals, several people from the conference. I suspect the schedule clash was another reason for the sparse crowd. I wanted to make an impact in my keynote, and I had hoped that I would present before a larger crowd of peers. Therefore, I was dejected to say the least. A colleague reassured me that the recording once live might be where its long-term impact was.

Back in our hotel, my wife showed me her recording of it on her phone. Apart from the sound being difficult to hear, I thought my speaking seemed not too bad – amazingly, no apparent nerves in my voice. I sought to reconcile myself. Just maybe what I said in my talk – about the impact of a conference rarely being in the moment, but rather down the line – was relevant for my own talk. The recording went live at the end of August and as of mid-October, had racked up 172 unique viewings. Using the most pertinent part of my talk, I quickly got out a short article on the problems of visa rejection for academics attending conferences. Already five times as many people have watched my talk online as in real-time, and thousands more have read part of it. My keynote is a slow-burner. For my career progress’ sake, I would rather the fire spread more quickly.

It’s not me, it’s you

So, it hadn’t all gone wrong that night. I cannot fault anyone who might have wondered who the hell I was, did not have the stamina to stay until 18:45, wanted to catch-up with international colleagues, watch the football, or just did not care about my talk. I can see that my disappointment in real time stemmed from the unattainable build up I gave in anticipation.

I would say to anyone that they should accept a keynote invitation. But don’t assume that everyone will want to hear it. Then again, of those 25-30 who stayed until 19:30, not one was killing time. They had all deliberately stayed to listen to me.

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