Thursday, 25 April 2013

How to annoy people at conferences; or, a few hints for keeping the Chair and the audience happy.

Posted by Sally Brown

I attended the British Sociological Association conference a couple of weeks ago, and it was an excellent conference with a wide range of interesting papers on all topics under the sociology umbrella. However, I confess that during a couple of papers my mind began to drift, and I was thinking more about what the presenter was doing wrong and not about what they were saying. Having racked up many hours at conferences, listening to papers and chairing sessions, a list of “what to do when presenting a paper” began to form.

No presenter wants to lose the attention of their audience, annoy their fellow presenters or get on the wrong side of the person chairing the session (you never know when they might be chairing you again!), so I hope the following hints and tips help anyone preparing to present at a conference.

Presumably the president is not used to loosing the attention of his audience

1. Turn up, and be on time. Seems obvious, but some people who are on the programme sometimes just don’t show up. If you know you can’t make it, withdraw ahead of time. Fair enough, sometimes there’s a crisis and you can’t get there on the day, in which case ring the conference and tell them you’re stuck on a train (or wherever you are) as it will save the Chair of the session running up and down three flights of stairs looking for you.

2. Get into the room ahead of your session, load your presentation onto the desktop, then check that it opens. If you’re doing anything complicated like using video clips or sound, test them. Timing is usually quite tight and if you only have 10 minutes to speak, you don’t want to lose 3 trying to get your presentation to work.

3. While we’re on timing – before the conference, find out how long you’ve got, then practice until you are spot on. As a Chair, one of the most annoying things people do, when I wave the “one minute to go” sign, is to say “I’ve only got a few more slides” then take five minutes to finish. Even worse is to do that when I’m holding the “please stop” sign. For one thing, it eats into your allocated question and discussion time, and equally as important, it potentially eats into your fellow presenters’ time. I once chaired a session where the presenter refused to stop after her allocated 20 minutes, continued talking for another ten, and then when I stopped her and said we had no time for questions, she complained. To me, it’s showing disrespect to the Chair and the other presenters, and you don’t want to get a reputation for being inconsiderate.

4. The other thing that practising will show you is that you can’t fit 55 powerpoint slides into a 15 minute presentation. My rough rule of thumb is one slide per minute. And don’t spend 15 minutes on your background and introduction, and only start on the meaty stuff when the Chair waves the “five minutes to go” sign. If you’ve got a ton of interesting data, pick out 2 or 3 elements that you think are crucial, and focus on them. I find a presentation that really gets to grips with a few of the key findings and issues is much more engaging than one that skates over every code and category that emerged during analysis, but doesn’t really give the audience any insights into any of them. Of course, if your slot is longer than 15 minutes, you can fit more in, but I’d still suggest you consider going for greater depth on a few elements rather than trying to cram loads of material in.

5. Don’t have slides packed with lines of solid text, and don’t read out your slides word for word. You’ve got two ways of presenting your material, verbal and visual, so use them both effectively. Slides jammed with text, or a series of slides being read aloud means a boring presentation.

6. Take advantage of the fact that you’re in a room with people who have decided that your abstract is interesting enough for them to listen to you, even if you can’t fit everything into your presentation. Tell your audience that you’re presenting a selection of the key findings, and that you’re happy to chat afterwards about your paper. Some of the best bits of conferences are the bits that happen between papers, at coffee or at lunch.

7. Enjoy it! You’ve practised, you know your material inside out, you’ve got the right number of slides, your video insert works and you’ll be on your final remarks just before that “please stop” sign gets waved, so relax and give a great presentation.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this blog. Last week I took part in a series of keynotes and then chaired three sessions at a two day conference and NOT ONE single speaker had timed their slot other than me.