VIP: very irregular podium

Some speaking engagements discomfort Tim Birkhead, but he is undeterred

November 5, 2009

Research-active academics thrive on invitations. Few of us can resist an invitation to talk about our work, especially if it involves going somewhere nice. The way we are treated determines how productive, stimulating and enjoyable the visit is.

When academics host visiting speakers either in their department or at a conference, there is an excellent code of practice. The seminar visit is pretty safe: safe in terms of having an audience, and in terms of being fed, watered and given a comfortable bed, either in a colleague's home or a hotel.

But there is a major trap one can fall into with invitations to speak at a conference. After you agree to take part, your host says: "By the way, we are publishing the proceedings - please bring your paper with you."

This is an insult: such a requirement should be made clear when the invitation is given. It is an insult at another level, too: few academics ever bother to read conference proceedings, because few academics bother to put anything novel into them, because few think anyone will read them.

I fell into this trap once. I wrote the chapter, only for my host to say as I handed it to him: "What's this?" When I reminded him of his request, he said: "Ah yes ... well, you are the first." And of course, there was a 36-month delay before publication.

If you have given talks only at academic meetings, speaking at non-academic events can be an interesting experience. Often they are fabulous, not least because you meet charming and hospitable people, but sometimes, as the name implies, "outreach" events can carry one well outside one's comfort zone.

Because my research is on birds, I get invitations to talk to amateur ornithological societies. On one occasion, I was invited to speak to a group of bird-keepers made up almost entirely of men - builders, steelworkers, ex-miners and decorators - in a somewhat seedy pub.

I had my PowerPoint presentation ready and waited for what seemed an age to be formally introduced, only for my host - obviously irritated - to shout across the room: "Well, go on then!" I did.

On another occasion, I spoke to a bird club about the lack of effect that the magpie (Britain's most hated bird) has on songbird populations. In a large collaborative project, we found that even though magpies are known to eat songbird eggs and young, there is no evidence that magpies depress songbird populations.

At the end of the talk, an old-fashioned gentleman wearing a three-piece suit stood up to give a vote of thanks.

"Well, you've given us a lot of information about magpies ... but we don't believe you, do we?" he said, looking at the audience, all of whom solemnly shook their heads.

Be warned: non-academic invitations often result in food, alcohol and sometimes sleep deprivation. The watchwords seem to be: "Do not provide any form of nourishment." This doesn't always happen, but often enough. Perhaps the hosts assume scholars to be of such elevated status that they don't require the same sustenance as ordinary mortals.

Once when I travelled to give a talk due to start at 7pm, I left Sheffield at 4pm and stopped for fish and chips before the event. When I was asked what my expenses were, I mentioned the fish and chips, only to be told "that isn't covered". Perhaps I was naive.

Not long ago, I was invited to what sounded like a particularly stimulating non-academic meeting that involved several nights away. I was told that the speakers would be accommodated in tents - "but don't worry, these are VIP tents and are extremely comfortable".

I've done lots of fieldwork and wasn't fazed by camping, although a tiny maggot at the back of my mind wriggled uneasily.

I arrived after a long drive, met my host and in due course was shown my VIP tent. My heart sank. As far as I could see, there was nothing "VIP" about it: multiple occupancy; no beds; very thin sleeping bags; and a 500m walk across a field to the conveniences. In hindsight I should have protested, but politeness prevented me.

The conference started and was fine, but by 11pm I'd had enough and went to "bed". The ground was very hard and very cold; lying in a foetal position wearing every item of clothing I had with me, I waited in vain for sleep to come.

Instead, at about 3am, in came my tentmates, none of whom I knew, all of whom had consumed vast quantities of alcohol (if only I'd done the same). They proceeded to snore and fart their way very noisily through the night. Ah yes, VIP - "very inebriated people". Hardly the most appropriate environment for preparing to give a talk first thing the next morning.

Lest I sound like a whingeing ninny, there was a silver lining to this stormy night: I now know I can give a reasonable talk on no sleep whatsoever.

But don't let my experience deter you from engaging with the public. It hasn't put me off, and overall I still find non-academic events to be every bit as stimulating as our more usual invitations.

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