How to be a big draw, not a big bore

October 1, 2004

Do you fantasise about speaking in exotic places, audiences hanging on to your every word? Harriet Swain reveals how to be the darling, not the dud, of the conference circuit.

So you want an all-expenses-paid trip to an exotic location. You want business-class flights, cocktail parties, gala dinners and entertainment. You want people to travel hundreds of miles to listen to you and you want them to laugh uproariously at your jokes. And you want these invitations to keep coming.

In short, you want to be a keynote speaker.

Well, first things first. How about starting with a few poster presentations? And are you aware of all the potential conferences coming up at which people might be interested in your startling research insights? Have you submitted abstracts to all of them?

Belinda Hopley, conferences manager at the Institute of Physics, says that while all the work submitted is reviewed by the institute's programme committees, a very high proportion will be accepted. The important thing is to get it there.

Sarah Jane Blakemore, a research fellow in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, who has quickly become something of a hot ticket on the conference scene, submitted one abstract a year to conferences while studying for her PhD and submits three or four a year now. She says that her research can be interesting to a variety of disciplines - from philosophy to neuroscience - and she has capitalised on this.

Being aware of conference opportunities may not simply be a matter of regularly checking the websites of the professional academic associations in your subject area, reading the academic press and talking to colleagues.

You may also be able to get on the industry conference circuit. This raises the profile of your university, and, better still, pays your expenses.

It is an approach highly recommended by Rob Davidson, senior lecturer in business travel and tourism, who runs a masters course in conference management at Westminster University. He says he is invited to "practically everything" held by the conference industry because academic conference experts are rare. "It's all about having a clear profile in what you do and not trying to do everything," he says. "Choose your specialism carefully."

He also recommends engaging with the industry by writing textbooks and getting published in both the professional and academic press. He admits, however, that the industry conference circuit is harder for those in the "philosophy industry". And he advises against concentrating all your efforts on industry. "You have to try to go to both, otherwise you are not known to your peers," he says. "You have to keep that profile high as well."

Networking and profile-raising are not enough. You also need to give conference organisers what they are looking for. Helen Wilson, conference and events manager at the British Psychological Society, says it is surprisingly common for academics to ignore the guidelines in a call for papers. She says that because of the numbers of submissions they receive, papers will often be discounted if academics have ignored requests concerning how to lay them out, how to fill in details and the importance of sticking to the conference theme.

"We do have people submitting papers with absolutely no relevance to the conference," she says. "We are looking for up-to-date work, not some paper being brought out again and again." Particularly likely to be selected are the controversial papers that encourage debate.

But even if the research is new and controversial, that is not enough - conference organisers also want you to put this across to their audiences.

Davidson says: "There are some dire speakers out there and I'm sad to say that academic speakers are among the direst. Some can take a very exciting subject and kill it dead. You pity their students."

Presentation and communication skills are therefore essential. According to Davidson, nearly every conference nowadays concludes with a survey, in which participants are asked to rate every speaker from one to five on content, style and so on. These are collected by the conference organisers, who write reports based on the findings and use them in planning the following year's conference. "If you don't come well out of that, you will never be invited again," he warns. "The big word in conference circles is 'return on investment'. If you are going to have someone travelling halfway around the world, you need to know it's going to be worth your while."

As for getting to the stage where organisers invite you to give a keynote speech, you really need to be such a big cheese that all-expenses paid trips abroad will have become more of an annoyance than a perk. And you'll be expected to work hard, too. Wilson says that the BPS aims for a name that a lot of people outside the immediate field will have heard of, someone who is dynamic and able to present their well-regarded and well-known research to a wide audience. In return for their travel, they will be expected to linger to talk politely to delegates and probably chair another session.

Angela Clow, chair of the BPS's standing conference committee, agrees that she looks for keynote speakers who are charismatic without being prima donnas. "You don't get away with anything until the quality of your research is right," she says, but she also stresses how important it is for anyone wanting to be invited to speak at a conference to get themselves heard by as many people as possible as often as possible. "It can be a huge gamble if you are running a conference and your keynote speakers might turn out to be a flop," she says. "You are not going to take a huge gamble."

Blakemore warns that being a conference leading lady isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. "You can spend all your time jetting off around the world, which sounds glamorous but really isn't," she says. "For a start you have to spend time away from your work."

Further information: Websites of the professional bodies in your subject area, for example British Psychological Society ( www.bps.org.uk ), Royal Historical Society ( www.rhs.ac.uk ), Institute of Physics ( www.iop.org ), specialist industry publications in your subject area

TOP TIPS

  • Keep track of conferences and calls for papers in your subject area
  • Follow submission guidelines when responding to calls for papers
  • Learn how to communicate to non-specialists and non-academics
  • Make sure your university press office has heard of you
  • Network: make sure you leave the university from time to time

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