Wow the crowds, avoid the crook

March 24, 2006

Speaking at a conference can be terrifying. Kevin Fongadvises holding your nerve and avoiding fisticuffs with the bloke asking irritating questions

As The Times Higher publishes its conference supplement, it seems appropriate to give you a survival guide to this essential facet of academic life.

Conferences are where it happens for the academic community: a chance to put faces to the names on those famous papers. There are forums where reputations are forged or torn asunder and opportunities to form international collaborations with your peers. But the conference world can be a strange one. The social engagement with peers ranges from great to plain horrific. Witness the awkward conversation in the queue for the buffet followed by squirming in the bar and hours of cringing at the disco.

And then there is the phenomenon of finding out that your academic idol is a pretty nasty piece of work in the flesh, with a repellent personality and some personal hygiene problems.

My first piece of advice is to pick your conferences wisely. That hard-won travel budget evaporates quickly. There is more to it than location, location, location - but it is easy to forget this when choosing between a potentially valuable academic programme in Reading and a slightly more wishy-washy one in Hawaii. Just remember that if you are going abroad and skipping times zones, it is likely that you will spend the first couple of days dozing through the afternoon sessions while enduring nights of frustrating insomnia.

The spectre of standing up and presenting your piece looms large. But hold your nerve. Most of the threats are imagined, and the crowd is always less hungry for blood than you think. Speak up, steady the laser pointer with both hands and subdue the urge to accelerate. But take care not to overrun because getting yanked off the stage with a shepherd's crook while in mid-presentation rarely goes well for anyone.

Then it is time for questions. It is hard to know which is worse at this stage: the ignominy of deafening silence or the lamb-to-the-slaughter deal.

And what do you do about the professional hecklers? They're the people you imagine make a career out of spotting the loose thread in your fine tapestry before pulling at it viciously and unravelling the whole piece in a single sarcastic sentence. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the best form of defence is a good offence and if someone takes a pop at you then it is tempting to take a pop back. But beware: if the session chair does not step in at the right time, this sort of thing can degenerate into an unpleasant bit of verbal tit-for-tat and, before you know it, you are brawling in the aisles.

Just remember, there are in essence only three types of question: the interesting one to which you know the answer that leaves you and your interrogator looking good; the interesting one to which you do not know the answer that gives you something constructive to think about on the way home; and the irritating one from the bloke who is trying to make you look stupid but in the process only diminishes himself.

My final word of advice is that physical survival is also important. An obvious point perhaps but, at the time of writing, I am taking part in a ski meeting in the French Alps. I arrived on Saturday and am speaking twice on Friday. It's Tuesday and I can't ski. The clever money is on me being temporarily inconvenienced by a tree and the conference organisers being short of a couple of talks.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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