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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Basic Conference Etiquette: Don't Be THAT Guy

Anyone who attends conferences (academic or otherwise) knows there are three kinds of annoying people who attend:

  1. People who run way overtime.
  2. People who do not come prepared to give a talk.
  3. People who don't actually ask a question during the Q&A.
There are probably more, but I'd like to talk about just these three for anyone thinking of attending a conference.  There may be a bit of snark to follow...

STFU Already
When I say that people who run way overtime are annoying, I am not referring to people who add 3 minutes to a 15-minute presentation.  That's practically normal, in all honesty.  Rather, I'm referring to douchebags who run 5-10 minutes over time.  Because when you run over time, you're in fact saying "I did not prepare at all."  You're saying "I'm more important."  "Who cares if I suck time away from the others?  They're dumbasses anyway."

And here's the truth:  you're not that interesting that we want to hear you talk for longer than the allotted time.  Really.  You're not.  While you drone on and on about your topic, we're hoping you'll shut up so we can get a drink, or shift in our chairs, or move on to another person with a different topic.  Some of us even hope you fall down so we can laugh.  Others hope for worse things (perhaps you'll catch an STD from the chair, or one of the lamp fixtures will accidentally fall on you, or a gorilla will run into the room and kidnap you...if only...)

If you go to a conference, don't be that guy.  Practice.  It's okay if you go over a little bit.  It happens.  Things never go exactly as planned.  But don't bring a 20-page paper to a conference where you've got 20 minutes to present.  3 minutes a double-spaced page -- that's the average.

Rambling About Nonsense Does Not a Talk Make
Let me tell you a story about an annoying person.  This person happened to have flown all the way to Florida from a foreign university (no, the foreign-ness isn't relevant except to say "he came a long way for a conference").  He came with some papers in hand -- presumably his presentation.  And so, when said person went up to give his talk, you'd assume he gave something like a talk, right?  Wrong.  Said person decided that he'd ramble about a famous philosopher for close to 20 minutes (5 minutes over time; see previous point), read three paragraphs from his presentation, and decided his presentation would be a good time to hawk his book and the conference he's putting together elsewhere.  Oh-ho!  You sly devil.

People come to conferences for two main reasons:
  1. To meet people (network)
  2. To hear new ideas
They don't go to conferences to be lectured to about things that make no sense, nor to be inundated with advertising.

When you go to a conference, it is essential that you actually have something prepared.  It need not be an essay proper.  I've seen great talks given by people working straight from notes, and people working from PowerPoint.  But you have to have something to say, or you're wasting everyone's time.  And that pisses people off, especially if they have academic standards.

Is There a Question in There?
I once suffered the consequences of a rambler at an academic conference.  Ramblers are a kind of pernicious virus that can't actually infect anyone with anything but annoyance.  This rambler decided to use all 15 minutes of the Q&A section to launch critiques at one of my fellow panelists.  No questions.  Just "I disagree, and here's why, and also there's this, and here's why that is relevant.  Oh?  You answered?  Well, how about this..."  

If it takes you more than one minute to lay out your question, then you should save it for afterwards.  Q&A is about getting answers; it is not your soapbox.  We don't want to hear your voice for 15 minutes.  Get your own panel!  If you want a soapbox, get a blog (hey, look at that -- I've got one!).  Otherwise, ask your question, sit down, and shut up.

And Moving On
Don't do these things.  If you want to be taken seriously.  If you want people to be interested in what you have to say.  If you actually want people to respect your opinion (that doesn't mean they like you, but it does mean that when they listen, they actually want to engage).  If you want all that, then you have to act like a professional.  Come prepared with an appropriate-length presentation.  And make sure that you don't spend forever trying to ask a non-question question.

Or you can be a douchebag.  Up to you...

Any questions?

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