I need a survival guide for conferences. Anyone got one?

I go to quite a few academic conferences and to be honest, they sometimes make me fear for my sanity. Mood swings; weird rages against people (OK, men) who insist on stating the blindingly obvious at great length, in obscure academic jargon; a twitchy need to check emails and twitter feed every few minutes; sudden enthusiasms and exhaustions. I seem to be especially prone to erratic behaviour on the 1st day, then calm down a bit after that.

Anyone recognize this? Hope so, for purely selfish reasons. Assuming that I am not the only one who experiences conferences as an ordeal, what would be some useful advice for how to attend and get the most out of them? Here are some questions I need answered:

Socializing v working: if the conference runs over several days, the evenings are good times to unwind, get to know people socially etc. But should you drink and stay up late even if it means you have a brainfade by 2pm the next day?

Self care: How do you make sure you get enough sleep in overheated hotel rooms? Should you go running in the mornings, even if it means you’ll feel knackered later on. And how do you avoid mindlessly scoffing the conference pastries?

Annoying people: Should you force yourself to listen to people who really irritate you, as they often have useful things to say (at least I assume they do – I haven’t cracked this yet)? And if you can’t stand it any more, are people wise to the trick of clamping your lifeless phone to your ear and talking into it as you leave the room, pretending that it was on vibrate and someone has called?

Boring speakers/presentations: Do you give up on them and go into standby mode to save energy, or gamely try to find something useful in every contribution?

Pacing Yourself: If you’re not an extrovert, and so find the constant interaction of conferences deeply draining, how do you recharge your batteries/find personal time? Is it OK to chill with mates at lunch/coffee, or should you diligently network with strangers at every break?

Going to sleep: Is it technically possible to nod off, but look convincingly like you are just listening with your eyes closed?

Listening v Talking: I know we should be listening deeply to each other, and there’s nothing more annoying than watching people preparing their own remarks instead of paying attention to the speaker, but my male brain struggles with multi-tasking: if I genuinely listen to what is being said, I find it hard to shift gear and then speak. How do you get the balance right?

Laptop etiquette: Is it rude and unacceptable to answer your emails and tweets in the meeting, or a perfectly reasonable response to presentations that are either bad or just not relevant to you? After all, as you sit there, the work is piling up in your inbox. If it is uncool, how quickly can you reasonably nip into the conference room while everyone else is registering/having coffee, and bag a seat next to the wall (preferably with a power socket) where no-one can see your screen?

Hidden Power: If it’s a decision-making conference, eg on a future research agenda, how do you work out where decisions are actually being made on the next phase of a research programme? If you’re not in the room for that, but you still want to influence the decisions, is it better to suggest a dozen things and hope that one sticks, or go into advocacy mode and just keep banging on about the same issue to try and browbeat them into submission?

I’d welcome your answers and additions, as always.

And here are some previous conference rants on international conferences, a particularly bad EU conference and why we need a war on panels. Which suggests that another survival strategy is writing snarky blogs about the conference you are currently sitting through…..

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9 Responses to “I need a survival guide for conferences. Anyone got one?”
  1. Rémi

    I found this guide useful (if partly tongue-in-cheek): http://nonprofitaf.com/2018/07/tips-from-introverts-for-introverts-on-how-to-survive-a-conference/. “Bring knitting”sounds great.
    Sharing this guide with colleagues has helped create some better panels / formats: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-run-conference-panel-isnt-horrible-adam-grant/ (I also share https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/nov/11/dont-be-a-conference-troll-a-guide-to-asking-good-questions?CMP=share_btn_tw and https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/reflections-long-conversation-format-staging-more-nicholas-carl/)
    And personally, what helps me is 1) planning it well so that I can say no to extra workload and remain sane, and have excuses to go away from a bad conversation; and 2) having one or several conference buddies – nice people I can meet up at lunch or for a drink and relax, and with whom I can share stupid GIFs by whatsapp during boring panels, just to relax – and sometimes have other perspectives on the same event…

  2. Franziska

    I need those tips! Lately I’ve been feeling every conference I’ve been to has tried to kill me. So I’m really the worst to advise — my introversion makes pretty much any conference just plain draining. No matter how exciting some bits and bobs are, when you feel like an empty battery when you walk out (and that’s on day 1, before the ‘totally optional fun social evening dinner/drinks/panel discussion’), those are hard to remember.

    What has helped a little is to decide in advance when I really want to make an effort, especially socially, and when not – then I give it my all (which is much less than what’s normal for others), but don’t feel guilty the rest of the time. I’m also rather ruthless about catching up on emails and other tasks when a presenter doesn’t make an effort and gives a terrible presentation. Other than the amazingly terrible examples you gave, I would rate reading off endless minuscule text verbatim from slides as enough offence to switch off. When people make time to come to your session, they shouldn’t be treated to a minimum standard of good presentation. Again, if not – no guilt. Also it does help me to go for a run in the morning or head to the hotel gym, mostly because that’s me time. Plus maybe do a short mediation on Headspace if I can remember.

    • Gillian

      completely agree! Day 1 & 2 are always great, but so many conferences are 4-5 day affairs now (sometimes not including satellite sessions!) that my brain is completely melted by the end and I can’t absorb anything new. My strategy (as demonstrated this week), is to skip at least 1 social night to watch bad TV while eating room service, and to bring my yoga mat so that when the idea of running in a strange city is a bit overwhelming I can still do a bit of exercise!

  3. Yohanna

    Tweeting during presentations is mandatory! Think about all those unable to attend the conference but still interested to know what’s going on. I really appreciate when participants share the most interesting quotes from a presentation, distill its main points, relay Q&A, etc – and I bet it helps them remain engaged as well.

  4. It sounds like you guys are attending shitty, unproductive conferences. With all the (emotional) costs you (collectively) incur from this, what about the idea of investing in better working conferences? Rather than optimising your participation in default setup broken ones like with the tips above.

    Me and my company are good at that: tailoring conference formats to particular contexts, and experiences. There’s so much demand for it that we’re writing a book on it to empower others who are trapped in crappy conference circuits: http://peerlearning.guide

  5. I have run electronic participation sessions at conferences (academics + practitioners). I used WebIQ to get people to list the criteria they use to distinguish between good and bad examples of public consultation, then got them to cluster the criteria to find specific ways of evaluating public consultation.

    So the solution is to propose to run a session that is different from the usual presentations and panels.

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