Making the Most of Conference Attendance

It might seem easy to present at a conference — after all, it’s more or less just cashing in on the earlier work you did to apply to the conference and write your paper — but if you want to make the most out of your presence at the event, you have to be ready to do so much more than get up and speak. I’m freshly back from my trip to Europe, which included a presentation at the Practices of (In)Visibility conference held at the University of Brighton. I had an amazing time speaking about neoliberal and patriarchal violence in the Juarez femicide trend (a topic you’ve heard a lot about if you’ve been following me on twitter) at such a well-organized event, put on by the Critical Studies Research Group at the University of Brighton, but whether you’re speaking at your own institution or traveling abroad for the event, there are a few universal tips for the best possible conference experience, which I’ve shared after the cut.

During your presentation…
In preparing for your conference, you have probably done a lot of work centering on your own presentation — as you should! A good delivery is key to making a good impression for both your research and yourself; this is your time to shine and make people take notice. By the time you reach the conference floor, you probably feel like you’ve got it all under control, but here are a few more things to add to your presentation preparation checklist.

  • Introduce yourself to the other people in your session or panel. At most conferences, unless you’re the keynote speaker, you will be grouped by theme into smaller blocks of several presenters. This is fantastic for those looking to network, since you already know who is doing something similar to you! Ask an organizer to point out who your fellow session-mates are if it’s not immediately obvious. Bonus: knowing the people on stage with you can help cut down last minute nerves too!
  • Speak slowly, and make eye contact while speaking. It seems pretty basic, something we have all heard a thousand times in public speaking classes, but I know that personally no matter how slow I think I am talking, I always,¬†always, speed up when I am in front of an audience. Remember to pause for a breath at the end of major points or paragraph breaks!
  • Answer questions thoughtfully, and offer to follow up. If you have presented at conferences before, you know that at some point an audience member will ask a question that is too deep or has too many parts to fully answer in the allotted Q&A time. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, see this as a blessing! Someone is invested in your presentation and wants to know more, lots more. I find the best strategy is to give a general overview of what you’d like to discuss, and then make sure to catch the person during a coffee or lunch break in order to chat more. Any business handbook can tell you: the follow up is key!

During other presentations…
I hope all of our readers here at BGMB know the value of having an intellectual community around you, as well as the importance of supporting other scholars and industry professionals, so it should be obvious that attending the other conference sessions where possible is key to a great event. We come to conferences to share our own work, but also to learn from the work of others, and if we are lucky, making connections between the two can help everyone’s research grow in new ways. If you have already spoken, appearing at other sessions can be a great way to continue thinking about your own topic, and if you are waiting for your session later, attending other talks will help you get an idea of what your audience will be like. Use these tips to be the best possible audience member you can be.

  • Use the conference program strategically. Once I get a final copy of the program, whether in advance or on the day of the event, I try to go through it looking for panels and speakers that are relevant to my topic, and plan to attend all of them. Then I fill in gaps in my schedule by choosing the events that seem interesting, or that I am not sure of what to expect. I like a conference experience that both reinforces my intellectual community and forces me to expand my horizons. Sometimes for larger conferences, choosing between two simultaneous presentations is tough, but there is no better compliment to a speaker than to have someone ask to see their work later, so do not be afraid to reach out to everyone you are interested in.
  • Take notes. I am a huge iPhone addict, as previously established on this blog, so unfortunately I am the type of person sitting in the back of a session typing away on my screen as people talk. It may look like I am texting, but I am actually filling up my Evernote account with details about the talk that are relevant to my research, or that I can come back to later to think about more. Maybe you are a pen and paper kind of note taker, but jotting down even just key phrases or questions during a talk will help keep you focused, teach you about the vocabulary being used in your field (I learned the term “necropolitics” during Practices of (in)Visibility and I am obsessed with it!), and give you something to draw on when asking questions.
  • Ask thoughtful questions! A good rule of thumb is to ask the kind of questions that you would want to receive yourself. Sometimes it is obvious where presenters wish they had more time to spend discussing something but must move on for the sake of time, sometimes you have questions about the background to their project, sometimes you have a great idea of where they can take this research further. Good questions encourage dialogue and inform everyone involved.

During the downtime…
You won’t spend all your time at the conference sitting in sessions or keynote speeches, even one day events will most likely have a reception or coffee break at some point. The unstructured time can seem intimidating, especially if you are traveling to the conference alone and have not already met the other attendees. Introverts may feel more comfortable hanging back and observing the others, but if ¬†like me you are determined to put yourself out there and make the most of every situation, here are some tips you can use.

  • Continue conversations. If you were asked a big question during your talk, or want to discuss more about someone else’s work, coffee or lunchtime is the perfect chance to do so in a more casual setting.
  • Get introduced to others. Want to meet the keynote? Need to know what someone’s name is after you forgot? Grab an organizer or someone you have already met and ask to be introduced. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, introduce yourself!
  • Don’t be all work. Conferences can be social as much as they are academic or work related. Especially during meal breaks or any post-conference group outings, use that time to get to know your fellow presenters outside of their research. You’ll make connections and find even more chances to stay in touch with the community.

Your work does not end once you get to the conference, no matter how much you prepare in advance. Being the best possible speaker and attendee that you can is how to make connections, build your intellectual community, and increase your own visibility within the field. We here at BGMB are all about community building and finding your space, so reach out to us on Twitter with your best practices for a great conference. #BGMBmakeitwork

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