Just finished presenting a paper at a conference. I was dreading it because in a fit of enthusiasm I applied to a conference that was not really in my field, and I got accepted. It was an international conference in Hong Kong itself so I thought it might be a good idea to go, and then got cold feet about being a fish out of water.
In the end, I did a one-day registration. It’s actually quite nice to attend for just a day. Okay, so you don’t get aeons of time to network, but I do find the amount of coffee breaks at conferences excruciating. There is only so much of small talk and circulation one can do, no? And I notice people tend to stand around talking to their own friends mostly. If that’s the case, what is the point of flying halfway across the world to chat in a strange room to people you already know?
Like I asked someone for directions, we ended up having a little chat (which I initiated), then she excused herself because her friends were waving to her. I wasn’t gutted or offended because anyway I wanted to pee, but it seems silly to rush off to your friends when the point of conferences is to meet new people.
One day was perfect, because I missed the first coffee break so I only had one more coffee break which I productively used to talk to new people. I ate lunch on my own, telling myself I needed to revise my presentation which was just after lunch. I am not averse to talking to people but I’m fed up being the one who makes the effort.
There generally seems to be a certain amount of natural camaraderie formed between the people you’re on a panel with (unless you already knew those people) so that’s a natural way to meet people. You tend to ask questions to be supportive and then continue the discussion later.
On the subject of questions, I always ask something because I think it’s embarrassing for a presenter not to get any, but I can never think of ‘easy’ questions and then I feel bad that I come across as mean. Particularly in the case of this Japanese girl, who couldn’t really answer mainly because she couldn’t understand. Note to self: when it’s obvious that someone’s English isn’t good, spare them the questions. The sad thing was that her paper was really interesting, so I didn’t mean the question as a criticism but as an opportunity ot say more but then it kind of flopped. Also, I have a rule against the usual “I really enjoyed your paper, it was really interesting” because hello, if I’m asking a question obviously I was interested enough to listen unlike the other somnolent people out there, also I find it annoying how trite those phrases come across when repeated ad infinitum, but maybe I should start using them to take the edge of questions.
The other key thing to conferences I’ve decided is to have low expectations. Just survive and move on is my new motto. Obviously, I’m scarred from my last experience, but I find that I was too brimming with enthusiasm on my first go last year. I would love to know how many people get a publication offer after these things? At most, you come away with a few more friends, which I think is useful in this business. So go in with that attitude.
Ironically, although this was not my field, this was a conference at which I felt most at home. For one, people were dressed like I expected. There were some extremely hipster folks, but a fair number in semi-business attire. One session I attended had people presenting exactly my kind of stuff. Because I am the friendly, chatty sort, even though I made minimal effort, I came away with at least two contacts. Also, a couple of people seem to have added me on Linkedin/Academia.edu right after, so that’s something, though I don’t know who they are.
I’ve still to perfect my presentation technique. I always have too much material I want to say and am dissatisfied that I cannot say it all. This time, I had to cut one whole novel from my presentation because of the time limit. But it was a good discussion because I finished right on time. I wrote a script and read it. Again this is not my preferred presentation method, though I am coming to believe that with literary analysis, part of the drama is in the wording of the argument and I cannot do that ad lib. I might just have to go with reading, but practice looking up more.
This was actually the most exciting conference I’ve attended. We were presenting in a room with huge glass windows and five minutes into the presentation of the girl before me, the roof of the building next door collapsed. My initial thought when the noise started was ‘oh construction work’, but then there was a wave of debris heading our way, and the people near the window leapt up and ran across the room in terror, and when the dust settled (literally) someone said, ‘the building next door collapsed!’ And I remembered I had seen the green roof before the session started and almost took a picture of it, but desisted because there are only so many Hong Kong skyline pictures one can have. We stood there gaping and grinning like fools, and then the panel moderator asked if we should continue or leave, and one woman sounded panicked and said “leave” and ran out. Frankly, I wanted to continue, but that’s because I wanted to get my thing over with. The girl who was presenting got the worst of it – as she was interrupted three times. It later turned out that two people had been injured in the collapse, very luckily it was not more serious.