Regular readers may note that last month I detailed some tips for people giving presentations. But after writing it, I realised that I had focused on the wrong group of people. Presenters can’t move for advice on how to present, but as an attendee you are left to fend for yourselves in a stressful new world, so this is a guide for you.
As an attendee, conferences are stressful even before you attend them. What kind of conference are you attending is sometimes very hard to judge in advance. Some are very formal posh affairs requiring the wearing of a suit, while others are more relaxed and everyone will be wearing jeans and sandals (mostly ecology conferences). But you don’t know that, so before you even leave the house you have to dress yourself in something that is both simultaneously relaxed and smart. You then don’t know the results of your guess at dressing yourself until you walk thought the conference centre doors.
Then comes the all important tea and coffee introductions. This is where everyone regresses to the social skills of a teenager attending their first high school prom. Everyone will hug the walls as though the middle is some kind of uncharted ocean. Occasionally, there will be small groups of people who arrived together, which act as small islands of conversations – making everyone feel all the more awkward.
Sometimes brave attendees will try to strike up conversation, which will consist of the two following points: your journey, and who you work for; before you both start staring at your drink in awkward silence. By this point you may wonder if it’s a conference on tea and coffee preparation, given how much time people are currently spending staring into their cups to avoid eye contact.
The talks are much easier, you get a nice comfy chair and no one is asking you if you have kids or what the traffic on the M6 was like. If you’re lucky, you might even get a chair with one of those folding out desks, the ones that are either great or a total waste of space depending if you are right or left handed.
The trick now is not to relax too much. All the social issues so far are small compared to accidentally falling asleep or almost as bad: looking half asleep/bored. Try practicing an alert but natural looking expression at home and wearing it for the length of talks. Ideally you wan the expression to require as few muscles as possible as you may need to hold it for some time. If you feel you are flagging try pretending to make notes just after the presenter changes slides. Or better yet play conference bingo to try and keep you alert.
Now as an attendee, there is one moment where you might be asked to contribute to the questions. There is one simple rule to follow – ‘don’t be a dick’. Seriously, don’t do it! If you have an awkward question about the presenter’s work, just be polite and wait until after – the entire room doesn’t need to know how clever you think you are.
Finally, as you return to the office the next day, you need to try and resit the urge to save all the business cards you collected, and just put them straight in the bin. Trust me, this’ll save you months of dust collecting and mild guilt at not yet looking up the name of that one talk on that thing you quite liked. Unless it’s my business card in which case I suggest you get it framed and hung above your desk.