Tag Archives: conferences

On listening to conference presentations

I’ve had this on my mind since the conference I went to last weekend. It’s not really a fully formed post but I thought it best to get it down and perhaps even post it before I forget entirely.
I think I mentioned in my last post that I kind of read my paper at the conference, and that reading papers is not something that feels comfortable for me. I prefer to speak to a set of slides, to have a rough script memorized, and to ad lib a bit too. However, what I want to write about today is the experience of watching and listening to others’ presentations.
I am a sucker for an engaging presentation style and a presenter who speaks to the audience about her work, rather than one who reads a paper. I really enjoy getting a look behind the curtain of the process of a research project, rather than at a slick veneer of completion and I find that a conversational tone and some visuals really helps with getting me engaged. I want details about the process: it’s challenges, frustrations, triumphs and, at the end of it all (or at least at the point at which the researcher has said ‘enough’), its findings…that is what I love. When I see someone settle in to read a paper (which seems to me to suggest a complete and ‘finished’ piece), head down, hands gripping the sides of the stack of papers, I sigh a bit and, to be honest, I find myself tuning out a bit. Of the presentations I saw last weekend, easily over half of them were read papers, and I started to think a bit more carefully about my response, and my practice as an audience member.
The time slot was about 15 or 20 minutes for each presentation. It’s not a lot of time. Surely I could listen for 20 minutes? I fought my urge to self-distract and really tried to tune-in. With some papers, it was a real struggle. I feel strongly that if you are going to lean on a complex arrangement of theory, or if you are going to talk about a fairly obscure text, that then slides of some kind really can help the audience to grasp concepts, or imagine a world. However, having said this, I also think that it is good to think about just how difficult listening can be at a conference. I guess I can only speak for myself here, but I freely admit that I struggle to just listen. Sure, I can put on an ‘interested’ face and nod and smile in all the right places, but that is not listening. Half the time, at least, I’m furtively trying to formulate some kind of clever question to ask, or suggestion to make. I try to take notes and that kills the listening too. I never re-read those notes so I have no idea why I take them. After thinking about this a bit more, I come to believe that part of my problem with listening at conferences is that I have a huge desire to make the presentations of other participants, in some way, about me. I get nervous at conferences, eager to make good impressions, to legitimize myself in some way, and my bloody ego gets all fragile and out there and bloated and clumsy, and I can’t settle myself enough to just sit and listen. I don’t have to make a comment, i don’t have to be smart. I just need to listen. Harder than it might seem. I’m going to really work on it this year.