I’ll say it at the outset: I LOVE conferences! This might be because I’m inherently nosy, so I’m always fascinated to learn about what other researchers in my field have been up to. Equally, it might be because I do love a day (or several days) out of the office, and I get to visit new cities – or even new countries – in the process. Or it might be because I’m just a very friendly show-off, and I like to meet new people and spread the word about what I’ve been researching. Whatever the reason, I’m endlessly drawn towards conferences.
I’m aware that not every researcher feels the way I do: I went to a workshop recently, which was about growing your network, and it seemed to involve an awful lot of discussion about that awkward first stepping into a room at conferences. In this blog post, I’m going to talk a bit about my experiences and top tips for enjoyable conferences – of course, other people might completely disagree with my thoughts, and I’d love to hear from my fellow Piirus researchers about their experiences and ideas for successful conferencing.
When I arrive at a conference, I start by grabbing a coffee and having a look at the various stands and posters on display. This gives me an idea of things I might want to re-visit later in the day, and it’s also a useful way of checking out the delegates – I often find people to chat with at this point, which makes me feel more at ease, given that I’ve never actually turned up at a conference with anyone I know!
When I go into the conference hall, I make a point of sitting down right next to someone. I know: I’m probably like those people on the bus who always sit down next to you and start talking… But my thinking is, if I’m at a conference to make connections and learn from others, it’s going to be less tricky if I don’t go and sit in a space on my own! This is also partially based on the fact that I’m on my own, and I feel a need to get to know people quickly – plus, midwifery (my home discipline) is a very small world, and generally it’s easy to find connections with other midwives.
My doctoral research was cross-disciplinary – business school, health sciences, and NHS – so I learned very quickly that different audiences require quite different languages. I’ve managed to present on subjects such as liminal space and narratives of identity without ever mentioning the dreaded word ‘theory’, because I know many of my midwifery colleagues don’t respond positively to themes they consider less relevant. I’ve learned that giving examples from the ‘real world’ of clinical practice is the ideal way to get my points across.
Taking questions is also fun, given my home discipline’s negative attitude to those they consider managers (the subject of my research). I often get asked about what I think the solution to the NHS’ ills might be on this topic, and rather than feed myself to the lion’s den, I’ve developed a technique where I turn questions around and offer them back to the audience. It’s worked very well so far, and seems to encourage beginnings of debates among delegates, which is somewhat subversive, but certainly helps me feel that the research is becoming useful.
Being in the Audience
As a naturally nosy person, I do tend to enjoy this, as I love hearing about what other researchers have been up to. I have to say, though, I’ve been known to go out exploring in whatever city I find myself if a breakout session doesn’t have anything I particularly want to hear about – is that wrong? This has happened mainly when I’ve been stressing over writing – I find the conference environment a very fruitful place for creative energy, and going outside to write, with that energy buzzing around in my head, has made for some highly productive ‘shut up and write’ sessions involving pen, paper and caffeine! Also, I’m a big believer in part of the conference experience being about exploring more generally than just within the confines within whatever hotel or university I find myself – and sometimes I just need a little break from taking information in or sending it out.
Then there’s that awkward question of tweeting. I once attended a Twitter training workshop, and I remember quite a debate on the subject of whether we should be tweeting during presentations. Personally, I’m not a fan, as I wouldn’t like to be speaking and see people on their phones, tablets, computers or whatever – my fragile ego would be a little worried that the audience was otherwise engaged. I know other researchers disagree on this, and I’ve known colleagues begin a Twitter debate on what’s being said during a presentation! I’d be interested to know what you think about this – is it acceptable?
So there you are: my thoughts on conferences and why I love them. How do you feel? Do you enjoy conferences as much as me? Or do you approach them with trepidation and dread? Here at Piirus, we’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to comment – or perhaps you’d like to write a guest blog post for us on this subject?
Note from the editor: We’ve been looking at conferences a lot this month: Ian, our science correspondent wrote about how useful it is to give out business cards, and Cornelia, our Arts and Humanities correspondent gave us a brief typology. And then there’s our preparation for the forthcoming Digital Academic workshop!