What’s Wrong with Conferences?

September is customarily a busy month for conferences, often with too many interesting ones that clash. What makes for a good meeting? Exciting talks, which you haven’t heard before (so not just lazy wheeling out of the usual suspects by the organisers); lively discussion; comfortable beds, quiet corridors and good food; poster sessions with enough space to permit circulation as well as in depth conversations around the ones that catch your fancy; and a friendly atmosphere in the bar. If the beds are lumpy it will mar the meeting due to a general feeling of drowsiness (it’s curious how too little sleep arising from late nights in the bar don’t have the same negative effect). If the crowd is the same one you met last month on the other side of the world you may wonder why you bothered to come. But one particular thing that always infuriates me is when the timing of sessions goes awry.

This poor time-keeping can be due to a range of different reasons, one of which can be the trivial one that there is no clock in the lecture theatre, or at least not one that’s visible to the speaker. The problem is most acute if the clock is actually located immediately behind the speaker, so that the audience is constantly reminded of the overrun, but the speaker may be blithely unaware. Good chairing of course can obviate this problem. A good chair will give clear signals as the clock ticks down – though sometimes this can require some almost literal gymnastics to draw the speaker’s attention – and step in to cut the speaker short in extreme circumstances. But not all chairs are good, and often they are too timid to challenge a keynote speaker who’s been droning on way past their allotted slot. It is of course rude to step in and say, in essence, shut up. But it should equally be remembered that it is rude to the audience and later speakers in the programme not to do so. For a graphic illustration of what the mood can be in a lecture theatre when no one intervenes to shut up an over-running speaker, I’d refer you to the world of LegoAcademics here.

Speakers who over-run also defeat the purpose of time scheduled for discussion. Not all talks lend themselves to real discussion, as opposed to some snotty intervention about nit-picking detail best left to be done in private, but in most conferences there will be one or two presentations that get the arguments going. Sometimes this may be a long-running debate between two camps. Unfortunately, if arguments get too polarised, such debated can simply seem like a rehash of the unresolved issues of a previous conference. But, on all-too-rare occasions there can be lively clashes of opinion or disagreements about the interpretation of results and something new and exciting can emerge in front of the onlookers’ eyes. This can never happen if someone has rambled on previously in the session, eating up all the allocated time. Learning to keep to time should be a critical part of one’s training as a researcher. It is something that practice makes perfect. It should not be achieved by talking extensively about context and preliminary data and then visibly skipping 25 slides towards the end which, as they whizz past, the audience realises is where the interesting and novel stuff actually was to be found.

For students and early-stage postdocs, often their turn to shine comes in the poster sessions. A novelty when I set out, in a well-run conference they can be more satisfactory than a brief 10-15 minute oral presentation. Nevertheless they tend to be the less sought-after slots. They are valuable because you get to engage with people who are genuinely interested in your work (or those who are on the panel to judge the poster prize of course). There may be only a couple of people, although hopefully many more, in this category but you get plenty of time to talk to them, take down their contact details so that you can follow up later and/or continue the dialogue in the bar. But you need a well-run and well-planned conference if this is to happen. Too often the sessions are held in rooms of inadequate capacity or, at the very least, the wrong shape so that perambulation is difficult. If you can’t get near the poster you want to see because the gangways between the boards are too narrow or you simply can’t find it, then the opportunity for interaction is lost. Not all locations lend themselves to success on this front as too often posters are crammed into unsuitable corners of a venue.

I am reminded of all these issues, not only because it has been the conference season but because, by pure chance, I associate Churchill College with two series of conferences I was heavily involved with. The first occasion I came to a meeting here must have been around 30 years ago shortly after I returned from the USA as a young researcher. I presented my work (on mechanisms of crazing in polymers) to the big international conference in the field which met triennially at the college. The meeting, formally known as Deformation, Yield and Fracture of Polymers, was always colloquially known as the Churchill conference because of its close association with the college.

My work was well-received, to the extent that I found myself invited onto ‘high table’ at the conference dinner, the first time that had happened. In time I joined the organising committee – I distinctly remember the call inviting me to take up what felt like a big honour came when I was on maternity leave, so that I panicked wondering how I was going to get to a committee meeting in London given a baby in tow. Many years later I took myself off the committee again when I felt my interests had diverged too far from its theme and that anyhow the big questions in the field had mainly been resolved. Nevertheless, I have many happy memories of a conference that saw much lively debate and much progress in the field.

Later, when I came to organise a multidisciplinary conference on Starch in 1996, Churchill became the location of choice because of its excellent facilities (with a second in the series also held there four years later). This conference was when I became aware of the problems a lack of visible clock can cause, to the extent that when, a couple of weeks ago I was walking around my new home, when I got to the lecture theatre my first reaction was to check if they had a clock now, visible to the speaker. They do.

I hope you’ve had a fruitful and satisfying conference season. If you haven’t, what are the faults you’ve identified in speakers and venues?



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8 Responses to What’s Wrong with Conferences?

  1. A different problem to speakers over-running their time is when the conference organisers have not specifically allocated time for discussion and questions after each talk. This is the most fruitful part of most talks, and the lack of time given to it drives me crazy, both as speaker and audience

  2. I think it is rude to not keep to time, and chairs are indeed often not good at managing this. I find it all too common for speakers to make a lot of passive-agressive remarks when they are made to wind their talks up by chairs – very rude behaviour, and not what you hope for from people whose job includes giving talks at conference.

  3. Jo Morgan says:

    I’m off to a maths teaching conference this weekend. While we don’t get the comfy beds, we do get speakers with good time-keeping skills. If a speaker is an experienced secondary school teacher then they are very used to ensuring that lessons (and conference sessions) do not overrun, and they are well aware of the benefits of leaving time for questions and discussion!

  4. Kate says:

    It seems that some speakers disregard instructions on timing when preparing their talks – if you are charitable you can put it down to over-optimism but I am sure some do it knowingly. I remember the sinking feeling when a speaker arrived at the front with what can only be described as a deck of OHP transparencies. Somehow they were surprised when asked to move to a conclusion (but, it has to be said, not rude).

  5. Charlotte says:

    While I’ve little tolerance for the speakers who overrun (particularly the recent example, who overran by more than the original timeslot, turning a 20-minute presentation into a 50-minute guided tour of their ego) or the session chairs that enable them, my biggest plea is for chairs that don’t hurt to sit in for more than a couple of hours. If nothing else, the chairs in the room should be more comfortable than sitting on the floor. It’s mainly been a problem for me in smaller symposia where you’re in the same room for the whole event, but even the bigger hotel-based conferences could use a boost.

  6. Chris Clarke says:

    I don’t like to go to conferences any more. I am always disappointed by the talks that are decided too far in advance. Science moves on quickly and the panels that select speakers have no idea what will be interesting by the time the conference comes about. I find myself sitting through bland, generic talks delivered by speakers clearly more bored of the topic than I am.

    Workshops on the other hand are where scientific debate occurs. The informality means that talks are decided late and we get the latest, most exciting results. The tight knit communities are more engaged in discussion whereas the strangers that meet at international conferences have to overcome formal barriers before they can call out their opinions.

    I concur, poster sessions can have great benefits and are the saving grace of conferences but I find it hard to find the gems amongst them as so often posters are lazily put together as they are perceived as being less important than the talks and simply justification to the funding body for the travel expense.

  7. Kate says:

    Something that always bugs me is the way that the post-talk questions are queued. There can be several people with their hands up waiting patiently for their turn and then someone, usually senior and/or with a healthy sense of entitlement, will just pipe up without being invited, and then often hold the floor for some time. The more visibly salient people also tend to get their say in earlier and more often, while if you are small, or sitting at the back, heaven help you. My fantasy is that in future, every seat will have a response button and a small microphone, and then you just press your button and wait for your mike to be activated when your turn comes. (That, of course, favours those with the fastest reflexes – there is no justice in conference-world!)

  8. Mark Field says:

    My pet peeves:
    Conferences in hotels, where they have subdivided the ballroom into small narrow rooms so that you are forced to sit several miles from the front and where there is a projection screen that is an order of magnitude too small. That coupled with presenters using 12 point font and below and graphs where you can’t read the axes makes for a frustrating time.

    Conferences that have got too big (I’m thinking particularly of the APS March meeting) where it is physically impossible to get from one talk to another without a talk in between you miss while walking, and where you cannot guarantee to meet friends without first setting up a meeting via email/phone/twitter

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