How I have Conferenced

How to Understand Talks when you’re not the best auditory learner

Different people learn in different ways and if you’re someone who’s instantly able to follow a talk without much prior knowledge of the techniques or topic then Congratulations, and please teach me. I try to take lots of notes during the talk, from the basic background slide to the main findings, then if I’ve got time I like to go over those notes a little later on (sometimes on the bus) and remind myself what was good about it. This often helps me make links between different talks I’ve heard and also to my own work. I make notes in the margins of all the papers they’ve suggested that I look up later and save to my Mendeley library (possibly never to be read). I do all this because it keeps me switched on throughout the talk and helps me understand, also I’m a big ol’ nerd. Sometimes people take no notes and seem to take it all in, so it’s whatever works for you. I’ve decided to not be ashamed that I have to scribble constantly even if the person next to me is very calmly sitting with their hands crossed.

Currently I’m challenging myself to ask more questions in seminars, so what I’m trying is to write down questions that occur to me. I’m finding that many of them were valid as they get asked by PIs or I discuss them afterwards with others so it’s giving me more confidence. I’ll be sticking my hand up constantly in no time I’m sure.

How to give a talk if you’re a rollicking bag of nerves

My experience here is minimal having done only 2 talks actually at conferences and frankly I struggle to keep that laser pen straight when pointing at the slides. I know all the tips and tricks like breathing slowly, stepping forward, looking at the audience, but I go into fight or flight mode and feel like I’m racing through my slides. The hardest part for me is the questions cos you just don’t know what’s a-coming. ‘Practice Prevents Piss-Poor Performance’ I have heard and the more good experiences I have with presenting the better I hope I’ll be. Try watching this video about stage fright instead of asking me.

How to Network when People are Scary

Stand with someone you sort of know, there must be someone there who looks vaguely familiar. Even if you don’t remember their name and they’ve not deigned to wear the awkwardly placed but essentially useful nametag, just give a friendly smile and see if they remember you. Although if they’re with a bunch of lab pals this is infinitely harder. Don’t try to integrate here, you won’t get their in-jokes… As an alternative, speak to people at the posters, or try speaking to someone you randomly sit next to.

Bond over something shared. Maybe for you this is actually science – good on ya. If they’ve given a talk and you loved it, tell them, if you’ve questions, ask them. For me I like to bond over food. “ooh these are nice aren’t they”, “I’m going to get one of these flapjacks” and other top quotes. Okay so it’s not ground-breaking but it eases me in. A top tip I heard is at the drinks reception, get in and pick up two glasses (don’t down them both, no) and walk over to someone you want to chat to. Get your opener in (“Nice talk wasn’t it!”) and then if the conversation goes terribly say “I’m just going to find my friend”, indicating the glass. If the conversation goes well, you can offer them the other drink and say “I can’t find my friend, do you want this?”. If they’ve already got a drink then I don’t know… stick it down somewhere.

The most important things to remember here is that they are all literally just people. Intimidating or amazing scientists, they may still have a hole in their sock and that might just normalise them a little.

How to handle the snacks when your instinct is to shovel food and drinks into your face (and bag)

Whether the food is excellent or adequate, there’s the student in me saying “IT’S FREE”, there’s my Nana’s voice saying “DON’T WASTE” and there’s my belly saying “I’M STARVING” and inevitably I end up with a pile of tiny sandwiches and mini bhajis that I never meant to get. At the risk of this becoming a dieting advice piece, my new technique is to just take some of the stuff, then go back for more if I’m still hungry. Also with the drinks, free booze is obviously amazing and great science chat can be directly related to imbibed alcohol but you gotta read the room. The risky bit is if they’re topping you up!

How to stay engaged when you’re a bit overwhelmed

The scientific holiday of the conference is always interesting and often inspiring, but it can be a bit much – talk upon talk for however many days. Take a wee break to think about what you’ve heard, enjoy the social bits, switch off. Also, wear layers as you don’t know what the temperature in the room(s) will be so you need options. Avoid the photographer and consider playing conference bingo.

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