conference blog – questions of etiquette

There are conventions about conference behaviour just as there are in every other area of academic life. Here’s three conference basics.

1. If I’m late for a session, should I go in or wait outside?

It’s just about acceptable to come into a session slightly late. It happens a lot and it’s often unavoidable. The trick is to acknowledge that you are disrupting proceedings. You should get in as quickly and quietly as you can and take the nearest available seat. Don’t go clambering over lots of people, make a huge amount of noise or generally draw more attention to yourself than you need to. If the speaker stops because you’ve interrupted proceedings, then you need to look suitably apologetic. You may feel the need to silently mouth the word “sorry”, but this isn’t mandatory.

However it is much less OK to come late to keynote sessions. They are generally timed to be first thing in the morning or after lunch so that everyone has time to get themselves in and seated. If there is a way to quietly sneak into the back of the room/hall/lecture theatre, then that’s OK. But if you have to make a grand entrance in front of the entire audience, then think more than once about whether to do it, particularly if your presence is going to continue to be distracting for some time while you find a seat. If you are really unavoidably detained, by weather, traffic or something beyond your control, then you’ll probably do it and find a way to make excuses later to anyone that seems put out.

2. Should I just bowl up to someone I don’t know but would like to, and start a conversation?

As long as you’re not interrupting another conversation, absolutely yes. Getting to know new people is what conferences are all about.

If it’s someone who’s given a paper there might be a bit of a queue to speak to them afterwards, so wait in line rather than just butting in. You might want to say that you liked their paper, or you like their work, or you could take up an issue they referred to and that you’d like to know more about. You might want to ask if you can email them later and you can ask for their business card or offer yours with a note on it about your interest. The idea is to create the opportunity to either have a conversation at the time or later.

If it’s someone standing around, looking at books or having coffee, the answer is still yes. And you still need to work out beforehand what you are going to say. Again it could be something about an aspect of their work, or it could simply be thanks for a piece of their work that you’ve found helpful and/or interesting. Don’t overstay your welcome, the object is to introduce yourself, to make contact you can follow up later. Look for non verbal cues that might signal that this is either to be a short or longer conversation. You may not get to have the big deep and meaningful first time, but simply create the space for more interaction later.

3. Should I have a paper to distribute?

Many conferences stipulate that you bring 20 or so copies of your paper with you. This is as much observed by absence as it is in reality. Many people have to travel long distances to get to conferences, and presenters are often worried about using all of their cheap budget airline luggage allowances on papers. Equally, many people don’t want to take the papers on offer at conferences because they don’t want to carry heave the carry on equivalent of a thesis into the overhead luggage compartment. The alternatives to bringing a paper are:
– A handout of slides with a contact address to follow up if people want papers
– A sheet of paper to circulate so people who want a paper can register their interest
– A concluding slide which gives your email address so people can write to get the paper
– Business cards which have the address where people can contact you for follow up and the paper
– Loading your paper onto an open access site like or researchgate and giving the location on the first and final slides of your presentation or as a tiny handout.
Any of the above shows that you are happy to share your work.

Of course, if you can’t yet distribute your work because it’s embargoed – and I’m about to do that at a conference next week – you just have to make excuses and say how people can get the paper when it finally gets out of limbo.

What more would you add to this etiquette list?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in conference, conference papers, conference presentation, networking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to conference blog – questions of etiquette

  1. Gill Bliss says:

    I would really really press for more curtesy at conferences than seems to be coming the norm. When people come in and out, bang chairs, slam doors it is very distracting as a presenter, especially when you are already trying to quell nerves and make sure you keep on track. It also means the dedicated audience may not hear important sections and loose thread for some time.
    Of course it may be absolutely necessary to enter or leave a presentation, but totally agree with the sentiment expressed here, to try and do this as quietly and discreetly as possible.


    • pat thomson says:

      Yep. This post was prompted by some appalling behaviour I saw a couple of weeks ago where a major keynote was shattered by people coming in far too late and loudly. Awful for the presenter.


  2. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Thanks for the basics 🙂

    #2 is always weird to “do”. My supervisor keeps telling me that people are used to/expecting/even welcoming such conversations but still it feels weird -to me at leas- to barge in (I do it nonetheless)


  3. Aroub says:

    I have a question: if you were joining your supervisor in a conversation circle and you realise you are the only student whilst the rest are very experienced professors ; Would you barge in the conversation or stay quiet!!


    • pat thomson says:

      Good question. I think you should expect your supervisor to introduce you and usher you into the conversation at some point. But you can leap too at an appropriate point. You could also talk this hypothetical situation over with your supervisor beforehand.


  4. I would put an QR code on my poster (if I’m doing a poster) that link to the online published version of my paper so people can just take a photo of it and retrieve it later!


  5. I suspect there are big differences between disciplines in typical behaviour, but i have experienced *much* worse than people coming in late, i.e.
    a) People getting up and leaving mid-talk
    b) People openly reading email etc during the talk
    There’s an interesting social psychology expt to be done here,I guess. My hypothesis is that (a) depends on the size of the lecture theatre – I’ve really only seen it in giant meetings with several hundred in the audience at meetings with many parallel sessions, where people seem to think it’s fine to amble in, sample a bit, and amble out again if they don’t like it.
    It could be argued (b) is less disruptive, and I have to confess I have occasionally done this myself if I find myself stuck in a long session where the talk turns out to be incomprehensible or boring. As far as the speaker is concerned, it may not be such a bad thing, as they may not be aware of this behaviour, but of course the people sitting behind you can see what you are doing, and it is disrespectful to the speaker. Universal wifi definitely has encouraged this in audiences!
    Another one I find pretty odd is when someone incredibly important in the organisation (eg VC or head of school) comes in to introduce the speaker and then leaves. As a speaker, I’ve encountered this very occasionally, and I have to say I do dislike it. It gives an odd message – they are clearly trying to indicate you are a significant speaker which is why the important person introduces you, but you aren’t significant enough for them to actually listen to what you have to say. Far better, I think, to be introduced by someone who is in your area and will sit through the talk, even if that person is of humbler status.


    • pat thomson says:

      I’m not so bothered by the email, at least they’re not disruptive. But I completely agree that leaving half way through is pretty hard to take and can be devastating if you’re the speaker. And yes yes about those who introduce and run!


    • Jane S says:

      Academic etiquette is a minefield! ;-(

      “VC or head of school comes in to introduce the speaker”
      My conference experiences are confined to those which feature panel discussions, and research papers being presented at different locations. No one can be in two places at once. And if someone has another speaker to introduce elsewhere there’s a dilemma if it’s a huge venue or a big campus.
      But timing issues should be pretty simple to arrange ahead of conf. proceedings ~ assuming everyone sticks to their time allowance and doesn’t overrun.
      Pet hates: (a) PowerPoints which duplicate what the speaker is saying ~ distracting and pointless; (b) no handouts giving basic details, bibliographies, email addresses etc. and most of all (c) people who’re more interested in their iPhones & social networking than in what’s being presented.
      (a) is unnecessary, (b) is useful for follow-ups, and (c) is just plain bad manners (but, alas, all too common).


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  8. Anne Collins says:

    If you are a graduate student, albeit a mature age one, at a conference to try to show you are interested in the industry of archaeology should you have a “business card” or similar to give to people. Is it still alright to ask them for their business card if they haven’t offered it to you?


    • pat thomson says:

      You don’t have to have a card, but good to do so, and certainly you can ask hiw to contact them … Or just look them up on Google and email them after.


    • Jane S says:

      I don’t bother with the expense of a business card, Anne. Print out a few computer labels with contact info on, etc., and peel one off to give to anyone who asks you for details. The upside is it’s not only cheaper and more easily adaptable but they can stick it straight onto a relevant paper or whatever and pos. even recall you more easily! 😉


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