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 academia.edu 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?