conference blog – who’s coming to my paper?

You know those insecure feelings you get when you throw a party… that anxiety that no-one will turn up… You’ve got more than enough supplies for everyone you’ve invited as well as for some uninvited hangers-on. The food is arranged in appetising formations, the drinks are stacked in the fridge and cooling on ice in the bathtub. But here it is, the appointed time, and nobody’s here. Are they going to be fashionably late? Or is it your worst fear – nobody, but nobody, is coming!

Well, of course, they always do turn up. They might be an hour late, but eventually there everyone is, crushing crumbs into the carpet, spilling the red wine on the furniture, and generally having a good time. It’s a party.

The same is not always the case with the academic paper. Sometimes your worst fears are realised. Nobody does turn up. Or perhaps hardly anyone. You’ll probably feel awful about this lack of audience and suspect that maybe it’s the topic of your paper that’s to blame. But it is worth considering that the lack of warm upright bodies may not be about you at all.

An audience absence may happen for any number of reasons. Your paper might be up against a session with the most famous people in the field. You might be scheduled at the end of the day when everyone is shattered and has gone off for a lie down in a dark room before going out for dinner. You might be in the furthest room away from the conference centre of gravity. The lift might have broken down or gone so slow that people have given up. You might have the graveyard shift at the end of the conference when a lot of people have had to go in order to get the cheapest train ticket home.

So the first thing to understand is that you shouldn’t feel like a failure just because your session doesn’t have a big audience. It happens to just about all of us at some time. Indeed, just yesterday our (my and my colleagues) paper was presented to a very small audience indeed.

But what do you do… if there’s no one there, if there’s you and one other person, if there’s you and a few others? Well the right answer here is that unless no one at all comes to your paper, you do the paper as planned and scheduled. And if there’s no one, you should wait for a bit till it’s really clear that no one is coming. Don’t give up too soon. And even if there’s only one person, it’s one person who came to hear what you had to say. With one person you might structure the session as a more informal chat. If it’s two or more, you can do the paper just as you would if the room was crowded.

It’s not the end of the world if there’s not a big crowd. And you never know, the few that turn up may make for a great discussion.

About pat thomson

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

3 Responses to conference blog – who’s coming to my paper?

  1. Daniel says:

    Yup, had a presentation on the last day of a conference, just prior to the last presentation by a famous speaker — in a building a good length away from where that final presentation was held. There were only the speakers (and one or two co-authors of the conference paper) in the room. And we were a rather mixed bag regarding the topics.

    In situations like these I found it helpful to see it: 1. as another presentation learning experience, 2. as part of a conference which included much more than one’s own presentation, and 3. as inspiration to organize your own symposium and advertise for it (haven’t tried 3. yet). And at the very least, it’s one entry on the CV more (not why I do science, but hey, better than nothing ;-)).

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  2. Also if the room is full of people, there is at best just one person who really appreciates the work and may be able to build on it. That person is likely still there when the rest of the fluff is gone.

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  3. The first time I presented at AERA, I did a roundtable and no one came. People smiled at me politely on their way to other tables but no takers. I sat there in a huge ballroom with discussions going on all around me and waited for about ten minutes and then headed out as quickly as I could. Excruciating…but a good learning experience. I never put the word Canada in the title of my paper again for a conference in the US:-)

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