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.