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The Art of Conferencing



Celebrity Academics arriving at the 2016 IATEFL Conference



Conferencing has a bit of an image problem. Many members of the public, including certain hard-core conference attendees themselves, see them as thinly-disguised holiday junkets. A four-day hard-drinking, luxury-hotel-bed-snoozing, sample-the-local-whatever indulgence package given as a reward for bearing the year-round drudgery of the office desk or classroom lecturn. Is it not surprising then that conferences get held in places like Vegas, Hawaii, Bangkok, and Bali. Somehow furthering one’s academic credentials doesn’t seem such a priority though, when it turns out that this year’s event is scheduled to be held in, say, Winnipeg. Or even worse, Nagoya.



Your standard Winnipeg (aka ‘Nagoya’) Conference Venue



Ok, there can be a holiday aspect to conferencing, no doubt. But a lot more can be gleaned from these events than samples of a few local dishes, hangovers, and hurrying through your 15 minute presentation before discreetly vacating the venue for brighter lights. Here’s an 8-point primer not only on what to expect, but also getting the most out of the experience:


Make sure it is a serious, academically-credentialed conference. Why? Conferences are big business these days and there are a lot of dubious, unscrupulous operators out there who have an eye on your research budget. How can you tell if it is a conference generated by practitioners and academics rather than corporate creations? The cost. Conferences for EFL/ESL/Applied Linguistics should cost less than $200 US. Sure, perfectly legit medical (and other elaborate) conferences can cost $600-$800 but these are generally held in The Four Seasons or InterContinental Hotels (and that amount does not really dent most medical research budgets). Which brings me to another hint: check if the venue is a university, a conference center, or at a hotel. A university-hosted conference will almost always be legit and overhead costs are much lower than hotel or resort-based conferences. Finally, check the name (and historical pedigree) of the conference. If it is too general (‘The Annual Conference of Human Research’) its a gold-digger. If it comes into your email box unbidden, with no known connections, it’s probably a money grabber. Finally, if the hosting organization is holding a bunch of other conferences (‘The International Science and Mechanics Conference’) in or around the same venue at the same time, note it as a big red flag. Buyer beware.


If you submit a presentation proposal…..

a. Follow the submission rules to a T …or the vetting committee might discard your proposal outright.


b. Tie your proposal to the conference theme in some way.

Sample — The conference theme: ‘Setting Foundations for Our Students’ Futures’

Therefore, in an early section of your proposal abstract on ‘Peer-Managed Feedback’ you could write: ‘Peer-managed feedback is widely understood as providing a foundation for the future development of learner critical thinking skills’


c. Give it a title that will attract both the vetting committee and potential visitors.

Look at the topics and titles that were presented at previous conferences. Titles too narrow (“A Post-Secondary Myanmar-based Perspective of Gerund Usage Among  Sheet Metal Workers“) or too wide (“How To Teach Adults Effectively“) will get the early chop (or, if accepted, are likely to include an audience consisting of exactly one student volunteer helper and the next presenter). Titles that sound too much like commercial presentations (“Win With Zippy Winware!”) are also unlikely to be well-received.


Lodgings cheaper than the recommended venue hotels can easily be found



Don’t feel obligated to stay in the official conference hotel, which might be a little pricey. If your budget is tight or nonexistent, choose a conference being held in a country with a low cost of living (CamTESOL in Phnom Penh comes to mind). And with LCC flights running almost everywhere now, travel costs can be kept to a minimum. Nor should you feel obligated to attend the gala dinner, which is also usually on the dear side (and generally produces a rather stilted atmosphere IMO). However, do attend any and every free welcome party (and make full use of those snacks and lunches included in the conference fee). After all, this is the best time to…


Network! Network! Network! This, and not your 15 minutes of PowerPoint fame, is the real reason you are at the conference. Find out what others are doing in their classrooms or institutions and/or what they are researching. Absorb the new and experimental — reject if necessary. Attend any and all sessions (free papers, workshops, symposia) that interest you. Note that which is now considered outdated, ineffective, or has jumped the pedagogical shark. Establish new international contacts and develop collaborations. If you can’t find something new or of value to take back home you should probably move away from that cake and pastry display. 


Learn the lingo. There is a type of discourse that emerges in academic conferences, as conferences constitute a specific spoken genre, marked by various speech events (presentations, pre-post-session chitchat, poster sessions) that involve loosely understood rules of engagement. Conference interactions are organized and maintained by principles understood by the discourse community involved. This may sound a tad pretentious, and appear to effectively serve to erect a certain insider/outsider barrier, as constraints on the language forms used typically mark membership in the community. But these forms are dynamic and flexible, so you don’t have to go ‘full research professional’ on anyone. Still, if you want to sound like you belong or, better skill, gain a grasp as to how other people in the biz interact, what the standard topics are, how they are organized and managed, and the terminology associated with them, a conference is the best place to absorb this.


Giving your own presentation or poster gives you an academic leg up. If you are already teaching in a university or similar tertiary academic institution you will need to buttress your CV in order to secure a longer-term contract. Presentations at international conferences (especially combined with the publication of selected papers in the Conference Proceedings) can be a key element in bulking up your resume package. The bonus is that a fellow attendee may be impressed by your presentation, which could lead to invitations, collaborations, or even job offers. If you are currently in a tenuous position, conferencing can be a great way to scan the playing field and make possible future employment contacts.


Be challenged and enlightened by academic celebrities and the plenaries/keynote speeches. Ok, to be honest, plenary speeches can occasionally be exercises in offering predictable platitudes and superficial overviews, particularly if the invited guest is a local political figure rather than a field academic. And even then, some highly-regarded academic celebrities, while notable scholars, are not particularly engaging speakers. One of the problems of many plenary speeches is that the speaker has often been asked to give some general commentary connected to the conference theme, meaning that novel or exciting content is plenary sessions is often spread very thin (which is natural since the plenary audience will include both novices and veterans, foreigners and locals, researchers and practitioners, and specialists from all corners).



A speaker’s prestige value can quickly be measured by the size of their mic


However, most distinguished veteran big name speakers, whether delivering the plenary or not, can often provide some real food for thought, offer an enlightening overview of the field as it stands at the present, and stimulate audience members to break out of their current moribund practices into more fertile fields of endeavor. They are ‘big names’ for a reason. In the EFL/ELT domains most are humble and approachable (most rose out of the rank-and-file teacher ranks) and generally have something interesting to say on almost any topic in the field. But the range of talks is not just limited to plenaries and free papers. Keynote speeches or other ‘invited’ or featured presentations tend to be a bit more focused and specialized. Participating in workshops can bring about new realizations. Attending symposia can deepen your understanding of key issues.


This is what not to do if you an inexperienced presenter. There have been volumes printed explaining the minutiae of giving a good presentation (including such a book by yours truly in Japanese) but here are a few don’t’ tips for novices that the how-to books rarely mention: 



a. Arrive in your presentation room for the first time a mere 30 minutes or less before your allotted time, particularly while another speaker is presenting.  Many of the sloppy or flawed presentations I have seen occur because the presenter was not familiar with the room layout, the speaking area, the computer itself, or the screen positioning. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Go into your presentation room on the same day well before your slot, when the room is empty, and look at the computer setup, the screen and projector, and note any walking movement space, the positions of the speaker lecturn or table, note how and where your audience will be sitting (not to mention the likely numbers), and get your slides into perfect working order on the monitor. 


b. Go overtime. This is the fastest entry route to conference purgatory. Conference time is sacred and no one, not the chair, not the audience, and most certainly not the remaining presenters want to hear you go over your allotted time no matter how important you think the remaining content will be. Running over your allotted time is the conference equivalent of farting in church. Practice and cut, cut, cut until you are a few minutes inside your time limit.


c. Put your thesis or research results on your slides exactly as they appeared in your paper. Publications are written texts and thus follow the conventions of that mode. Speech is in real-time, with a live audience. It’s a different mode requiring a different rhetorical or organizational approach. Rehashing one’s thesis or research paper (usually presented as static IMRD-formulas, complete with intricate charts, graphs, and a list of references that are made visible to the audience for, oh, three seconds each) as a PowerPoint presentation doesn’t meet the expectations or requirements of the genre. Conferences are not places to defend your graduate theses (so go easy on those ‘Look, I read it!‘ academic references). The audience are not a group of adjudicating professors. They are your peers.


d. Make ‘What I do in my classroom’ your central presentation theme. Conference presentations are not junior high school show ‘n tell sessions. It is quite OK to discuss a successful approach, practice, or activity arising from your own teaching context in your presentation but it really should tie into some larger pedagogical picture, backed up by and/or contributing to a related research area, or have explicit applicability or transferability to other teachers or researchers. Remember, it’s a presentation, not a report. You need to include and combine elements of information, entertainment, and persuasion for a successful outcome.


Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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