Attending Conferences - Level 2

Posted 16 Jun 2016

This is the fourth in a series of five blog posts about attending academic conferences (HCI ones in particular). This post describes the idea of a “hit list”, how to attend a talk and ask a question, and some steps to take in order to prepare for your talk on the day of.

In my previous post, I wrote a lot about trying to get bang for your buck in attending conferences, and gave you some basic strategies. This post details an “advanced strategies” that require building up your nerves a bit (as you end up putting yourself out there), but in the end, following through on a set of steps will get you through the day.

The “Hit List”

My colleague Carman Neustaedter and I developed this strategy when we were graduate students, and ended up gamifying it (i.e. you get points scored for crossing off people on your hit list) as a way to incentivize participation.

The basic idea is to construct a list of people that you want to talk with at the conference (that you don’t already know). You prepare your list carefully, and then at the conference, you execute on knocking off people on your list, building your network as you go!

Constructing the Hit List. A good hit list is about 5-10 researchers long. You can mix people of a variety of seniority levels – e.g. graduate students, post docs, early-, mid- and late-career researchers. You want to find people who have done work that is related to yours (i.e. they would be interested in what you are doing), or that where you are interested in their work. When constructing your list, you ought to construct three questions that you would ask them. These can be questions that ask them of their opinion of your work (suggestions, directions, etc.), or they could be of them or their work. You want to have at least three.

Researching the List. Do some google searches beforehand. You should know what they look like, what institution they are (currently) at, and maybe what their current interests are.

Pre-conference Contact. I’m not sure how I feel about this personally, but I have been contacted by students who wanted to meet me via an email in advance of the conference. I thought this was cool (and responded); however, I can see a busier prof just ignoring it. If you take this strategy, I wouldn’t take too much care if the email was ignored. One strategy that is related to this is emailing them after the first day of the conference to ask if they are actually at the conference.

Leveraging your Network. Tell your friends and colleagues about your list. Trade lists. Ask them to introduce you if they know someone on your list, etc. Knocking off your hit list is a lot easier if you have the help of friends.

Everyone Poops

I am a shy person. The best advice my friend gave me about this was, “Remember, everyone poops.” This was stolen from a book that reminds you that everyone is just a person, and to get over yourself. The thing is that the people you are trying to meet might just be as shy as yourself. If you don’t put yourself out there and try to meet them, it is unlikely to happen for you.

This has a few corollaries – mainly about seizing the moment:

  • If you see someone on your hit list, go up to them then and there. Avoid humming and hawing, or waiting for a better moment, or whatever have you. You have no idea – maybe they are only at the conference for a day, or maybe they don’t like the music and want to go home early – whatever! If you see them, just do it.
  • Try a lower-profile target first. If you feel you just can’t do it, then go after a lower-profile target first. Grad students are a good target for this, particularly when you tell them that you’re a fan of a certain paper they wrote, etc. This will help you to build your nerve.
  • To break the ice, one way to do it is to find something that you might have shared in common. For instance, most people will have attended the opening plenary. What were their thoughts?
  • Remember: researchers remember exactly 0% of the people that they do not meet. Make it a non-zero percentage by taking the initiative to meet them.

Attending a Talk and Asking a Question

It is worth knowing what a talk session looks like. Search on the ACM DL or YouTube to find archived talks just to see what they look like. Here is an example of a talk given by Omid Fakourfar. You’ll see the bulk of the talk is his presentation followed by a question period.

A lot of people take the time in talks to check their email. I know this, because I do it sometimes, myself. I generally think this is kind of rude, so try to shy away from doing it. Remember: the people giving paper talks are trying to share something that they have done. If they are not doing a great job of explaining it, it is usually not for lack of desire to do so.

Attending paper sessions is not about your butt physically being in the seat – it is about mentally attending to the talk. I try to do some mental gymnastics for each talk that I am in:

  • What is this talk about? What is the problem they are trying to solve, or what is the research question?
  • What did they do about it? What would I have done differently? How could it be done differently? Would a different way yield different results?
  • What do I think the results will be? Do they match up to what the results were?
  • What are the implications of this work? What does it mean for future systems or our understanding of people?

And so forth. The point of all this is to keep myself engaged with what is going on. Remember: it’s all about bang for buck. These people paid to come and give this talk! They must have something interesting to say. Trying to figure that out is a fun exercise.

Related to this exercise is trying to come up with questions. Always try to come up with one question that you could ask the speaker. You don’t actually have to do it, but try to come up with something that you would not be embarrassed to ask.

If you are going to ask a question, be sure to state your name and affiliation clearly. Then, try to articulate the question as concisely as possible – if you can’t do it on one or two sentences, then try to shorten it up. Others have different takes on this, but I think the best questions are those that allow the speaker to impress others. Remember that asking a question should not be about your trying to show off or pontificate – it isn’t your time in the spotlight (that’s when you are giving a talk).

Prior to Giving your Talk

Some tips about giving a talk at a conference no particular order. These assume a well-practiced talk. You can get that advice elsehwere. This is about the practicalities of doing it.

  • Arrive at your session at least 15 minutes earlier. Test out your A/V connections – do your slides show properly? Is the lighting okay? Are colours showing? Do your videos play? Is the sound level okay?
  • Introduce yourself to your session chair. Tell them how to pronounce your name properly. Give them a question to ask you in case there are no questions to start. The question can be something that allows you to elaborate on a topic that you might have had to shortchange in your talk itself. Do not answer the question in the talk, otherwise the session chair can’t ask the question.
  • As soon as the previous speaker is done speaking (and answering the first question), slowly approach the podium. You can look at the session chair deliberately to sort of ask permission, but the idea is to set up your computer before the question period is over. Note: this is not rude, and helps to keep the session moving smoothly and on time.
  • When you are asked questions, rephrase and repeat the question aloud so the entire audience can hear it. Thank the question asker for the question and do your best to answer it. In my very first CHI talk, I bombed the first question that was asked of me. I learned two things from this event: (1) prepare for questions in advance; (2) no one remembers my bombing it. Mostly, people had forgotten 5 minutes after my talk. The question asker doesn’t even remember my having bombed it. So, in some ways, it doesn’t matter.

This post is one in a series of five about attending academic conferences.

My thanks to my colleague Carman Neustaedter who provided comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.