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Mr Darcy’s Guide to Conference Etiquette – Part 2

(click to see part 1)

It is indeed most vexing when an uninvited guest appears on one’s doorstep unexpectedly. So why is turning up at a conference without registering considered to be acceptable? When invited to dinner, one is expected to RSVP so that the host knows to expect one, and it is common courtesy to do the same for a conference – by registering early the organizers can plan in advance for catering, for transportation, for room sizes – a whole host of activities where knowing numbers in advance is helpful. If one does not register until the last moment, one cannot complain if rooms for presentations are fully scheduled with no space for additions, or they run out of biscuits at the coffee break. Late registrations are also more expensive, so unless one’s attendance at the meeting was literally a last moment decision, one has just wasted one’s own money purely because one was not organized.

Even worse is the person who “gatecrashes” a conference. Many meetings are organized by professional societies and/ or charities. Yet I have observed with mine own eyes people who exploit the open nature of conferences and attend sessions, parties and other activities without having paid, even to the extent of eating and drinking fare that others have paid for. Such people are the worst of scoundrels and are in effect stealing large amounts of money from said charities. Conferences are expensive to run and someone has to pay for the food that freeloading cad is eating. That is money that could have been spent, for example, on grants for participants who are students or from developing countries, but that now has to be spent paying for the shortfall caused by stowaway delegates.

Similarly, those that have pledged funding for a meeting, and who renege at the last moment are to be scorned. The organizers relied on those funds and will have already spent them. By breaking one’s promise, they will have to make up the (likely substantial) shortfall themselves, as it is too late to unorder goods or change venues. This again is money that could have been spent on charitable purposes, and by reneging on a funding pledge one might as well be stealing large sums of money from the charity itself. Moreover breaking one’s word is highly dishonorable and will give one a bad reputation for untrustworthiness.

If the organizers have gone to the trouble of booking blocks of rooms and securing a special rate at a hotel, please use that hotel if at all possible. The more people who book rooms at the conference hotels, the more free rooms the organizers get, which can be given to plenary speakers, students or developing country participants. This ultimately helps to reduce the registration fee, but it could also help colleagues to attend the meeting. Moreover, if the rooms that the meeting organizers have put aside for delegates are not taken, they will have to pay what is called an “attrition fee” – 80% of the room cost, which means that again the society or charity hosting the meeting has to meet the financial shortfall. For small societies, that cost can be crippling (literally, attrition costs for rooms not filled because delegates booked via Expedia or other online services can total hundreds of thousands of dollars).

When the conference is actually upon one, there are several things that one can do to relieve stress, one one’s self and also the meeting organizers. The most important is the website: read the program and read the emails that the organizers send out. This is how the important information is provided to conference goers. It is a constant source of amazement to me the number of people who arrive in a fluster not knowing where to go, do not know how to register, or who have missed some vital piece of information (for example, whether visas are required) and so may end up at the least being very put out and rankled, and at the worst being unable to attend the meeting at all, because of not reading clearly provided material in advance. I have known delegates who have arrived at airports and who have had to immediately turn around and fly back to their own country at their own expense, because they did not read a “please read this” urgent message about the need for visas. Ninety percent of questions asked in high dudgeon at registration have answers on the front page of the meeting website. By reading program materials in advance, one protects oneself from an apoplexy and it will keep one from looking a disorganized buffoon in front of one’s peers.

The importance of reading through instructions and advanced preparation is especially important for presenters, We have all seen the presenter whose talk is far too long for the presentation time allotted, who has a presentation in the wrong format or who did not upload their presentation in advance, or who did not check to see whether the conference computer system could handle the enormous video files or online materials that are an integral part of their presentation. This both makes one look unprofessional and leads to delays in the program, and can be very rude to the following presenter, as one’s disorganization means that they have less time to present. The importance of reading presentation instructions is also relevant to poster presentations. Many is the poster that is the wrong size or orientation, so that it covers up a neighbor’s work. Because presenters often, wrongly, view posters as second class presentations or “runner up prizes” for not getting an oral presentation slot, they often don’t even bother to make or bring a poster. This leads to a gap in the program, which frustrates people. It also is a presentation slot lost, which could have gone to a colleague, and one’s pique has effectively denied them the opportunity to go to the meeting and present their work.

There are many who complain as to how one can attend a conference if one has an income of but 10 thousand pounds a year (or less). There are fewer and fewer grants available for travel to meetings, and fewer grants for meetings to subsidize travel for delegates. If one is unemployed, works for a poor NGO, is retired or otherwise financially challenged, do ask the organizers if one might be given the student registration rate – if one asks politely they are often obliging. The latter in fact goes for all communications with the meeting organizers! If one is testy, snarky or demanding they are less likely to be accommodating than if one is gracious and polite, and these people often have great leeway with registration fees or with presentations.

Being a meeting volunteer is a good way to get a discount for meeting attendance. If one does volunteer, be sure to turn up when requested and be conscientious. If one fails to turn up, this can leave the meeting organizers in a bind, with less help for registration or other activities. Failure to turn up also means that the organizers will have a poor opinion of one (and I assure you they have long memories) and bear in mind that these people are often leaders in the field and may be sitting on admission, job or grant panels and a poor attitude as a volunteer, or failure to turn up for volunteering entirely, can make a difference between getting that funding one urgently needs or not. Conversely being a good volunteer will secure one a good reputation, not only with meeting organizers, but delegates one assists – remember conference volunteers can get substantial one-on-one time with influential delegates. Going above and beyond the call of duty and being friendly and efficient as a volunteer has led to people getting PhD positions, invited onto projects, free meeting registrations and travel grants, scholarships/fellowships and excellent job references.

As a conference delegate, do remember that the majority of volunteers are students or researchers from developing countries, or both. English might not be their first language and they might not easily understand questions at registration. They are also just volunteering, they are not meeting organizers, so do not blame them for problems in meeting logistics or the program, and certainly do not blame them for issues that are basically one’s own problem – such as forgetting to pay for extra materials, or to register online in advance, or to read the meeting instructions. The worst I have personally experienced was a delegate yelling at a confused volunteer, which escalated to the extent that the delegate threw a metal mug at the volunteer’s head. That delegate was reported to their employer by the meeting organizers, embarrassed the NGO they worked for, damaging its reputation, and was “blacklisted” and has not been accepted for any presentation at meetings of that particular society again. This delegate also has lost out on job opportunities – volunteers and meeting organizers talk and one will gain a reputation that may severely impair one’s career. Volunteers at conferences are often upcoming young scientists who will be the future of one’s field – set them a good example.

Also, while discussing registration, be aware what those stationed at the meeting desk can help with and what is beyond their control. They can usually help with issues that arise with the conference center, the program or suggest advice about the local area. They have no power to, for example (and these are real examples), do anything about the food selection in local shops or restaurants, or even in concessions in the conference center, or about the locations or variety in local coffee shops. They cannot do anything about the laundry, linens, wifi, or cleaning in the hotels. They cannot do anything about the amount of traffic in the host city, or the frequency, timeliness or the number of buses/trains in said city. They certainly cannot do anything about the strong accents of the locals (yes, I heard someone complain to meeting organizers about the strong accents of Scottish people, how they made it hard for Americans to understand them, as if this was something the meeting organizers could fix) or their English language proficiency.

When in conference sessions, good manners also are appreciated. Do not talk during presentations, and certainly do not take a telephone call – please leave the room before doing so. Be aware that talking in hallways can often be heard in meeting rooms and one’s hallway conversation may not only be making it difficult for a presenter to be heard, but also one may be announcing one’s personal business to conference goers. When seeking seats in a session, unless one must leave quickly to catch the next session, please move into seating rows and not sit at the ends. Delegates will have to clamber over you to get a seat, and/or delegates coming in from other sessions may have to stand or sit on the floor, which can be a fire hazard as well as being uncomfortable. Consider conference seating like one would on a carriage – if one is fit and seats are limited, offer one’s seat to the infirm, pregnant or elderly. When it comes to the question session after presentations, do ask a bona fide question, and do not:

  • give a monologue that is not actually a question – for example, do not describe one’s own work or make a political statement; this is very boorish;
  • ask a question that is not relevant to the presentation just given;
  • ask a question that is not of interest to the whole audience – matters that could be discussed one-on-one with the presenter should be asked one-one-one during the coffee or lunch break;
  • ask a question that was clearly explained in the presentation (but one wasn’t paying attention); or
  • monopolize the presenter. Ask just one question, and then allow others their turn.

Many conference attendees are conservation or environmental practitioners, so try to reduce one’s environmental footprint at a meeting. If there is a carbon charge, make sure to pay it. If a mug or bottle is supplied as part of the conference souvenirs, use them. If such items are not being supplied, bring a travel mug or water bottle. Try not to order hard copies of the program or print out abstract books, but rather use .pdfs on a phone or tablet. Recycle papers and other materials. Use public transport wherever possible. Walk the environmental walk, do not simply talk the talk. A marvelous presentation on conservation and environmental responsibility will be totally undermined when one drops a plastic bottle on the floor in front of one’s peers. Always set an example and try to be an environmental role model.

Finally, there’s a line between being a charming tippler and a loathsome drunkard. Be mindful about maintaining an honorable reputation even when in one’s cups. If one wishes to be a professional in any field, then act professionally at a conference and it will assure one’s reputation. I have said before, and I will say again, “my good opinion once lost is lost forever” and this is certainly the case for conference delegates who are rude, uncharitable or disagreeable. Whereas conference delegate who are well-mannered, charming and friendly, even in trying circumstances, I shall view as good colleagues, collaborators and friends.

Darcy

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Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology for nearly a decade and is currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society and the Society for Marine Mammalogy. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 120 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.


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