The last presenter was almost finished, and I was next. I looked around the room many of the faces I saw belonged to people who are at the top of my field. One of them I even cited by name in my paper, which was particularly disconcerting because if I miss understood her work or misused her words, she would certainly know. Needless to say I was anxious. Would I be laughed out of the room and academia? Would my paper crumple under the scrutiny? Would I? I looked over at the door, it wasn’t terribly far away, but it was too late, I had been introduced and I couldn’t slip out now.
The paper went smoothly and the questions, critiques, and suggestions were incredibly helpful. My anxiety, as it often is, turned out to be a fear of a future that never came to be. In large part it went so well because of the culture intentionally created by the director of conference and the people that attended. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about how encouraging, engaging, and welcoming as well as insightful everyone was. Beyond the academic advice and community, I also realised I had gained a bit of knowledge and practice at how to approach a conference.
This was the first time I had ever presented a paper at a conference and even though I had given lectures and presentations before this was a new experience. I’ve been reflecting on and processing the experience and I’ve begun creating a list of things to remind myself before the next one. In part, to help assuage my anxiety, but also to put me in the right frame of mind to get the most out of the next conference. So far I only have 5, which I thought I’d share.
5 Things to Remember
There’s a first time for everything – All the members of my audience had been through exactly what I had. They had to start somewhere and so did I. This helped me readjust my expectations and realise that I am still learning and have only really just begun walking down this path. I don’t have to be perfect right out of the gate and they’re not expecting me to be, which takes off a lot of self-imposed pressure.
Listen and observe – I listened not only to what was said in a paper, but also how it was presented. This gave me some great ideas for different ways I could improve my presentations in the future. It also helped me remember we’re all human. Everyone stumbled over a word or lost there place in their presentation. Just like I didn’t mind or hold it against them, no one minded or held it against me.
It’s a learning experience – By reminding myself that the conference was meant to be a learning experience helped with a number of things. It helped me take people’s questions and comments constructively, but it also allowed me to give myself permission to make mistakes. When you’re learning something knew the expectation is that you’re going to make a mistake and that doesn’t make you wrong or incapable, it’s just all part of the learning process.
Bring a notebook – In the matter of 10 minutes I got more helpful advice than I knew what to do with. And tonight as I sit writing this (completely knackered) I may be able to remember one or two of them. Even throughout the conference in conversations great ideas, suggestions, and resources would be offered and they too would be completely gone if I didn’t write them down then and there. So never leave home without a notebook and pen.
Don’t try to impress – Of course be polite, network, and put your best foot forward, but don’t try to blow everyone away. That’s not the point. The point is to help each other learn and refine their work. Aiming to impress just puts undo pressure and unhelpful expectations on yourself. If you’re goal is to walk away having wowed everyone, anything short of that will feel like a failure. This will only cloud your judgment, sap your motivation, and keep you from getting the most out of the experience.
These five things are what I’ll be reminding myself at the next conference, but I’d be interested to hear what other people have learned from their experiences at their first conference or any conference. Feel free to share them below or tweet them @SGSAH_blog. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts and advice!
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