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.
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.
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:
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:
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).
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.
This post is one in a series of five about attending academic conferences.
- HCI Conferences 101 - What it is like to attend, and what you should expect
- Attending: Level 0 - What to wear, what to pack, etc.
- Attending: Level 1 - How to prepare for a conference
- Attending: Level 2 - Advanced strategies: hit list, asking questions, etc.
- Attending: Level 3 - Being a session chair
My thanks to my colleague Carman Neustaedter who provided comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.