The survival guide to the conference journey

From Hanken to the QUIS17 symposium (and back)

Before getting further, I wish to share some tips for reading this blog text. The following provides key learnings from my first academic conference presentation at the 17th International research symposium on service excellence in management (QUIS17) in Valencia. Take this as a subjective journey and self-reflection on how small things make a difference. In case you chose this as a survival guide to make the best out of your first presentation and make your journey exceptional, the responsibility lies with the reader (as it does with all self-help guides). Also, there are three key points you should keep in mind:

  • First, the journey is divided into three stages: pre-stage, on the stage and post-stage. The first two stages are about being “in the factory”. Not to mention that a lot needs to be done already before the journey begins. The post-stage describes how to fix the puzzle. In the long run, this is the stage that makes the difference between… well, puzzles. But before you can get there, you have to go through the journey with all its stages.
  • Second, the following findings are not what I found useful, but what I found I should have done during my journey. In my case, learned my lesson a day too late.
  • Third, you cannot fully control your journey on the stage as it is a performance and thus an interplay between you, the audience and many other variables. However, both pre-stage and post-stage processes can make you a stronger performer on stage.

If you wish to read more, take a step further and let the conference journey begin.

The pre-stage

Assuming you have done all your homework – you are familiar with the script, you have mentally warmed up to your role, and you have prepared a visually appealing presentation – there is not much to do but enjoy and try to get to know the people in the conference (professors, postdocs and other doctoral students). If you are determined and make friends during the pre-stage, you might get the opportunity to share your thoughts on your topic before your presentation. This will most probably provide you some good discussions and even questions about your research that may be helpful during the actual presentation. Listen to them carefully!

Also, ask your new friends to come to listen to your presentation. It is always nice to have familiar faces in the audience. Some with whom you may have had a drink or two during the precious conference nights.

On the stage

Think of your presentation as storytelling. If you’ll find familiar faces in the audience, you can tell them your story and set the focus on those audience members with whom you already have an emotional bound. It often helps you to get rid of the feeling of butterflies in belly. It also makes storytelling more personal if you can adapt to the audience or at least some of them.

Now, be confident and enjoy. The people in the audience might be celebrities. They might have great publications and bright minds. But remember, they still share the same planet earth with you. Some of them watch the same Netflix series, listen to the same music, share the same worries, daily routines and worldview with you. They have just had a different journey, and now your paths have crossed.

“The first conference is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience”

Although the first conference is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and your topic is apparently the most interesting of all, do not take it too seriously. You most probably cannot change the world (yet), neither break it (which is also good). The day after, you still enjoy the very same hotel breakfast, watch Seinfeld on Netflix, your partner is sending you goodnight kisses and the kids are asking for more money (if you happen to have any… money or kids).

What comes to the feedback, it is good to remember the audience’s position as well. The performance is always built on the Maussian “potlatch” (if you have read Marcell Mauss you may have heard of the double-obligation of giving and repaying). As a performer you have an obligation to give (the presentation). At the same time your audience feels obligated to pay back (the feedback). Try to focus and dig deeper into the comments you feel are the most essential to your research. But do not take it too personally! Sometimes feedback is not fully relevant because it is an obligation that must be fulfilled.

And most likely you already have more conceptual or empirical understanding of your topic than most of your audience. But still, do not try to be more than you are. If something on your paper is conceptually fuzzy and you get questions about it, you can always remind the audience that it is a work-in-progress, and you will pay more attention to it as soon as you get back to your hotel. And it is always good if there are some bright-minded participants in the audience. Tricky questions will make you, your research, and your next presentation much stronger.

The post-stage

Congratulations! You have survived this far! As you already know, observing others, sharing thoughts, making presentations, and evaluating the feedback you receive are great ways to learn and clarify your research focus and conceptual thinking. But this was only the easiest part. The most challenging of all is self-reflection and how to find your way up from the pitfall. Remember to be kind to yourself. Based on your findings, focus on the things you want to improve in your future performances. Create or enhance your own “stage power” or “performative self” (whatever it will be). Giving a presentation is a performance (like it or not) like all human interactions are. If you have any teaching experience, you already know that you have your role to play, and you may have some tricks to get people engaged. Use them!

And what comes to your research after your first presentation: start weaponizing your key thoughts! But do not start it immediately. Sleep one night first and then write a reflection paper, blog text or diary page. Putting your thoughts and findings on paper, gives you all the answers you would have needed already during your first presentation.

Don’t worry! There is more to come. The journey has just begun.

From failure to mastery (and back).

Pekka Saarikorpi
Doctoral candidate (since August 2020)

with plenty of experience in various arts performance settings but little experience in academic presentations