Will Anyone Attend Your Conference Presentation?

Carol Poster provides a calculator to help you estimate the probable size of your audience and plan accordingly.

September 5, 2018
(Istockphoto.com/enis akstoy)

As conference season looms on the horizon, you, like most academics around the world, are probably procrastinating on the task of writing a conference paper. In theory, every paper that you give at an academic conference should be your best work, presenting original research in elegantly luminescent prose and blending clarity, grace and the occasional soupçon of dry academic wit. But, in reality, writing a talk for a panel presentation competes for time with grading, class preparation, doing taxes, committee work, gardening, completing manuscripts for publication, housecleaning, bingeing on Netflix and endless administrative trivia.

Given those exigencies, while it may make sense to devote weeks to a presentation that numerous luminaries in one’s field will attend, some notes hastily scrawled on an airplane napkin will do for an audience of one's co-panelists, two of their graduate students and someone's mother. The calculator below will enable you to estimate the probable size of your audience and plan accordingly.

1. Is your talk or panel:

a) A plenary session?
b) The only talk in your field in a given time slot?
c) Scheduled against one or more sessions by stars in your field?

2. Is your department:

a) Hiring or sponsoring a prestigious and well-paid visiting lecture series?
b) A large department at a well-funded university?
c) Struggling to address the needs of low-income and at-risk students on a shoestring budget?

3. Your co-panelists include:

a) Public intellectuals or actual celebrities.
b) Midcareer colleagues.
c) Graduate students and adjuncts.

4. You are:

a) Currently editing a major journal or book series.
b) An active scholar with an extensive social network.
c) Probably the person whose name is on your badge.

5. Your talk is scheduled:

a) Between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on a Saturday.
b) On the first or last day of the conference.
c) Before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m.

6. Your title:

a) Is sexy or topical.
b) Has a colon in it.
c) Accurately reflects your main line of argument.

7: You are scheduled in a room:

a) Close to free food or a cash bar.
b) Near the registration desk.
c) Across the parking lot.

8: Your room is stocked with:

a) Coffee, juice and snacks.
b) Water.
c) Cleaning supplies from the janitor's closet. Or perhaps it is the janitor's closet.

9: Your talk is being shared by:

a) Five people live-tweeting.
b) Streaming for remote attendees.
c) An undergraduate taking notes for extra credit.

10: Your audiovisual aids include:

a) Live animals.
b) Film clips or video games.
c) Paper handouts.

Calculating Your Score:

Start with a score of zero.

  • For every answer of (a), add five people.
  • For every answer of (b), your score remains unchanged.
  • For every answer of (c), subtract five people.

Interpreting Your Score:

  • Over 40: You rank high enough on the academic prestige hierarchy that you can get away with reading the same abridgment of your most widely reprinted book chapter that you have read at 47 other conferences over the past decade. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
  • 21-40: You are a promising or well-established scholar with the right institutional background and connections to attract a solid audience to your talk. You should invest the time in carefully crafting the first five minutes of your speech to include flattering references to the work of any editors, members of hiring departments or other influential people who might attend.
  • 0-20: You may be under the illusion that you can "write your way" into a better job -- or any job at all -- by hard work and excellent scholarship. In reality, though, the chances are about as good as those of your winning the lottery. Scribble a few notes on a napkin at the cash bar and, as you head out for dinner, invest in a lottery ticket. The odds of a big payout from the lottery are actually better than those of Social Security and your state pension fund still being solvent when you retire.
  • Negative score: The idea of fewer than zero attendees might seem physically impossible. Sociologically, though, it means that as an adjunct, graduate student in a third-tier program, community college teacher, person of color, independent scholar, older woman or LGBTQ scholar not attached to a prestigious institution, you are effectively invisible. Even if people are present in the room in which you are speaking, they will not notice you. Erasure is not just an academic theory; it is the reality of life in an academic underclass.

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Over the course of a two-decade academic career, during which she presented papers at numerous conferences, Carol Poster has taught at Montana State University, the University of Northern Iowa and Florida State University in the United States and York University in Canada. 


Carol Poster

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