Saturday, 1 October 2011

We're the Chipmunks (also known as Thing 15: Conferences and events)

In the words of Dinnerladies' Petula Gordino: "I'm back! New venue, new caravan, new kidney". OK, so I haven't got the kind of excuse for going AWOL that would match moving house or getting an organ transplant or ... buying a caravan. I haven't got anything at all new.  But the only other references I could think of for "being back" involved either the Backstreet Boys or Eminem and, well, let's just stick to Julie Walters. No, my excuse is that I've been hiding out in Aberwristwatch, both the town itself and the concept, writing an essay and, now it's done, it's time to pick up the shattered pieces of my floundering and flailing attempt to stay even vaguely up to date with cpd23.

Aber. Possibly with a bit of artistic license.

Fortunately, Thing 15 is about conferences and seminars and events, all of which I like. At best, you meet good people and learn good stuff; at worst, you get a day off work and are able to practise the art of the regimented drinking of lacklustre tea. Katie asks us in the main blog to look at conferences and events from three angles: as attendee, speaker and organiser. I do like a nice trichotomy. Trying to think of a way to frame the discussion was fun too. The Musketeers was an option but I only really know about Dogtanian and the Muskehounds, and I've realised that I mention Dogtanian with a worrying frequency already. Harry, Ron and Hermione: too overdone. Fathers Ted, Dougal and Jack: too sweary. Larry, Curly and Moe: would require Actual Research, and I've made it this far without that. Then it dawned on me. The winning concept. And by winning I mean that holy trinity of being not totally irrelevant, malleable enough to make it fit what I want to say, and in the 80s enough that anyone reading this will have forgotten what they need to contradict me. It's Alvin and the Chipmunks. The TV version, obviously. And as a self-respecting childless woman in her mid-twenties, I haven't watched the movie. OK, I'm lying. I'm in my late twenties, and I don't have that much self-respect. If I did I'd be drinking gin somewhere rather than writing this drivel. But I still haven't seen the film. Promise.

Attending conferences: the Theodore Seville approach
Theodore was always the lovely Chipmunk. Sweet, gullible, perhaps a little naive, and always hungry. Let's begin with the last attribute: hungry. The food at conferences is always REALLY important. There's something about eating to schedule that aggrandises how crucial soggy sandwiches and strange samosas actually are. It's mainly because it's free, so it transports us back to our student days, where the prospect of a free meal was more appetising than a first class degree any day of the week. And by free, I mean paid for so far in advance that we've forgotten about it. Conference food is usually pretty good: the Danish pastries at the Libraries @ Cambridge conference are worth attending for alone.

But then there are Theodore's other attributes, as I've said: sweet, gullible, perhaps a little naive. This is us at conferences. We rock up, wide-eyed, blinking, a little confused, and expecting the best. We anticipate meeting a whole cast of wonderful, fascinating people; we foresee learning magical and magnificent things; we imagine ourselves leaving feeling more inspired and more energised than a Duracell bunny. And for the most part, we do. For the most part. But I've never been to a conference where all the papers were great, nor where all the speakers were bursting at the seams with charisma, nor where I felt engaged or interested for the entire day. It's not that the papers or the people were boring; it's that speakers can't please all the people all the time. Battling that after lunch slump where the puniness of the tea you've been supping really becomes apparent is no mean task. And there are always speakers who are talking about something so far outside your field of awareness, let alone expertise, that you're as confused and bewildered as you would be if you went into a post office and there wasn't a queue.

The best bit about conferences leads me straight back to Theodore. He acts as the safe-for-children adhesive that bonds his often warring brothers together.  Attending conferences lets you meet people. And no matter how good buddies you are on Twitter, or the fact that you've emailed each other once, there's nothing like meeting up and bonding over the ever long queue for a plastic cup of some boiler water masquerading as tea, to make you allies.

Speaking at conferences: the Simon Seville approach
OK, OK, let's just ignore the fact that Simon's supposed to be the "clever" one. Of course I don't think that people who speak at conferences are cleverererer than their listening, or snoozing, counterparts. Of course. But what Simon does is this: he uses the opportunities he's given and he's pretty brave.

Speaking at conferences is undeniably an opportunity. If your topic is interesting to some people in the room, or if you're a good speaker, then it's an opportunity to teach people something, or to make them think about something differently. It's also, marginally more self-interestedly, a way to raise your profile or get your name known. But speaking at conferences is also something that requires a bit of courage. I know this from experience: earlier this year, I spoke at the New Professionals Conference, I directed a Q&A at the Libraries @ Cambridge conference, and in a couple of weeks I'm going to the CPD25 conference on applying to Library School to take part in a Q&A and big up Aber.

I'm not too fazed about speaking in public, especially if I can prepare in advance. Years and years of being forced to do masses of it while I was at school has numbed me to the nerves. When I was 17, I gave a Prizegiving speech to about 700 people, including my friends, classmates, teachers, school governors, guests, and more. I was meant to thank the main Prizegiver who was, fortunately, really interesting, and was (I think) one of the executive producers of Queer as Folk. The bit where I had to speak didn't bother me particularly: I'd memorised the speech and had it written down on index cards in my pocket. It was the bit where I had to carry a microphone to the front of the stage before speaking into it that bothered me. I was convinced that I'd trip over some wires or my feet and fall head first into the choir. It also bothered me that while I was doing all this I was being forced to wear a suit and high heels and make-up. There was such a lot of displacement going on there that the fact I had to say something faded entirely.

I don't mean to suggest for a second that a lack of fear translates into any particular oratorical skill; nor am I really suggesting that you make yourself forget about the bit where you have to say things out loud to people by doing a load of other stuff simultaneously that terrifies you more. Don't juggle fire, please, while giving a paper on the digital humanities--if nothing else, the conference organisers will have coronaries. But what I would say to people who are nervous about speaking is this:
  • One, offer to speak, or submit a proposal. If you get turned down, try again. If you get accepted, there's no going back. You can cross the bridge of terror when you come to it.
  • Two, prepare properly. Both the proposal and the paper. Makes the slides good. Practise enough so you know the gist and flow of the paper, but don't memorise it. Be comfortable with what you're going to say. Take out long words that your tongue trips over, for example.
  • Three, remember everyone in the audience is just very happy that it's you that's speaking and not them.
  • Four, no one is really focusing on your nerves. At the start, they're thinking about their stomachs, or last night's episode of Glee, or why whoever chose the uncomfortable chairs they're squirming on thought hot pink and orange stripes would be a good design choice. Once you get going, they're thinking about what you're saying, and still not whether or not you're nervous.
  • Five, remember they're all Theodore. They're gullible, sweet, perhaps a little naive, and looking up to their big brother Simon, who has all the answers.
Organising conferences: the Alvin Seville approach
OK, then, Alvin. The lead guy, the main dude. Alvin is impulsive, confident, inspired, and full of boundless energy. I imagine that if you're organising a conference or event, these traits would fall into the "essential" category, rather than simply desirable. Conference organising takes a whole host of valuable, brilliant skills of which I am totally envious. It's everything from booking venues and getting speakers and choosing samosas and making name badges to taking the risk of contracting arthritis by keeping your fingers crossed for the seventeen days running up to the big event, and hoping that something unexpected like an alien invasion doesn't happen to scupper all these well laid plans.  I take my proverbial hat off, and offer three cheers and a bottle of gin to everyone involved in the organisation of next week's Library Camp! Organisers are SO talented.

It's not something I've ever really done; I kind of helped out with the Libraries @ Cambridge conference in January this year, but that really just consisted in attending a hilarious meeting with Andy, Lyn and Rose, showing up early to give out name badges, and holding a microphone whilst worrying that I wouldn't fall (actually, that's a theme. I wonder what it is about microphones that makes me think I'm going to tumble to my death or, worse, utter humiliation). So anyway, I can't take much credit for that conference. But maybe one day I'll get my chance. If ever there's a conference on the impact of Benedict Cumberbatch on the information society, you'll know who's behind it.


  1. Brilliant as always, and I'll never be nervous about speakibg at a conference again so thanks for that!

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  3. Just realised I've done all three, though I'm mostly a cute little Theodore. Thanks for the advice about presenting; as Niamh said, I'll never be nervous again, I hope. And while the personalised libraries conference was the inspiration of someone else, and I had help from the person above, it was all you said and more. As Miranda states, "what have you done today to make you feel proud?" Just reading your post has done that for me. So thank you!