ASPAC 2014: Conference-Coping Strategies

On my way back to Maine for the summer, I stopped over in Bellingham, Washington to present this year’s field research at the annual Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast (ASPAC) Conference hosted by Western Washington University.

Me, in my post-presentation euphoria.

Me in my post-presentation euphoria.

This was not my first conference rodeo, but I’ll be the first to admit that attending, let alone presenting, is still a daunting endeavor: how will I spout my 3 minute thesis pitch in an engaging, thought-provoking voice that balances the complex reality of my day-to-day fieldwork with the big-picture questions I’m trying to answer? How will I ask insightful questions of an interesting acquaintance whose research topic I know zilch? How will I keep the cascade of people I’m going to meet, and their projects, all straight? What if someone asks me a simple question and I don’t know the answer? Or worse, what if I end up on some tangent and my core points are diluted in some deluge of extraneous jabber?

These questions can begin oscillating through my head months in advance of an event (plus my unfortunate combo of introverted inclinations with a phobia of awkward silences further fuels the noggin-addled-question-mill). Fortunately, through the slew of training events I attended during my prior position with the NeighborWorks Rural Initiative, I’ve accumulated a tool belt of conference-coping strategies. Below are a few that I’ve found to be indispensable.

1. The Attendee-list

The list of attendees is a goldmine, and mining it properly is key to maximizing the potential of your interactions. Googling attendees, finding out their research interests, sifting through prior publications, and even scanning their twitter feeds will not only skip past the who-are-you-and-what-do-you-do automated introductions for a topic you’ve found you both share a passion for, but it’s also a keen form of flattery to demonstrate that you’ve taken the time and effort to seek someone out who you admire and/or who shares your interests.

Admittedly this felt a little ‘stalkish’ at first, but deliberate and thoughtful networking can generate endless opportunities.

2. Questions

This may seem like a no-brainer (especially for formal panels), but asking questions is a skill that can constantly be honed.  Over time, I’ve learned to dig for ‘transition points’ in conversations to discover what drives someone to do what they do. By ‘transition points’, I mean the point where someone moved from one idea/passion/place etc. to another.

The thought process guiding someone’s transition decision is often more interesting than what they transitioned from/to. It also facilitates a connection with someone around who they are and why they do what they do, rather than just sharing what they do.

3. The 3-minute pitch

A pithy pitch that binds the nitty-gritty of your work to the broader field is crucial in almost any profession, but at conferences this task is amplified because you have to give it over and over again, dozens of times each day, without (at the very least) sounding mechanical and (at best) tailoring your spiel to the interests of whomever you’re talking with.

Pitches evolve through trial-and-error, but as a guiding principle I try to keep in mind that:

  • How you frame your research will determine how it is perceived. I’ve felt the overwhelming temptation to jump right into the nuts and bolts of what I’m doing, but without setting the stage with why it is important and how it adds value to the big picture, fieldwork can be reduced to a novel adventure.
  • Simple+Authentic=Sticky. Simplifying a complex topic while maintaining an authentic voice is a priceless skill, and the nature of authenticity means you just have to figure out the technique that works best for you. For me, I have to sit down, without notes, and just write and write and write. Eventually, 20 pages are shaved down to 10, then 5, then 1, until I have a pithy paragraph.

Conferences are pitch-marathons, and the proclivity to slip into auto-mode can be overwhelming, let alone the task of spontaneously customizing your every pitch to resonate with a variety of interests. This is where a nimble approach to framing can be fun and creative. There are likely a plethora of intriguing questions and directions you had to sort through before settling on and committing to a guiding research question, and you can still use these to play dress-up with your pitches. For example, my fieldwork on poverty alleviation resettlement can be explored through a variety of lenses- from self-governing systems to central-local politics to hukou reform to the framing of China’s transition by outside and domestic observers. Rather than discarding these as tangents, at one point or another I’ve harnessed my interest in all of these topics to connect with a range of acquaintances and audiences. As long as my core message and methods are clear, it can be fun to play around with how I wrap them up and give them away.

I’ve written these tips within an academic-conference context, but I think they can be translated to a variety of venues.  Some of these you’re likely familiar with, and others won’t work for everyone, but I hope some are useful. Please feel free to add your own!


About elenakayes

The key to understanding exists at the nexus where self-interest and practice meet power and policy; I explore this nexus through participatory field research.
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