What makes a conference really irritating?

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

  • Published
Bored in the hallImage source, Thinkstock

Conferences are an inescapable part of academic life. They have many positive virtues - such as air miles and a chance to polish your reputation in public.

But let's be honest, they can be irritating. Put on your misspelt name badge and consider a few of the downsides - and then you can suggest your own least favourite items on the agenda.

1. The bore from the floor: There is some cruel law of physics that says the dullest, most pompous person in the room is always quickest to the microphone. They've mastered the art of talking without pausing so it's impossible to interrupt them. They can use sentences so long that it's more or less a hostage situation.

2. Hit-and-run ministerial speeches: A classic conference opener is to find a junior minister to deliver the keynote. It suggests the purr of power and a ministerial limousine pulling up outside a hotel. Except it can be more like the Kwik-Fit fitters of the conference world, in and out in rapid time. There isn't a moment for questions - mainly because the minister doesn't know anything about the subject - and then he or she is out the door quicker than a human cannonball.

3. Does my ego look big in this?: There is something in the conference water that makes people think they can show off without any of the usual social constraints. They self-refer, they self-congratulate, they self-inflate. The huge air balloon of their ego has crushed everyone else in the hall. And the ego warrior won't even have noticed.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Conferences can give people a chance to subtly reveal their views

4. The social media guy: This unfortunate creature, on display on the conference stage, is expected to say things like: "Twitter is going completely crazy." No it's not, it's just a couple of PR hacks faking interest by using a stupid hashtag. And even more cruelly, he might have to wear something interesting to show what a fun new media guy he is - like a shiny waistcoat or an irritating pair of glasses. #iusedtohaveacareer

5. Novelty acts: Conferences have to work hard to keep people interested, because they can suck the meaning out of everything. How many times have we seen someone waving a pointer at a slide saying something vacuous like "The future is agile"? A few weeks ago conference organisers tried to liven things up by getting actors to stage a fake fight in an attempt to give people something to talk about.

6. Laptop tappers: Check out the audience at the next conference and you'll see young people typing furiously through all the speeches. They're not reporters or bloggers. But they seem to be taking note of everything that's being said. It's like some weird DIY transcription service. What are they doing?

7. Hotel institutionalisation: Even after a day the symptoms are apparent. There's an unnatural dependency on the free biscuits in the hotel room and a deep anxiety that they might not be replaced. You've begun to try on the towelling flip-flops. You're already looking forward to surfing the mid-morning buffet.

8. Why can't anyone ask a proper question?: There are experts on a panel, but do we get to hear them challenged about their ideas? Not a chance. When people in the audience get up to speak, they may as well just shout out the name of their employer or the title of their latest book. It's intellectual product placement. Blokes with sandwich boards for golf sales are more subtle in their sales technique.

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Hotel institutionalisation can begin with free-biscuit dependency

9. If this is all feels meaningless, it might be: A website set up by science students in the US has been offering a random research paper generator - and it records how many of these bits of jargon and gibberish have been accepted for conferences. Among the classics has been Harnessing Byzantine Fault Tolerance Using Classical Theory. As well as reporting on how they "dogfooded" on desktop machines this spoof research paper includes a graph with a wavy line showing "Time since 1970."

10. PowerPoint - comedy's digital graveyard: And finally, there's always that last slide, you know the funny one to end the presentation, the one that says "I'm not just a fusty old boffin, I can let my hair down with all the rest of the good-time guys". There's a picture of a cat in a superhero costume or a cartoon dragged off Google that you can't read properly. To the audience, it's about as hilarious as the Black Death, but there is no known deterrent to the Funny Last Slide.