Is your conference audience really listening? Some uncomfortable truths

This is a follow-up to my posts about presentations and how to bore your audience. I also intend to write one soon about conference questions and how to deal with them, building on a recent post elsewhere on this issue.

I was motivated to write it when I was advising a student preparing to give a presentation, and I was thinking about my recent conference experiences.

Here’s the basic uncomfortable truth I think is worth confronting:

Many people in the audience in academic conferences is not listening closely to what you are saying, and those who are may be on the point of switching off anyway.

Why? Several reasons, some or all of which may not apply to particular conference circumstances. But the take home message – about making yourself, what you have to say, and any visual accompaniment SUPER-UBER-HYPER-MEGA interesting – remains true. It’s like 3 minute thesis but longer, without losing any of the punchiness, engagement, or entertainment.


Reason 1: they’re not there to listen to you anyway

Many conferences clump papers together into longer sessions with 4 or 5 presenters, maybe 15 minutes each. If you’re lucky these are on related ideas. Commonly the links between them are somewhat spurious. Either way, chances are you are not the star presenter that has put all those bums on seats (ignoring for now the fact that it is highly likely that there are more empty seats than those warming gently under academics’ backsides). They’ve come for the guru who’s on after you, or just because the guru is the discussant or chair. Or they’ve come for their colleague who is on before you. Or maybe they are just there because that’s the room they were in for the previous session and they’ve got so absorbed in their emails / youtube / facebook that they haven’t realised the session has changed.


Reason 2: what you’re saying is probably boring

Many presenters make the crucial error of assuming that other people are at all interested in what they have to say. That interest should not be taken for granted. It cannot by assumed by virtue of the fact that there are people in the room (see point 1). You have to earn it. Telling them about all the policy context and all the existing literature is not a good way to do that. Their puny interest levels have already plummeted somewhere close to absolute zero and short of a change in temperate of an order of magnitude required to produce nuclear fusion, you ain’t getting it back.


Reason 3: what you’re showing is mind-numbingly dull too

Readers of this blog will know I’m not a huge fan of bullet points (to put it midly). Perhaps you are reading what’s on the screen, making both yourself dull and the screen irrelevant. Perhaps you’ve got an overwhelming amount of text etc etc you know the score. The point is, your slides are probably as visually appealing or aesthetically pleasing as a bland thing that fell out of the bland tree and hit every bland branch on its way down to the bland ground.


Or perhaps, you’ve put crap and pointless animations in or are using prezi badly and have given your audience seasickness.


Reason 4: you’re being utterly outclassed by the competition

I find it helpful to think of conference presentations in terms of attention economics. Attention economy is not my idea (see but it’s a good one.

Basically in any situation, academic presentations in particular, lots of different things are competing for each individual’s attention. On the street it’s signs, adverts, other people’s clothes, pets, hot air balloons, dog turds, whatever. In the conference the competition is fierce. It’s huge. It’s immense. It’s…



wait for it







Holy sh!t. Yes. Every conference I have gone to in the past couple of years has had wifi available for delegates in session rooms.

The nice idea is that people will be tweeting about what they hear and creating online scholarly discussion. This happens. A bit. Sometimes. If there is an ‘r’ in the month. And a full moon. And nothing has happened in the news, at all, for the past 10-15 days.

The rest of the time, your audience (who are either absent, not there to hear you, or bored to tears already) are being tempted away by…. THE INTERNET!

(and for those of you who’ve seen Avenue Q, we all know what the internet is really great for, don’t we? [that was a joke btw; I’ve never used the internet for that purpose and certainly don’t condone it, particularly not in conferences; it would be very embarrassing if you got caught, for one thing])

Maybe there’s work emails piling up that they would like to delete

Maybe they’re going on google and checking out your web presence on uni websites or and coming to the conclusion that (i) you’ve got heaps of publications that they can read later, and given this experience, should really be saying something more interesting in front of them right now, or (ii) you’ve got no publications and therefore probably aren’t worth listening to; or (iii) can’t be found on the web, therefore don’t actually exist and your presence in the room is just a clever but sadly wasteful illusion.

Maybe they’re on facebook. A little red dot has just appeared on their web browser tab telling them they have a new message and it is oh so tempting just to flick and see what it is. How tempting to flick back to your home page or the conference twitter thread? About as tempting as switching chocolate cake with hot chocolate sauce and home made vanilla ice cream for last week’s dried lentils with stale bread.

Maybe they gave up long ago and are cruising nicely through a series of youtube videos. Lady gaga’s latest, a cow falling over in a field, or something equally enthralling (compared to your presentation, that is).

Maybe they’re watching live news streaming as nothing happens outside a hospital where a famous person has been admitted, or where a royal baby hasn’t yet been born.

Even if they don’t have the internet, and there might be some luddites in the room who have these weird old fangled things called pens and paper, they still have the infinite freedom and pleasure of doodling. Seriously, and I’m being totally honest here, some of the best roller coaster designs I’ve ever come up with have been done in conferences. (Yes I’m a roller coaster fanatic and my dream job is to be a roller coaster designer).


So there you have it

The set-up is against you in many ways. So unless you’re really engaging and interesting, you might as well be talking to a brick wall. Your parents / supervisor / best friend in the audience don’t count. Don’t just look at them and assume everyone is paying attention like they are (maybe they’re faking it anyway, or you’ve lost them too and they are busy checking out the latest viral clip from a vacuous TV talent show).

Don’t assume they’re there because of you. Don’t forget to earn their interest. And don’t forget you have to work really hard to keep it. Because other things are working their hardest to steal any hard won attention you have got.

4 thoughts on “Is your conference audience really listening? Some uncomfortable truths

  1. nickhopwood Post author

    Here’s a comment I received from ‘Kevin’

    Hi Nick, that’s spot on! As a PhD student, I have given presentations at various conferences over the past three years. The downside of being a PhD student at a conference is that few people know who you are or care about what you do. Unless your title looks super interesting on the conference program or you happen to be on the same panel with more senior academics, the chances are there won’t be many people turning up and listening to your most likely uninteresting and unoriginal talk. Having said this, being a PhD student also gives one the chance to be a little creative, unconventional and surprising, even though the temptation for someone so junior is to play safe (and be boring). I think we should cherish the fact that there is no expectation we will deliver an earth-shattering argument. So we may as well be interesting and yes entertaining, and if we do it right people do put away their phone and actually pay attention.


  2. Michael

    Oh, man – clever but depressing! Re: your paragraph about our presence on the Internet making us either readable (at another time), ignorable, or nonexistent – that cut, but well. However, I hold out that faint hope that, as I take copious notes (by hand, not on my laptop) during other presentations in the hopes that I will find something of value for future reference or just an interesting question following the presentation, others like me are doing just the same when I speak. Or maybe I’m just a dewy-eyed PhD candidate…

  3. NessieMonster

    Ooo, this is timely. I just spent five days of last week sat in a huge international conference, with wifi. And more bored academics than I have ever seen in one place.

    I will admit to doing the following: 1/ doodling, 2/ making origami models, 3/ deleting messages off my phone, 4/ reading Game of Thrones, 5/ watching youtube videos, 6/ sorting out my Gmail folders and 7/ reading and writing blog posts.

    I also entertained myself by watching other academics doing similar things, oh and of course, that perennial favourite, napping.
    Overall, I found less than half the talks interesting, but I also had the pleasure of listening to some truly excellent and inspirational speakers. I was so engrossed in listening to them, I didn’t take notes on what it was that actually made them good speakers but I figure that has been covered elsewhere on the internets.


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