Conference Etiquette at Mormon Symposia

By August 26, 2011

The scholar/blogger Historiann (if you are a young Mormon scholar interested in academia, you should really read her blog) has a new post on the ethics of conference participating. Partly because I am lazy, and partly because I think we can generate a good discussion, I’d like to bring part of that debate over here.

I remember my first MHA experience, which was also one of my first conference experiences, is vivid in my memory. I was a Junior at BYU, and I submitted a paper on Mormonism and Romanticism, primarily comparing Joseph Smith’s thought to Romantic poets. (I was a literature major, after all.) Somehow, my paper was accepted. (Likely because it was part of a panel with two excellent and respected historians.) Looking back on my paper now…oh what a mess. I’m embarrassed for having delivered it, and I hope there were no recordings that would come back to haunt me at a later day. Our session’s commenter, Steve Harper, was as generous as possible in (justifiably) critiquing some of my main arguments. I thought it couldn’t get any worse.

Except it very well could have. The more I’ve participated in conferences, and the more stories I’ve heard from others who participate at conferences, the more I realize how some general and common-sense notions of etiquette are often broken. Though my first MHA paper was conceptually horrible, I at least followed basic guidelines by turning in the paper on time to the commenter and not exceeding my allotted time, for instance. This is how Historiann introduces the problems in her post on conference etiquette:

I?ve been hearing rumblings from different friends and colleagues lately about an erosion in history conference etiquette specifically focused on the performance and attitude of speakers on conference programs. The complaints usually fall into two categories: first, participants aren?t sending their papers to panel chairs commenters with sufficient lead time, and/or they?re sending 40- or 50-page article or chapter-length discussions rather than 10-12 pages that can be read adequately in 20 minutes or fewer. Second, panelists and roundtable speakers?and some Chairs and commenters too?aren?t crafting their papers or comments to fit within their allotted times, and are taking time away from fellow panelists and/or the time allotted for audience discussion.

As Historiann goes on to correctly point out, things like this are simply a matter of respect: respect toward the commenter to get things in on time so that they can craft an adequate response, and respect to the audience and other panelists in finishing on time so that a proper discussion can take place. On the first problem, it is very tempting (and all of us are guilty) to claim that we need more time, but that excuse often translates into, “I didn’t start on it until a week before the deadline.” On the second problem, there are few things more uncomfortable and frustrating than when a presenter (whether knowingly or unknowingly) goes over on time; a majority of the audience is then thinking “boy I wish they would end” rather than “boy this is fascinating stuff!”

I think Mormon conferences are rife with these kinds of problems, mostly because we have a mix between academics who should know better (but still do it anyway) and lots of amateurs and first-timers who merely haven’t had a chance to learn. Here are just a handful of common problems that come to mind, other than the problems listed above:

  1. Commenters sometimes think their job is to present another 20 minute paper rather than respond and review the papers already given.
  2. Mormon topics can sometimes be a bit testy, and often people think that “engaging with an argument” means “defending the faith” or “uncovering hypocrisy.”
  3. Some people thinks a “presenter introduction” means “every worldly accomplishment–even if it has nothing to do with history”–ever achieved in one’s life. I vividly remember one commenter being introduced with what seemed like a ten-minute paper on how their non-history research has led to changing some form of medical practice that I had know idea about.
  4. Audience comments. Oh, the audience comments. I don’t even know where to begin with those.

Have you experienced these same problems? What are some other matters of etiquette that should be improved at Mormon conferences?

Also, if you just want to share some fun conference stories, those are welcome too.

[And if this post does nothing more than to get more people to read Linda Kerber’s “Conference Rules,” I’ll consider it a success.]

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’ll start out by sharing one of my favorite MHA experiences: a commenter was ignoring the “short response” rule and was nearing 30 minutes in his comments. The session was already about five minutes past the ending time, so the audience was getting very antsy. Finally, this commenter took an extra-long breath (who knows how much longer his response was), someone not paying attention thought he had finished and started clapping, everyone else joined in on the applause, and the confused commenter was so disrupted that he (mercifully) closed the session.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 26, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  2. Thanks for the link, Ben. I’m glad you found the post useful! Everyone seems to have their own nightmare conference story to share–my jaw-dropping faves from the thread over at my place are the sweatpants story and the grad student with a 50-page paper story.

    Amazing. Top that, MHA!

    Comment by Historiann — August 26, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  3. I’ve had to share sessions twice with one particular scholar, and if any conference ever pairs us again I will refuse to deliver my paper. In the first case, he was the second of a three-paper session. I had a PowerPoint display for the first paper — but he had reached the room before me and had set up and tested his own PowerPoint connection, and absolutely refused to disconnect his laptop and let me plug mine in. The session chair was as much a weakling as this presenter was a bully, so the first paper went on without its illustrations.

    The second time, we were paired in a session without any real connection between our topics at all. He insisted on responding to all questions, even ones about my topic, even ones addressed specifically to me. He spoke louder and was more pushy, and again, short of a physical altercation, I could think of no way to sufficiently assert myself to take control back from that selfish, arrogant, lawyer-historian.

    As an audience member, the arrogance I most condemn is the attitude by some presenters that they don’t have to actually, you know, write a paper, but can stand there and ramble extemporaneously. You’re just not that good, folks, no matter how highly you think of yourselves!

    So yeah, I support greater adherence to basic expectations of conference etiquette.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 26, 2011 @ 11:53 am

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Historiann!

    Ardis: you pointed to two of my biggest qualms that I forgot to mention: one presenter trying to answer all the questions in the Q&A, and the presenter who thinks they can just freelance from the podium. Ugh!

    Comment by Ben Park — August 26, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

  5. I’ve never had a particularly great experience with commenters at MHA. Well, I take that back–my first commenter (2005 Vermont) was Sally Gordon. She gave very good feedback and critiques. But at 2007 SLC, my commenter (who wrote an important book several decades ago, but hasn’t done much substantial since) actually appeared to be reading my paper for the first time as I was delivering it. His comments were scattered and he actually said, “I wish you had written a different paper, highlighting all these other points!” rather than engage in any way what I had actually written.

    At another conference, I remember a presenter who didn’t have a paper written. Instead, he brought his already-published book up to the podium and tried to read a chapter, cutting out parts as he went. It was painful.

    In the same session, Steve Fleming delivered a great paper. Steve doesn’t really read his papers, but rather lectures with powerpoint. It’s far more engaging than just reading and occasionally looking up. I think I’ll start doing that.

    Comment by David G. — August 26, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

  6. Thanks, David. I started doing that with my first paper on the outlying branches because I needed to show all the maps. If I recall we didn’t have a respondent for that session so I didn’t have to turn a paper in, so I didn’t write one.

    The paper in on time is my biggest problem. MHA wants it a month before and I’m always scrambling to finish right up to the time I give the paper. So the mess I turn in a month before can be quite different than the paper I give. Fortunately, this year Sam Brown wanted our papers just one week before the conference so that helped. Since I’ve been in even bigger rushes lately, I haven’t done the power point but I want to get back to it.

    There ought to be tips on power point as well. I’ve seen varying quality of those.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 26, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  7. I’m sure I’m guilty of many violations and apologize for those. We could all stand to be better to each other.

    I personally quit writing papers a few years ago but am trying to be useful to the commenters and haven’t figured it out yet. I have sent them the Keynote talks and the written paper on which those are based, but I’m thinking maybe in the future I will give them a telephone call (3minutes, maximum) to orient them to the Keynote talk. Ideally the chair will interrupt the verbal wanderers or arrogant Priapus imitators, but sometimes the chair lacks the perceived power to do so.

    On record, I hereby request that if I violate the time constraints by more than 60 seconds at MHA, anyone in the audience should feel free to interrupt me and say “time’s up.” I will then sit down. I’m trying to use my iPhone countdown timer to keep myself on track in terms of self-policing.

    My view on Keynote (or the Bill Gates powerful point thing) is that only experienced speakers should use them without a written text, but for people getting the feel for it, a brief paper with SLIDE TRANSITIONS NOTED in the text can be helpful.

    And Ben and Ardis are entirely correct: the audience is generally willing to listen to less than half of what you think they should listen to.

    Comment by smb — August 26, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

  8. PS once you’ve got the rhythm, you can write a good slide deck in about 4 hours, which for me is much faster than the excruciating wordsmithing I try to invest in a written text.

    Comment by smb — August 26, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

  9. I should note that Sam uses power point better than any other presenter I’ve seen; conversely, I’ve seen some people utterly fail at trying to do what Sam does so well. I remember one presentation that tried to go off of notes and a presentation but only made it through 20% of their material because they weren’t as well-rehearsed as they should have been.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 26, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  10. I’m mostly a consumer rather than a presenter at these things. Two thoughts from the audience:

    1. Going over your alloted time is probably the biggest sin. This is especially noticeable with the MHA favored structure of three papers per session. It is just plain rude to cut into the next speaker’s time. And 20 minutes is hardly any time at all; you need to time yourself to get a feel for how very little time you have, and sharpen your paper accordingly. I learned this lesson from hard experience (in a sacrament meeting context, not a conference). See here.

    2. One thing that drives me absolutely bonkers about Sunstone, is that after a presentation there will be a line of people waiting to ask questions, and someone will get a hold of the mike and ramble on and on, not ever actually askig a question, but apparently wanting to hear the sound of his or her own voice. Then the time runs out, and no one gets to ask an actual question. If you want to talk that badly, take a slot on the program as a presenter.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 26, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

  11. My first five presentations were all power point, no script. The first time I read a paper was the Bushman seminar. But I think I’ll go back to that since my wife said that the only time I made any sense at the Bushman symposium was when I went off script.

    Sam does give very good presentations.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 26, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

  12. Oh, I have another one:

    3. I realize it’s the norm at academic conferences to read a paper. But from a public speaking perspective, that is pretty hard on the audience. Anything you can do to lessen your reliance on a written text and engage the audience as much as possible with your eyes will help immensely.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 26, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

  13. I don’t know that it’s necessarily bad to read a paper. I’ve seen Laurel Thatcher Ulrich do it in such a way that it’s powerful.

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 26, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

  14. Yeah, as a rule I favor reading a paper. It (should) take care of the time issue and helps keep a speaker on point. There are, of course, bad ways to read papers, but those who read a paper monotonously probably aren’t going to be able to present based on notes and a powerpoint much better.

    Comment by Christopher — August 26, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

  15. I’ve learned that despite everyone’s best intentions and efforts someone will always submit his/her paper late, if at all. In fact, it’s always something of a miracle when all two or three papers scheduled for a particular session actually arrive 2-3 weeks before they’re presented. Speakers who rely solely on visual aids, especially Power-Point, occupy their own special category of frustration.

    If I’m responding, I’ve come to assume that I won’t get all (or even any) of the papers and prepare very general comments that seem more or less related to the titles of the papers as they appear in the preliminary program. Happily, the titles often represent what the presentations are about, so the response appears to be relevant and appropriate, and usually no one is the wiser.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 26, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

  16. Laurel is a phenomenal speaker–people should watch her talks to learn how to do better.
    It occurs to me that maybe I will start doing “presenter notes” that the commenter can read to orient herself to my actual argument rather than just the slides.
    Better start writing the AAR presentation with that in mind.

    Comment by smb — August 26, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

  17. It’s weird as normally Power Point is the death knell and almost forces people to be boring. Yet done right it can really help clarify a presentation to the audience and also really force the presenter to ‘get it right.’ But when done bad – man is it done bad.

    I agree though you just can’t rely on PP. You really ought have a formal outline. It’s much harder to follow a read paper rather than a paper you read (where you can always back up to fully understand a key point or a point you missed).

    Just a request though. Despite the many problems of the Q&A after a presentation can I say that often that’s where I learn the most? I just wish more time was dedicated to questions.

    I agree with SMB. Presenters should find a good speaker and emulate them. But honestly it’s like college. There are some brilliant minds out there who just can’t lecture in an intelligent fashion without boring the crowd.

    Comment by Clark — August 26, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

  18. The second time, we were paired in a session without any real connection between our topics at all. He insisted on responding to all questions, even ones about my topic, even ones addressed specifically to me.

    You stand.

    You just look at him until he runs down.

    Then you state “Since you addressed that specifically to me, I’d like to answer it.” Then you do.

    Then you sit.

    Next time that happens, rinse and repeat. Everyone will see you standing. Everyone will see you looking.

    That is usually more than enough to bring things back in.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — August 26, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

  19. I actually said Steve sounded more natural when he went off script not that he made more sense.

    I haven’t seen too many of these kinds of conferences but I thought the person sharing the time with my husband at the Bushman Symposium provided a stellar example of etiquette (you know who you are). After the papers were both presented, both within allotted time, several questions in a row were focused on the first paper. That presenter graciously suggested the questions focus on the other paper for some time too, and it seemed like a nice balance of questions as well as comments for both presenters. As the wife of a presenter and someone who doesn’t get a chance to dig in to these topics very often, I was grateful that my husband was sharing with someone who noticed. I imagine at many conferences family members of presenters come and attention to time guidlines and balance of questions/comments is a professional and personal courtesy.

    Comment by Lee Fleming — August 27, 2011 @ 8:22 am

  20. Easy to say, Stephen, when you weren’t there and didn’t see what I did try. Some men (this one is a lawyer, and it often seems to go with the territory) won’t take subtle hints or outright commands or anything in between, because they can’t conceive of anyone else approaching their own vast importance.

    I know you mean well, but please stop, here and elsewhere, giving me simplistic solutions to my problems as if I were an idiot and as if you were — well, very much like the man I won’t share sessions with ever again.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2011 @ 8:58 am

  21. Ardis, by no means did I mean to imply you were an idiot.

    Just thinking of dealing with lawyers, which I do all the time.

    I’ll avoid making further suggestions.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — August 27, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

  22. Ben, my apologies for thinking that things I’ve done would work for others and for derailing the comment thread.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — August 27, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

  23. Another favorite: the audience member who thinks he/she knows much more than he/she actually does.

    The first time I presented at a conference, an audience member cut me off mid-sentence during the Q&A session to inform me that I was wrong on a particular point. I was so caught off-guard, and the audience member (who was several years my senior) seemed so self-assured, that I assumed I was mistaken and politely deferred to him.

    After the session, I had a brief exchange with this man and quickly realized that he was much less knowledgeable than he purported. I subsequently looked up the point on which he had contradicted me, and realized that I had, in fact, been correct.

    Comment by Steve M — August 28, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

  24. Huh. This reading papers thing is not how we roll in Computer Science conferences. If people wanted to read the paper, they’d read the paper. The talk is a talk about the same subject as the paper.

    Also, our session chairs are as a rule totally ruthless when it comes to cutting somebody off. If you’re on slide 20 out of 50 and your 20 minutes are up, too bad! If the format is something like 30 minutes per talk, with that subdivided down to 20 minutes talk and 10 minutes for questions, a real pushover session chair will often let you eat up 5 minutes of your own question time, but no more.

    Sounds like MHA needs fewer lawyers and more Computer Scientists!

    Comment by Cynthia L. — August 28, 2011 @ 9:57 pm

  25. Also, holy smokes, Ardis! We should take up a collection to hire you a personal bouncer/bodyguard next time you present at MHA.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — August 28, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

  26. @Cynthia (#24),

    Having fewer lawyers is almost always a good thing. No denying that.

    That said, I’m not sure that lawyers are the worst offenders. Most lawyers are quite accustomed to strict page and time limits.

    I presented at a humanities conference last spring, and I was sure to not go one second over 20 minutes (I think my presentation clocked in at 19:45). I was assiduous about tailoring my paper to the conference limitations, even though it meant cutting out stuff that I really liked.

    By contrast, the person presenting before me (a PhD) went 15 minutes over her allotted time.

    Comment by Steve M — August 28, 2011 @ 10:35 pm

  27. Ha! Steve M, I’ve faced that, too. In my case, the disputed point was one that was either a yes or a no, with no room for debate or interpretation: were certain issues of a newspaper extant and on microfilm at the University of Utah, or were they not? They were not. It was a stupid point for the audience member to interrupt for and wrongly insist upon, but there are audience members who can’t stand it when the spotlight isn’t on them.

    Cynthia, send the bodyguard. Next time, it will be the lawyer who needs one. 🙂

    James Arrington staged a play, “March of the Salt Soldiers,” a couple of years ago, portraying a mob of historians at a conference and their shouting and fist waving and challenges-to-duels. He attended a series of monthly meetings of the Utah War Sesquicentennial Observance Committee to soak up the essence of our interactions while writing that play. I plead the Fifth on whether or not anything I said or did contributed in any way toward that play.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 28, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

  28. I love speaking at symposia. I don’t get to do it as often as I’d like ? but then, I’m not a respected scholar ? more of a careful observer with a knack for word smithing.

    Anyway, I’ve seen sessions go both ways. And (as implied in the post) it really is about etiquette. We assume the presenter has something interesting to say and that they can (or at least have, in the past) present in an interesting way ? after those two hurdles are crossed ? by the symposium’s host, we hope ? it’s all about etiquette.

    When I present, I use Keynote. It helps me reach my objectives. I’m good at it. But not everyone is. If Keynote or PowerPoint isn’t helping you reach your objectives ? to be informative, interesting, and within the allotted time ? then don’t use it. Same thing with reading a script.

    Heavens ? if you’re presenting on your paper, don’t read the paper ? read something that’s _about_ your paper. But if a script makes a difference ? if it can help you reach those objectives. Do it.

    A couple things I’ve used, that might be useful: as for the script, I use the rule of thumb that 150 words equals one minute of presentation; for the Keynote presentations, I use the following inspirations:

    Edward Tufte’s “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”

    Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 Rule

    and I love Note & Point, which is a collection of actual slide presentations

    ? just a few thoughts.

    Comment by Silus Grok — August 30, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

  29. Just to echo Silus’s mention of Guy Kawasaki, this is an excellent rule of thumb for developing slide presentations. In the context of academic conferences, I’d modify it slightly to something more like 15-20-25: there should be no more than 15 slides, the presentation should not last more than 20 minutes, and the font size should be no less than 25 points. (This should actually be more like 24, since font sizing is on a different scale, but for the sake of consistency, I stuck with 25.) I still like going less than 15 slides, though. It forces one to get to the main points and pack some punch. And the large font size forces there to be little text on each slide. So the idea is to really condense the amount of information that is being presented: quality over quantity.

    Comment by Dave — September 1, 2011 @ 5:57 pm


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