What makes a conference really irritating?

Bored in the hall

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.

Loudspeaker 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.

Coffee and biscuits 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.

What are your most irritating moments at a conference?

I suppose it wasn't really a conference, but lots of people assembled in a room to be regaled by speakers and killed by powerpoint, so yes, it fits as a conference. But what was wrong with it? Just about everything. The keynote speaker couldn't get there so sent a youtube clip of himself speaking via a laptop, but while the laptop managed to connect to the projector, nobody had thought about sound so we had to try our best to listen to a very quite tinny laptop. The bar wasn't free, in fact seriously inflated prices and the canapés were two small tray between many many people. Worse was to come when what we thought was fundraiser for a musical included a strange person who gave a talk on UFOs, he was clearly convinced, I think the rest of us were convinced that he was a nutter. Apart from the young lady in the padded (quilted) top who thought we were all being controlled by lizards. Overall, It was awful!

Simon, UK

I was giving a talk on glass recycling in a hotel and across the internal hotel speaker system came "Robin Hood, Robin Hood Riding Through the Glen". On another conference I met all 11 of the other "delegates" in a room before the conference. However only 1 was a delegate and the other 11 of us were speakers! I did a talk at an RAF base and the RAF IT technical person offered to climb under a table to plug in the laptop. At the presentation time the laptop was dead - he had forgotten to switch it on! At a conference a student in the front row slept through my entire talk and then afterwards asked me for a copy of my notes. However I did get told off by a group of delegates playing conference "jargon speak bingo" in secret. Apparently I used plain English did not use any jargon and gave a very good informative talk. Great for the conference but rubbish for their bingo.

David, Abingdon

You can really stun a conference audience by having only a handful of slides. I once used four and people seemed confused that I had not produced more than there were minutes in my presentation slot. How many people at conferences produce 30-40 slides for a 20-minute talk? Does no-one think about the amount of time there is to communicate to the audience? ....The thing is that once you have attended your first conference, you know all these flaws and organisers must know them all. Yet, why are they unable to adopt an approach which eliminates at least a few of them? It becomes almost like a ritual we feel compelled to repeat, often with very little gain. If you fail to attend conferences, no matter how poor they are, you are perceived to be 'out of touch'. In many ways conferences are the communion for our secular age.

Keir, Bournemouth

No English Breakfast tea at continental conferences! Yes, that's a BIG one for me! I don't drink coffee, only tea. So, when I go to a conference on the continent or beyond, I take my own tea bags with me. They always have the fruit infusion this and that on offer, but hardly ever any English Breakfast or anything I'd call 'normal' back home. This is especially true for conferences in East European countries (you know who you are!) They don't even seem to have heard of tea over there, so I don't like how coffee is thrusted in one's face, as soon as the presentation hall doors open.

Zed Zee, London

The point of conferences isn't to sit through talks, you have the proceedings for that. The point is to go and sight-see. There's a reason academic conferences are held in Paris, Florence, Berlin etc and not Wolverhampton or Burnley. It's the academic equivalent of a Christmas bonus.

Sight seer, Edinburgh

I was at a conference once sat in a talk to be given by a high ranking Russian scientist. He steps forward to begin the presentation and states (in perfect English) "My English is not very good, so I will give the talk in Russian and my colleague XXXX will translate". This was not what we in the audience wanted to hear, the subject was dry enough as it was but to have it presented with this delayed translation promised a long 20 minutes. So the presentation begins and we await the translation of the first block of Russian, step forward the translator and it turns out that his English is far worse than the original presenters! So 35 slides later (I think people have so many slides because they will try to ignore the time limit and just keep talking) and I am afraid that very little knowledge was gleaned from that talk. I think the applause at the end was more to celebrate the fact that it was over.

Richard, Leicester

The conference bags. I have to ask what everyone actually does with the cheap, nasty, 'laptop' bag (duly embossed with several random sponsors and full of random pieces of paper). Are they EVER re-used after the conference? I don't think I've ever kept one passed the first coffee-infused-chocolate brownie-and-shortbread-biscuit break.

Donald , Aberdeenshire

In the days before radio mikes, a speaker had a microphone hung round his neck on a cord. He obviously became a bit warm and decided to take his jumper off. Eventually had to let the jumper slide down the microphone cord that passed through the neck hole. Remarkably he did not stop speaking during the process. I suppose you had to be there, but I found it difficult not to laugh

Rod, Cambridge

Terrible time-keeping. This is endemic. Each speaker on a panel is given, say 20 minutes. The first takes thirty, perhaps asking after 25 "How am I doing"? The next one, having had their time disrespected, is in no mood to be concise. The chair is too timid, or asleep, to even try to keep people to time. By the first break the whole conference is already half an hour behind. A shorter coffee break is proposed, but since few academics can keep time, it ends up the same length anyway. And so it goes on. And on. And on.

Julian Baggini, UK

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