Thursday, 12 July 2012

How to piss off your conference audience

-->  This week, I’m in Cairns at the International Coral Reef Symposium. I’ve seen some inspiring talks and some that made me want to throw a rotten banana at the speaker. If you are a starving student and looking to have some food chucked at you on stage, here are some tips to ensure that happens.

1. Talk about something else. We all know that abstracts had to be submitted months ago, and you really thought you’d finish your project before now, and have nothing to present. Completely changing the focus of your talk wastes my time. If you literally have nothing to present, at least do a nice lit review, or talk about something relevant to your session.

2. Don’t show us any images or data. To really piss people off, put up full paragraphs of text and then read it and/or tell us in other words what it says. This will addle your audience’s tiny minds, because they won’t be able to listen and read at the same time. If you’re lucky, people will come away thinking you are just way smarter than they are and it’s their own fault they didn’t understand a thing. But more likely, they will just be mad at you.

3. When you do show graphs, be sure the axes and other text is much too small to read. This may distract your audience from understanding that what you have plotted is not statistically significant, because they will be absorbed in trying to figure out what the units on the y-axis represent. If you prefer to avoid this faux pas, try reading the text on your powerpoint from a few feet away to simulate sitting in the back of a conference room (because all the cool people sit in the back).

Here's an example of an awesome slide for maximum audience irritation
4. Use lots of technical jargon. This will make it clear that you know your shit, and you only care about other experts in your very small niche field understand what you are talking about. Disseminating your message to a wider audience is for suckers. If you feel like allowing more of your audience members to understand you, use language your mom would understand (provided she is not also an expert in your niche field).

5. Take up more than your allotted time. Everyone knows that people who don’t have much to say at idiots, so it’s best to drone on and on as long as possible about nitpicky methods details. This also shows that you don’t have any respect for your audience’s time, or the other speakers in your session—again proving that you are better than they are. If you prefer to let people get to the coffee break on time, delete some of your crappy slides.

6. Don’t consider the expertise of your audience. It’s totally acceptable to think that other scientists at a coral reef conference will not know what a coral is. Please do explain in excruciating detail. Try to use the same intro slide as the previous four speakers; do not acknowledge that they already beat that topic to death. Instead of this tactic, you might practice being a bit fluid with your speech, and skip over repetitive parts.
Can my baby understand your talk?

Now that you know how to really turn on the boredom switch, go out and waste some of your colleagues’ time!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

How to blend in: Kiribati

Unlike the majority of my amazing posts, this advice may not be massively useful as few people seem to visit Kiribati. Kiribati (pronounce the “ti” as “s”), is made up of three island chains sprinkled across the equatorial Pacific. All but one of the islands are coral atolls of the sort adorning screensavers and calendars. If you get the chance to visit Kiribati, here are some tips to help you feel less imbecile-like when you arrive.
Why am I not here right now??? Dammit.
1. You may be tempted to go barefoot, as you will notice almost every I-Kiribati (as the locals are called) forgoes the use of shoes. If you like the idea of spending the rest of your visit nursing your infections, go ahead and lacerate the shit out of your soft soles on the razor-sharp coral rubble of which the islands are comprised. But if you’d like to retain the ability to walk, keep those flip-flops on your feet outside—but take them off when you enter someone’s home or your guesthouse.

2. Dress modestly. Missionaries have had a good go in Kiribati, and thus some islanders are offended by seeing too much exposed skin. It may seem insane to cover up in a country not known for refreshing temperatures; but in addition to fitting in better, wearing more clothing will reduce your chances of sunburn and dengue fever. The attire of choice includes oversized t-shirts and shorts, a long skirt, or wrap-around lava-lava. Of course, no one seems to care what you wear if you are a man. But if you are a woman and you attempt not to die of heat-stroke by changing from your modest clothes into your wetsuit quickly on the boat, you may be chastised for briefly flashing your bikini-clad self. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

3. Speaking of missionaries, be respectful of Sundays. Even if you want to continue collecting coral cores, it’s not very nice to expect your I-Kiribati collaborators to want to do the same (guilty as charged).

4. Be very afraid of the dogs. Carrying a heavy rock or five in your pocket is not a bad idea.
I miss this, too!
5. Be respectful of maneabas (meeting houses)—there are complex rules involved with how to enter, where to sit, and how to behave in a maneaba. Your best bet is to wait until someone asks you to visit their maneaba, instead of just barging in. On Sunday, it’s respectful to turn off your motorbike and push it in front of each maneaba you pass. This is inconvenient if your motorbike is unlikely to start again, but you will work up a good sweat.

6. Apparently getting pooped on by a gecko is good luck (maybe my hosts made that up for my benefit, on second thought).

7. If you are invited to share a meal, be prepared to eat first. In western cultures we often ask guests to serve themselves first, but then we also take food and eat at the same time—a totally offensive way to behave to an I-Kiribati. The I-Kiribati take showing respect for visitors to an extreme, and won’t generally eat a morsel until you are full. Try not to feel totally awkward.
Bummer if you have to eat western food. It leaves something to be desired in these parts.
8. The locals tend to know what I-matang (foreigners) can’t eat without becoming ill—so you probably won’t be served mud crabs or well water. Don’t try so hard to blend in that you die of dysentery by joining in when everyone else dips into a delicious cup of algae-laced water.

9. Try to avoid drinking sour toddy. This local alcoholic drink is made mostly by young boys, who climb coconut trees, make special slices into young flower shoots, and collect the resulting juice, sort of like tapping maple trees for syrup. The juices then ferment in the bottle into the most disgusting-tasting beverage known to mankind. It is much, much worse than kava. And, you have a chance of getting a bad batch, which apparently makes urination very unpleasant (according to a half-pantomimed story I was told by someone who had just consumed half a bucket of toddy).

10. Ask questions cleverly. I-Kiribati tend not to give superfluous information, instead answering exactly the question asked.
Example of a poorly worded question: “Do you have a forklift we can use?”
Answer: “Yes.”
Example of a better-worded question: “Do you have a forklift we can use, that works?”
Answer: “No.”

Don’t be offended when you find that even armed with all of these supreme suggestions, children take one look at you and immediately point and yell “I-matang! I-matang! I-matang!” Really, unless you are an I-Kiribati, you have approximately zero chance of blending in. But sometimes it’s more interesting that way.
I-Kiribati! I-Kiribati! I-Kiribati!