Professional meetings: act like you’ve been there before

Many professional associations have their annual meetings this time of year, and thousands of attendees will mingle in the corridors of super cooled hotels, many for the first time. When newbies ask me for my advice on what to do at these meetings, I’m reminded of a quote variously attributed to John Wooden, Bear Bryant, or Vince Lombardi: when you score, “act like you’ve been there before.” In other words, don’t make a fool of yourself. As a professional, you were supposed to score in that situation and so don’t make a big deal of it by excessive celebration.

Robert Davidson sculpture

Meeting at the Centre, by Robert Davidson

Now, very few interactions at professional meetings carry the same high-stakes outcomes as a sports competition, but Wooden’s advice is still relevant. Understanding what kinds of questions are appropriate and potential openings for productive conversations with more experienced participants is a key to having a good time. In this post, I review the kinds of questions that I think are conversation stoppers and clearly mark someone as either a first-time attendee or possibly socially inept. I then offer suggestions about more appropriate conversational openers.

At a national professional meeting, you are quite likely to meet a senior scholar whose work you have read and admired. You will be anxious to make a good impression on the person. You probably know that Professor Proteus works at Ivy League University, and so two questions immediately pop into your mind: “are you still at Ivy League University?” And “do you like it there?” The first question reveals that you appear out of touch with the current literature, as Professor Proteus’ affiliation is always prominently displayed right below her name in publications. The second question is fundamentally flawed in two respects. First, it can be answered with a “yes/no” answer, which gives Professor Proteus a chance to terminate the conversation and walk away. Second, if Professor Proteus has been at Ivy League University for several decades, what is she to say? “No, I hate it there, but I just can’t get a job anywhere else.” Or, “now that you mention it, I guess I should begin to look for better jobs elsewhere.”

Professor Proteus has probably answered this question dozens of times before, and thus she will resist the temptation to give a snarky answer. However, she will begin casting her eyes around the room, looking for more interesting conversational partners.

Another apparently obvious opening gambit has similar hidden dangers: “so, what are you working on now?” First, like the earlier question, it reveals that you evidently are not paying attention to recent literature, or else you would know what Professor Proteus is working on. Second, it gives Professor Proteus another chance to terminate the conversation, as she can say “oh, I have organized a session on the apocalyptic consequences of Brexit at this meeting. You should attend.” Third, the question is likely to remind Professor Proteus of those early days in her career when she was explaining to potential employers, over and over again, the contents of her research portfolio. There is no satisfactory short answer to such a question, especially if Professor Proteus has no idea how much you already know about her work.

Finally, a third problematic opening remark is more nuanced: “in my graduate seminar, we read your paper on the semiotics of transcendental strategic growth initiatives, and I didn’t really understand it. Can you explain it to me?” At this point, you will notice Professor Proteus glancing at her watch and making her excuses for why she has to be somewhere else as soon as possible.

What are some better ways of beginning a conversation with senior scholars whose work you have admired? First, after telling them your name and where you’re from, resist the temptation to immediately begin explaining in great detail what you’re working on, unless they ask you. Even if they ask you, keep your remarks short. Turn the conversation back to their work. Second, show them you are familiar with their work. A good opening question would be something along the following lines: in the last issue of JoIR (The Journal of Irreproducible Results), I read your paper on the semiotics of transcendental strategic growth initiatives and I found it really interesting. Are you working on a follow-up to that paper? I’d love to read a draft, if you are interested in circulating it, and send you comments if you wish.”

Professor Proteus will be pleased that you are aware of her recent work and that you didn’t ask her to explain it to you. More importantly, because she gets few invitations from others to make comments on her draft papers, your voluntary expression of availability might pique her curiosity. If she indicates even a tentative willingness to send you a draft, do not – – I repeat, do not – – ask her for her email address. Any competent user of Google these days can find her email address on the web and conversational time is better spent on more substantive matters. (This is another way you show that you’ve done this before.)

Third, if you attend the meetings pre-armed with a short list of people whose work you admire and whom you would like to meet, then go ahead and prepare a question or two for them. The question should not be answerable with a simple “yes/no” answer, and indeed, it should not have an obvious answer. Senior people hate questions with obvious answers, as it appears that you are just trying to flatter them. You will notice that their answers to such questions are quite short.

Here is an example of a possible challenging question: “I have always thought of your work as questioning our assumptions about the power of human agency, but I noticed that your recent work seems to back away from that view. In your recent paper in JoIR, your explanation heavily privileges not just collective but individual action. Am I reading you correctly?” Okay, I know this seems like it permits a yes/no answer, but it is not a simple answer – – the way you frame the question shows that you are familiar with her work and are looking for deeper explanations. Even if Professor Proteus has no time to engage you in a full exploration of this question, she may actually set up an appointment to meet with you later.

So, what are the principles underlying my advice? First, show familiarity with a scholar’s work. Second, ask more than simple yes/no questions. Instead, make the question challenging, perhaps by pointing out what you perceive as contradictions in recent work. Third, don’t act like a tourist. Questions about the weather and complaints about the hotel are best discussed with the concierge or doorman. Fourth, spend some time preparing a short list before you go, listing not only whom you’d like to meet but also the kinds of questions you’d like to ask. At the meeting, ask senior scholars whom you know for introductions, if you are too shy to introduce yourself.

However, if you follow the advice given here and avoid the nonstarter questions, you need not worry about making your own introductions.

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