Saturday, July 23, 2011

No Show

I was attending a conference a couple of weeks ago and observed the usual behaviors that occur at such gatherings.  One occurrence, which I thought I would relate, involved a speaker who failed to show up for his own talk.  He was at the meeting, but apparently lost track of time during the break. 

This is not an earth-shaking event, but there are a couple of aspects I'd like to muse about.  First, from a purely practical standpoint, how would you handle this if you were the session moderator?  When I am moderator, I try to determine if all speakers are present in the room before the start of the session.  There is nothing worse than having a gap in the program, which happens frequently enough that you should be prepared with a backup plan.  Nowadays, it's relatively easy to determine if all your speakers have shown up for the meeting and are prepared to give their talks.  Most conferences require speakers to upload their presentations beforehand, and these are loaded to the session computer or room.  The moderator can check the lineup on the computer and see that everyone has arrived and loaded their presentations.  However, that does not guarantee that they will all show up for their I observed at this conference. 

In this case, several people in the audience knew the missing speaker and knew that he was present at the venue that day (i.e., had not gone sightseeing or had slept in).  Someone volunteered to go look for him and fortunately found him within a few minutes (this was a small conference--about 500 people).  When the missing speaker arrived, the session was able to proceed with only a few minutes delay.  At a very large conference, this action would likely not have worked.  In that case, there are a few other options.

The worst option is for the moderator to announce that a talk has been cancelled and then leave the audience to their own devices or, more likely, to get up and leave (actually, the worst is for the moderator to move up the remaining talks, which should never be done).  A better option is to try to fill the time with something.  If the missing talk is not the first one, then the moderator could invite additional questions of the previous speakers.  This option is better than doing nothing and leaving a gap in the program, but some in the audience may still leave to go to other talks in competing sessions. 

If the missing talk is the last one of the session, then the moderator can invite all the previous speakers up for a panel discussion.  The latter works well if the session was an interesting/controversial one, and the audience is likely to stick around to hear what else is discussed.  Some moderators simply end the session early instead of trying to fill the time with something useful.  I can understand this, especially if it is the last session of the day or the meeting when people are tired and ready for a beer.  However, I would make an attempt to start a discussion to fill the remaining minutes of the session or give a quick summary or concluding thoughts.  As moderator, you might want to plan ahead and have some questions/ideas ready to throw out to get a discussion going.

The option that I have been prepared for lately is to have a backup talk of my own ready to replace a no-show.  At this recent conference, I organized a symposium with six speakers, but did not give a presentation of my own (due to various reasons).  However, I had a presentation ready in case of a no-show.  In this instance, I did not need to use it.  What I prepared was a synthesis of previous work--something that I could use as the basis of a future seminar or that I could give at the next meeting.  So, I did not feel as if this was a waste of time.  This option is feasible mainly in this type of situation--where the moderator is not scheduled to give a talk in the session.  Giving two talks in the same session would be too much.

If I were already scheduled to give a talk in my own symposium, an alternate option would be to find someone else to fill in the gap.  That requires some lead-time, of course, and someone willing and prepared to give a last-minute talk.  I've been approached at some meetings by a desperate moderator who was trying to find a replacement speaker. 

The question is whether to agree to give a last-minute talk.  Is this wise?  Would you look like an "afterthought"?  Are there situations where it might be advantageous to give an impromptu talk?

I would probably do it to help avoid a gap in the program, and if I had a talk that this particular audience had not heard before.  As a senior scientist with a good reputation, I wouldn't worry so much about people thinking I was added as an afterthought.  In some cases, there might be enough time for the change in schedule to be announced, so that people interested in your topic could choose to attend.  If you are a junior scientist and an invitation was extended to you to give a replacement talk in a symposium with mostly senior speakers (who will be attracting a large audience), it might be a good opportunity to get broader exposure.  Of course, you should be prepared with a good talk and deliver it well.

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