What Am I Doing Here?


Yesterday’s paper sessions offered eleven presentations. I almost fell asleep several times. This was not mainly because four of the papers were in German and French which I have a hard time understanding when spoken quickly. The main reason was that few of my colleagues know how to perform an engaging presentation. Yes, you need to perform it. So here are a few suggestions.

  • Never ever read a prepared text out loud. Speak from brief notes or a slide show. It is better to have five lines of summary text in ball-point pen on the back of your hand than a manuscript.
  • Do you have reason to believe that a considerable part of your audience a) does not know anything about the subject, b) does not yet care about the subject? Then make sure that you start your talk by setting the scene with some background info (a few maps, a time line, a landscape view or two), and above all explain why you care. Why is your subject interesting?
  • When presenting a scientific study, do not rattle off data and descriptions. Start with questions, explain how you came up with them, and then present only enough data (in overview format) that you can make a plausible argument in favour of some answer to each question. If you have no questions or no argument, do not agree to make a presentation.

Luckily, osteologist Raphaël Panhuysen understands these things very well, and so I enjoyed his paper – regardless of the fact that the differences between various coeval Merovingian-period cemeteries in Maastricht is not something I would usually take an interest in.

After the end of the sesh I took a three hour walk on the southern outskirts of town, during which I had a walking dinner of fries & chicken and failed to find two geocaches. In Sweden, geocaches cluster in cities. In Maastricht, the caches avoid the city and cluster in hiking areas on its outskirts. To log a so-called multi-cache, in Sweden you will need to walk perhaps a few hundred meters from the first to the second and maybe the third point. Here, you have to hike several kilometres, and there may be ten points along the way. No thanks.

But it was nice to see some Victorian suburbs and the 16th century southern town gate. And waiting in line with working-class peeps at the chip shop, where everything is boiled in oil by a saftig woman with an air of world-weary authority, was a slice of a genuine Maastricht Sunday evening. Even though I got neither salt nor mayo with my fries.

What am I doing here? I always end up asking myself that at conferences. The boring papers and the lonely evenings or the evenings in boring company at restaurants and pubs.


  1. #1 Leif
    September 21, 2009

    You asked “What am I doing here?”.

    Your picture reveals that. French fries and mayo maybe?

    I can agree that it´s an art to preform a paper. The edge between rare and overdone is indeed very thin – one is boring and the other is….Shanks?

  2. #2 Monica S
    September 21, 2009

    “Never ever read a prepared text out loud”

    Jag hade en föreläsare på en litteraturkurs, som gjorde exakt så. Det var som att knäppa på en bandspelare och sedan bara låta den gå, och gå, och gå…

  3. #3 Mikael
    September 21, 2009

    Great post! I have a physicist friend who always returns with juicy and surprising stories from his conferences. Don’t know why physicists would be that much more fun than archaeologists, though.

  4. #4 dveej
    September 21, 2009

    “What am I doing here?” You are bringing photos of interesting chip shops to the poor benighted heathens, us your devoted readers!
    So those yellow and red plastic bottles: mustard and ketchup?
    Now I’m off to find out what the hell a “geocache” is…

  5. #5 Thinker
    September 21, 2009

    If you have no questions or no argument, do not agree to make a presentation.

    When I learned presentation skills, our teacher took this a step further: “If you don’t know your audience and have a clear idea of how you want them to change (in knowledge, interests or actions) as a result of your talk, ask yourself if you aren’t simply wasting their time by talking! If the people leaving the room after your talk are just the same as as when they came in, you haven’t really acheived anything, have you?”

  6. #6 Pär
    September 21, 2009

    And you may find yourself in another part of the world
    And you may ask yourself – well…how did I get here?

    Same as it ever was… same as it ever was…

  7. #7 Martin R
    September 21, 2009

    We know where we’re going but we don’t know where we’ve been.

  8. #8 Barn Owl
    September 22, 2009

    I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.
    I couldn’t live like that, no siree!
    I couldn’t do the things the way those people do.
    I couldn’t live there if you paid me to.

  9. #9 Thinker
    September 23, 2009

    If you don’t know where you’re going, you are likely to end up somewhere else…

  10. #10 Martin R
    September 23, 2009

    The Olivia Tremor Control once sang, and I find it to be a very hippie-like sentiment, “There is no growing in knowing where you’re going”.

  11. #11 Paddy
    September 23, 2009

    You know what makes boring papers interesting and boring company sparkling? Alcohol! The lubricant of any awkward social event!

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