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When is a conference talk not a conference talk?

Updated: May 16, 2023

A few years ago, I either read or heard some interesting advice from a highly respected colleague advising teachers giving a talk at a conference to do just that - give a talk! He pointed out that despite many language teachers' natural tendency towards interactive discursive sessions (i.e.: a classroom style, Socratic session), peers attending a conference want to listen to a talk - to hear the speaker share (preferably new) knowledge. A good example of this was Evan Frendo's opening plenary talk at this year's IATEFL conference in Harrogate; Evan presented a proper conference talk from which many people were able to learn about how we business English practitioners approach English language teaching for workplace purposes.

I reflected on the 'give a talk' advice at a time (c. 2017) when I was someone who felt uncomfortable standing in front of my peers at a conference, presuming to have something worth saying that would be of enough interest to listen with interruption for 20 minutes. My preference (comfort zone?) when giving conference talks is to involve my audience, to co-create knowledge and share experience. On the other hand, what that advice made sense. When I'm sitting in the audience, I want to sit, listen and learn. I want the experience we got from the conference auditorium in Harrogate.

What I do not want, however, is be subjected to content with which I'm already familiar and where the speaker makes no concession for the possibility that many in the audience might feel the same way. But how can the speaker be expected to know how much their audience might already know?

One clue is when the speaker looks out into the sea of expectant faces and recognises over 50% as colleagues! Knowing full well how experienced and knowledgeable these wonderful, supportive colleagues are, how to proceed with a talk pitched at early career teachers or the more experienced-but-new to business English professionals? Which way to go?

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Stick to your guns and talk through the presentation as planned, or go off piste and make the session an interactional sharing of experiences - leveraging the expertise in the room rather than "teaching grandma how to suck eggs"?

At the IATEFL conference, the slot we had been assigned for our talk "What does it take to become a business English teacher?" was the penultimate one of the conference. So, we decided to take a spontaneous, go-with-the-flow approach. I went away from the formal presentation approach in consideration of the more experienced members of the audience; Ben presented the input intended for those less experienced people interested in finding out about how to become BE professional.

I'm not sure how well this worked in the end. Someone attending based on the abstract might have left feeling short-changed. However, if we'd stuck to the script, how many of the highly experienced BE professionals would have left feeling bored and uninformed?

Ultimately, we went with it - me jumping in and interrupting Ben with questions to the audience. Knowing what they were likely to contribute, i.e.: the "answers" to the prompts on the slides, I felt it a safe bet. From my perspective, there was a buzz of collective sharing of knowledge and experience. One person completely new to the BE profession, said to me afterwards he'd learnt more in our session than any other the entire conference. I like to think the approach Ben and I took to leverage the group expertise contributed to this person's positive experience. I also feel that such an approach is indicative of the way many of us like to run our BE training courses.

However, was this a "conference talk"? Not really. So in answer to the titular question, "when is a conference talk not a conference talk?" - when it's a collegial exchange session. Or what do you think? How would you define what a conference talk should be / what you would like it to be?

To make up for the lack of input for those who would have liked it, there is a copy of the slides we didn't manage to get through on the day below. Keep an eye open for an edited version of the video we made on the day. Once it's ready, anyone who didn't attend and can't quite imagine what went on in light of reading this blog post can watch it!

TDCI Presentation Slides
Download • 8.17MB

Finally, I send a heartfelt thanks to my colleague, friend and very patient co-presenter, Ben for going with the flow and letting me go so far off-piste. Cheers matey.

NB: Edited 8.5.2023 because I couldn't find a record of what I am sure I heard / read about the 'give a talk' advice. Knowing how unreliable memories can be, I've also left out mention of who I think offered the very wise advise ;-)

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May 11, 2023

I think the important thing is to make sure that you do what you promised you would do in your abstract. I spoke to several people in your audience (the "more experienced members of the audience") who said they were only there to "benchmark the competition". So kudos to you for making your competitors want to check you out! :-)

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