So you want to go to be a CON-man?

I’ve been to a decent number of conferences over the past few years.  Some academic, some popular, and most recently, my first skeptic conference.  I noticed a few peculiarities at Skepchicon and I think some lessons I learned need to be shared.  These peculiarities are not unique to Skepchicon, or to skeptic conferences, but they do seem to be endemic to most conventions where there are panel discussions, Q&A’s, and in the case of CONvergence: costumes. Now with TAM8 over (yet again, without me), and Dragon*Con around the corner,  I humbly offer my


What follows are a series of blockquotes and a brief explanation.  These are not actual quotes, but are paraphrased versions of things I did hear, or was likely to hear.  They are strictly illustrative, and nobody said these quotes as written.
Section A: Audience

I grew up in a small shack in Puckerbrush, Kansas, in a very religious household.  I was always discouraged from critical thinking because of my older sisters’ interest in sports, even though I was also a decent baseball player.  It wasn’t until I went to college until I met a professor who was remotely interested in science and baseball.  Anyway, what do you think about global warming denial?

1) Don’t share stories: Time is at a premium at these sorts of things, and sharing your life story (this is not an exaggeration: I heard several actual life stories from audience members at Skepchicon) is especially efficient  at gobbling up this time.  It’s rude to the panel, and boring to those in the audience.

You mentioned 15 minutes ago that skepticism need more women.  But I find that odd because appealing to tokenism only hurts our movement and distracts our energies.

2) Don’t go overboard in offering your opinions.  It’s fine to have a brief discussion with the panelists, and it can make for an engaging topic, but make your point, then politely drop it.  You’ll probably get a chance to approach the panelist afterwards, because panels are designed and timed that way: For 30 minutes at the end, the panelists will hang around for further informal discussion.  It’s also an exercise in humility, because remember: the audience came to hear the panelists’ opinions, not the opinions of the audience, however insightful they may be.

With regards to your point about blogging and expertise:  You said that people should stick to their expertise and not argue the science if they’re not qualified.  But don’t you think that the very spirit of peer review requires an idea to be subject to the scrutiny of everyone?

3) Don’t try to disguise your opinion as a question – This kind of phraseology is endemic at academic conferences, and are the reason that I usually step out during the Q&A period.  “Don’t you think that…” is a bad way to introduce a point.  It’s patronizing, and you’re not fooling anyone.  When you do this, you’re clearly not trying to engage the panelists or the audience in a discussion:  you’re just preaching and you may be trying to impress people.   Kindly re-phrase it, or sit down.  The clock is ticking.

I just want to respond to the gentleman who asked a question earlier:  Do you really believe that skeptical activism is best served by catering to every religious sensitivity?  Where do you draw the line?

4) Don’t have conversation with people in the audience – you can find them later, and again: time is at a premium.  This is even more rude than monopolizing the time of one of the panelists.  It’s flat out telling the entire audience and panelists to shut up and listen to two people who nobody came to hear from.  Definitely one of the most rude things you can do at a panel is to pretend the panel doesn’t exist.  This crosses the line from thoughtlessness into first-class jerk behavior.

I have a followup to my followup, because I’m not sure you answered or addressed my question exactly the way I wanted you to.

5) Don’t go overboard with too many questions. Ask questions if you have them, but don’t think that the panel exists at your leisure.  Other people want to ask questions.  Polite behavior at panel discussions allows for one question from a given audience member, and maybe a followup, depending on the context and time remaining.

When you said what you said about being polite to believers, you’re risking giving too much of an overinflated voice to peddlers of woo, and that’s hurting us all!

6) Don’t argue with a panelist.  You can always argue with them later if you must, but people are there to hear what the panel has to say, not your trumped-up opinions.  Disagreement is fine, and you can, only once during the time slot, insist a panelist be brought to explain something better, but you need to take into consideration

  • the time of the slot (time may be running out)
  • size of the audience (other people want to ask questions too)
  • the size of the panel (maybe let, I don’t know, a panelist address a concern?)
  • the context (if you disagree with a panelists’ prior statements on global warming, a panel about atheism is not the time to bring that up)
Section B: Organizers/Panelists

1) Don’t have too big of a panel.  One of the best panels at Skepchicon was an atheism panel.   The panel was packed with fascinating people with interesting things to say, but because there were 10 of them, I hardly heard more than two sentences from each person.  The second panel I was on had 7 people, and I barely had a chance to get a word in edgewise.  I’d recommend a panel cap of 5 people, or 6 with a moderator.  Speaking of which…

2) Get a Moderator! Moderate! Even if your panel doesn’t have an assigned moderator, someone could step up (even if they weren’t even on the original list  of panelists) and act as a mod.  Panelists can go on and on if you let them, and an effective moderator can help keep them (and the audience) on task.  Rebecca Watson jumped on as an impromptu mod on one panel about skeptical blogging, and did a great job at making sure panelists and audience members stayed on topic and in time.

Section C: Conference Goers

Costume Awareness:  I get it.  Wearing awesome costumes at an awesome con is awesome.

I think we can all agree that this costume is awesome.

I’m not saying you should take off your costume before you attend a panel.  But if your costume displaces as much water as a small boat, or if it has sharp, clear-plastic points: Be aware of how you are now shaped.  You’re likely going to bump into people, forcing them to spill food and drink on themselves, or you’re knocking over furniture that people are trying to sit down in.  If you can’t control your own backside, maybe it’s best to leave the backside at the hotel for an hour.

That’s about it.  I hope that this guide was somewhat helpful, and I hope to make sure I remember these lessons myself for future conferences.  It makes the whole conference more fun and interesting for everyone if individuals take a moment to check themselves just a little bit.

Cross-posted at my own blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic

One Response to “So you want to go to be a CON-man?”

  1. Skeptikor says:

    Good tips, Steve. I too have attended many conferences at which I’ve wished that there was more attention to question-etiquette. Moderators can help by asking attendees to limit all questions to two sentences…although, sadly, that caveat often disregarded by the acutely self-absorbed.


  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.