Sunday, October 23, 2016

Pre-Conference Jitters

Although many get nervous before giving a presentation, my pre-conference anxiety is usually a bit different.

Will the airport be easy to navigate? Where will ground transportation be located?

I gave up on taking public transportation in unfamiliar cities, despite being a poor graduate student. Navigating a public transit system I take daily can still present with visual challenges. I’ve decided that adding an unfamiliar public transit makes travel unnecessarily complicated. Nonetheless, finding one’s way to cabs and ubers in busy airports with convoluted ground transportation can be challenging and stressful!

How will I get from my hotel to where the conference is being held? Where will registration be? Will I need to fill out paperwork or forms on a computer? If so, will there be someone there who can help me?

I’m learning that sometimes it is easiest to ask for help. For years, I stubbornly pulled out my magnifiers and tackled check-in and registration forms. If an employee or volunteer is available to help me, my time and effort is better spent elsewhere. Using a handheld digital magnifier, though exceptionally useful, is still more time-consuming and arduous than borrowing someone else’s eyes.

Will the program materials be offered digitally? How will I keep track of the talks or posters I wish to attend?

Luckily, more and more conferences offer digital programs or apps. However, few of these take into account accessibility features like text-to-speech or Voice Over to enable low vision users to listen to content.  This means I often resort to lots of zooming and scanning, which is slow. Especially when I cannot create a personalized schedule, it can take embarrassingly long to find upcoming talks, which of those I wish to attend, and where in the conference center I need to go. 

Will room numbers be labeled large enough and in a bright enough space that I can see at least some of them?

I have gotten in the habit of reading a single room sign and counting offices or rooms to determine where to go. For example, if I see I am at room 310 and I am looking for 320, it should be the fifth room on that same side. This of course assumes that rooms are numbered intuitively, and that all even numbered rooms are on one side. When this isn’t the case, or when there is poor signage or lighting, I fumble between taking photos on my phone to enlarge the image and using my monocular.

While at the conference, what will I need to do in order to network?  Have I organized my materials to know who is speaking when?

I cannot see name-tags. I cannot recognize people from less than a few feet away.  I cannot see content during presentations, which means I cannot see the names of presenters or the institution with which they’re affiliated. This can present obstacles to professional networking. Often, I prepare ahead of time by noting who I should try to meet during which presentations.

During a few serendipitous occasions, it has been a good thing to be unaware with whom I’m speaking at a professional conference. Earlier this year, I happened to be in the breakfast line behind a rock star researcher. I struck up a casual conversation that became an exchange about research. Had I seen who he was, I would not have uttered a word, let alone discussed my research!  To this day I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for a fellow graduate student who came up to me afterward.

Of course, I have anxiety about the actual presentation. Will I be able to memorize the content – the order of slides, of bullet points? Am I going to forget some of the significant values?

I cannot read powerpoint slides or posters when I present. This means that for both talks and poster presentations, I must memorize all of the relevant content. I get nervous that someone will ask me a question about a statistic I haven’t memorized, and I will have to grope for context by asking, “wait, to what value are you referring? What was that standard deviation?”

Because it can be challenging to memorize the detailed content of presentations, I avoid animations that display text in a specific order. Unless it is especially intuitive, it is hard for me to remember what content is associated with which bullet points.  Memorizing the order of slides and the corresponding content is hard enough!

How to ask and answer questions?            

I cannot see when someone is looking to me to ask a question. This means I often awkwardly take the floor from others, or wait way too long after someone’s glanced at me to signal it’s my turn. I cannot see when others raise their hands. When I teach classes, I simply announce that this is the case and students should say something if I miss them. But, it feels awkward and revealing to say that to a room filled with professionals I know only by their journal articles.

My pre-conference self-talk: no matter what, it will all be fine. Ideally, this upcoming conference will have accessible programs and signage. Hopefully, I have enough time beforehand to prepare my program, bookmarking talks to attend and people I want to find. With any luck, the airport and city are easy to navigate. But, if the center is hard to get around or discerning the next talk in my program is overwhelming, I can always ask for help.

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