Going to a conference abroad: by plane, by train, or better stay at home?

Scientists are among the most frequent of travelers, globe-trotting to various international conferences, summer schools, meetings, … We are all aware of the negative impact of air travel on our climate. But did you know that the carbon footprint of a bad conference presentation or scientific poster could be just as devastating? Time to act!

Less air travel

Several universities have taken initiatives to lessen their air travel. The University of Antwerp decided that their employees may only take the plane if the train journey takes more than 8 hours. So, on a congress to Marseille? Fine, by train. Because, according to scientists, a plane trip has seven to eleven times more environmental impact than the same trip by train.

With the Blue Bike on the ferry in Ostend, on the way to a workshop.

We applaud this initiative. As for us, we opt for public transportation or hop on our bicycle as often as we can when heading out.

Did you know that you can easily rent a bicycle through a Blue Bike rental at any large Belgian railway station for just a few Euros per ride? That train-bike combo sure motivates us to leave the car at home whenever we give a workshop. And when traveling abroad, we try to take the train.

How impactful is your stay?

Flying to your conference, or rather by train?

If you do decide to travel abroad, of course, you’ll want your stay to be worthwhile. Let’s say you’ve been invited to present your research or project through a poster or talk. Now wouldn’t it be nice if people were to approach you afterward, would want to collaborate with you, or even offer to finance your research or project?

But in reality, international conferences or meetings rarely amount to this. Because the presentations or posters are boring, unclear, or not at all geared towards their audiences. Instead of attracting potential fans, you could be pushing them away. During the reception or lunch you try to make amends, but even then you fail to tell in a few words about your research and why it is so relevant.

How will your talk or poster make a difference?

Are you looking for collaboration, new ideas, or financing…?

Time to call a halt to presentations and posters that fail to deliver. They result in a substantial loss of time, energy and effort, for both you as well as your audience. Plus, they only increase your carbon footprint. Even if you travel by train, if your stay does not amount to anything, you might just as well stay home.

So how can we make sure our presentations or posters do make a difference?

1. Have a clear goal in mind

Spending a couple of days in New York, Barcelona or Tokyo sounds amazing. But don’t wait until you board the airplane to consider what you will be talking about and how you will spend your time. ‘It will look great on my resume’ will simply not cut it. What impact would you like to make? And are you willing to put enough time into preparing your presentation or poster well?

What would you truly like to accomplish? No use in drawing up a long list of aims, instead pick one clear goal. When you return from your trip, ideally you will have reached that goal. And that is where your presentation or poster comes into the picture. If you are looking for collaborations, then throw that information out there. Now your audience will know they can take you up on this.

2. What can you offer your audience?

You may have a clear goal in mind, but only if you have something to offer your audience, they will show interest in your work. So instead of giving an overview of everything you have done up to this point in your presentation or poster, instead ask yourself what interesting message you could share with your audience.

Choose a message that is aimed at a specific audience. Copy-pasting what you shared at a previous conference, is not an option! Research beforehand who the attendees are and determine what you can do for them. The more you have to offer them, the keener they will be to help you reach your goal.

3. Practice makes perfect

You’re busy, I know. The week prior to a conference, you’ll be happy to have made the talk or poster submission deadline. And the days before, you’ll have enough last-minute tasks on your hands. Most likely you’ll only find time on your way to your destination to glance at your slides or poster. Because you didn’t have the time to practice, your presentation will sound improvised and far from professional. You may have just missed your chance of wooing your audience…

Start rehearsing at least a week before your presentation. What will you talk about and how? Practice out loud, standing up, as if you were addressing your audience. And why not record yourself? This may be difficult to watch, but you’ll immediately know what to improve. The more you practice, the easier it will become, and also your confidence will grow.

Should you just stay home?

The most environmentally friendly option? Just stay home! Or not? Of course, scientists should attend conferences and meetings abroad. But before you pack your bags, ask yourself this:

  1. Is it really useful for me to attend? If so, then select a clear goal.
  2. Can I offer something to the audience? If so, center your presentation or poster around elements of your research or project that will appeal to your audience.
  3. Am I willing to take the time to prepare and practice my presentation or poster? If so, then block out enough time on your calendar.
  4. If necessary, can I also participate online and present my research remotely? Here you will find a lot of tips for presenting online with impact.

Can you get to your destination by train, bus, or bicycle? Even better!

Good luck at your next conference, and feel free to tweet or mail us telling how it went!

Some testimonials from researchers who scored abroad with their presentation or poster:

Thank you for changing my view on posters. That pays off! The BOU (British Ornithology Union), organizer of the conference, voted my poster as the best ECR (Early Career Researcher) poster. – Ruben Evens, researcher

I wanted to thank you again for helping me through The Floor is Yours. Not long after Singapore, I also gave a keynote in Dusseldorf and was invited for a keynote, a podcast and a smart talk. Thanks to your tips I always try to make the best of it. – Johan Pion, lecturer at HAN University of Applied Sciences, received coaching for his presentation in Singapore

Do you also want to score at the next conference with your presentation or poster? Contact us for a coaching session.

Translation: Leslie Van Ael