I might have finally found a way to get the best out of conferences, so let’s talk about that.
I spent this last Friday at the annual UK conference for my research field, Silicon Quantum Information Processing, which everyone just calls SiQIP. There are always exciting people there, world leading researchers often from all over the globe and cutting edge science. However, I’ve never managed to get the best out of the conference because I struggle to keep my attention focused during the talks.
This time around, I decided to try live-tweeting the event. I’m not really sure why I wanted to, but it turned out well – I found that I took in more of each talk and appreciated what they did better than I ever have before. Sure, some of this is down to my increasing experience in the field over time. But I’ve been attending this conference annually for five years now – the experience barrier should have been mostly overcome in 2016.
The reason I got more out of this conference is therefore more to do with my live-tweeting, then. To understand why it helped, I thought a bit about why I find conference talks hard to follow. I think there’s something about the pace of most speakers – a typical speaker will introduce a point, show a picture or piece of text related to the point, explain how the picture relates, and then reiterate their point. Two things happen for me; either I understand the point very quickly and half of the slide is needless repetition, or I never understand the point at all and switch off anyway. That makes many talks feel very stop-start for me – my attention isn’t being engaged smoothly over time and so I struggle to keep an even focus. That often makes me lose the thread of the talk and miss something interesting.
Live-tweeting helped me because it gave me something to do in the periods where my attention had nothing to latch on to. Rather than get distracted by the window blinds, or the hair of the person in front of me, I had to explain the talk in simple and straightforward terms – a kind of reinforcement which helped me engage better with the subject and absorb more of the content.
I ended up being very excited about a lot of the content – from microprocessors running at 4 Kelvin (-269.15 Celsius) to new ways to compare qubit designs. Overall, it was probably the best SiQIP I’ve been to. It feels like my field as a whole has really matured over the last five years, and we’re ever closer to truly large scale quantum computers.
Finally, I think this conference helped me understand further what makes a good talk. I constantly strive to improve how I design and structure presentations so that my message is clear any my audience is engaged – making sure there aren’t regular switch-off points is maybe the next area for me to find improvement. I relish the challenge.