The ethics of abusing your time at the podium

This is a personal reflection on the unethical behaviour of those academics that abuse their time at the podium when speaking at conferences—or those that deliver uninvited pseudo-speeches while pretending to formulate questions or comments. This is based on real facts. I do not apologise for any extreme views expressed here. 

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If you are an academic or have ever attended an academic conference, you probably know what I am talking about. Unless the conference is well-organised and time is zealously kept by a dedicated moderator/chair (and those who do should be highly praised for what really is an ungrateful and rather stressful job), there is always (*always*) someone that abuses their time at the podium. I am not talking about one- or two-minute overruns, but rather about speakers that happily exceed their time by 20’ or so, usually oblivious to or wilfully ignoring any polite notes (less than) discreetly passed to them by the organisers. 

In my personal experience, this tends to be perpetrated by a senior colleague that has barely prepared and/or is delivering the exact same presentation we have already heard, perhaps with a minor tweak. This would, even if delivered within the allocated time, in itself be reprehensible behaviour (but let’s save that for another day). It is, of course, possible that time is exceeded while discussing new ideas and arguments, but that does not substantially change the impact of time abuse (see below).

The culprit also tends to be a male colleague that would be highly insulted if someone (particularly someone junior, particularly a female colleague) tried to whip him into compliance with the programmed schedule and the usually also agreed upon rules for the panel/session/roundtable—you know, those previous emails that seek to avoid content overlap and that make it clear that you have 20, 12 or however many minutes to deliver your initial material before engaging in questions and answers.

Further, in my experience, this is also much more likely to happen in academic environments where seniority—and fear of the power of the seniors—drives group dynamics in academic conferences. That is, I have experienced this usually in Mediterranean countries (particularly Spain and Italy) and sometimes in continental Europe (notably, Germany). I have had the opposite experiences in the UK and Finland, and further afield, to say it all.

The effects of abusing time at the podium tend to always be the same and threefold: audience disengagement, squeezing or suppression of time for others’ views (be it other scheduled presentations or genuine debate) and a general lowering of the quality of the event. In my view, generating these results is unethical and disrespectful, and those abusing their time at the podium should be shamed into shutting up and sitting down. Moreover, organisers of academic events have a fiduciary duty towards all speakers and participants to ensure delivery of the programme as planned. Let me expand.

Those that overrun demonstrate their disregard for other people’s work and time. They disrespect colleagues scheduled to speak after them and their effort preparing their own speeches, practicing them and timing them to fit the allocated slot. Of course, not having done so themselves, they are probably also underestimating the effort that goes into that. They clearly do not think that their participation in the conference is part of a greater whole and that they too are there to learn.

They also disrespect the audience and ignore the abuse of power that social convention enables them to exert by having been put in the spotlight. However interesting the message, the audience is not there solely to listen to them. The audience is also not there as a simple receptacle of their own voice—unless the event was clearly advertised as not including any sort of time for Q&A or interaction whatsoever. Finally, they also disrespect and put significant pressure on the moderator/chair/organiser, as they are then forced to either become complicit in the unethical abuse or discharge their fiduciary duty—none of which is their preferred alternative.

On the fiduciary duty. Well, it is plain to me that organisers of an event and chairs/moderators (organisers for short) have, first and foremost, a fiduciary duty towards the audience. That duty is, simply put, to make everything possible to deliver the programme as planned. Of course, there can be unforeseen circumstances that make it difficult or impossible. In that case, all that can be done is to readjust things as best as possible. However, tolerating time overruns is not such an unforeseen situation.

Moreover, organisers have a fiduciary duty to all speakers to enable them to present their ideas and to deliver the result of their work and preparation. Funny enough, organisers are keener for this to happen when they pay the speakers than when they get the content for free, which is another f*&^ed aspect of the conferencing game (also best saved for another day). When organisers allow a/some speakers to abuse their time at the podium, they are simply telling all other speakers that their expertise and preparation are not as valuable as those of the perpetrator. Tertium non datur.

So, what’s the ethical approach to delivering a speech at a conference? As far as I can formulate it, I think this boils down to: showing up prepared, ready to present your best possible ideas and to deliver them to the best of your ability, within the allocated time, and being open to challenge and discussion, to engage with such exchanges, and to contribute to debates surrounding the contributions of other speakers and participants. Honestly, if someone is not ready to act ethically, I’d rather they stayed out of it. Whatever their expertise and brilliance. And the same goes for anyone organising these events. If not ready to run them ethically, then better not organise them at all.

If you got this far, you may be nodding in agreement. Or you may think that I am simply sour and should take it easier. Either way, thanks for reading.