x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Conferences are great places to connect ... and have coffee

It requires effort to polish your ability to connect and engage with audiences, explains Justin Thomas.

The fragrance of superior- quality cleaning products floats effortlessly on the climate-controlled breeze. This is the subtle aroma of a 5-star hotel. The clinking of coffee-cups punctuates the baritone drone of conversational hubbub. This is the unmistakable symphony of a conference coffee break. The symposium in question took place at a hotel in Abu Dhabi.

Mental health specialists from across the globe gathered to confer and I was scheduled to give a presentation.

I have to confess I am fairly ambivalent about the value of such events, especially in this era of instant access to information. Why fly a professor half way around the world to give a presentation when you could just as easily read, listen to or watch it online? However, as the conference unfolded, I began to appreciate some of its benefits.

It almost goes without saying that conferences provide a great opportunity for networking.

Many breakthroughs in science and innovations in practice are the result of international collaborations. As such, conferences are a great place to find diversity, and they often provide the catalyst for fruitful and meaningful collaborations.

Furthermore, if you are going to commit to a large collaborative research project, one that might potentially cost millions of dirhams and consume years of your life, then conferences provide a good opportunity to get a real feel for the people you might end up collaborating with.

I was fortunate enough to run into a psychiatrist from Qatar with a passionate interest in preventive mental health care during the event in Abu Dhabi. We discussed an idea about how to reduce the prevalence of mental health disorders by means of special psycho-educational initiatives with schoolchildren. Hopefully, this dialogue will blossom into a meaningful research project.

Another benefit of conferences is exposure to ideas and information that we might normally never intentionally expose ourselves to.

At some point during every conference, you may have to choose between parallel sessions, and sometimes none of the options are remotely appealing.

In such cases you may find yourself sitting in a session focused on a topic you would never normally give a second thought to. Occasionally this can be richly rewarding.

Finally, and most importantly, there are some conference presenters who have the ability to detach themselves from their professional personas and really connect with the audience.

Such a connection goes way beyond simple information-giving. Talented presenters can awaken us to things we already thought we knew. In some way they make it real, they inject new life into an old subject.

Furthermore, such presenters feel at liberty to express insightful opinions that they might never commit to paper or film. But most of all, they inspire us in a way that only face-to-face contact with other human beings can.

These intangible skills – the ability to engage and connect with audiences – are becoming increasingly important.

Some of us however, when called to give a presentation, hide in plain sight, using our professional persona as a shield from behind which we read our power point slides verbatim.

If this becomes the norm, then I fear it will bring about the demise of the conference as we know it.

Such behaviour was acceptable once – it was easier to be the sage on stage when access to information was hard – but the game has changed, and true human connectivity now has increased in value.

We need to devote more effort to polishing our ability to connect and engage with audiences.

The information age calls for a new balance to the timeless blend of skills required to give effective presentations.

Perhaps the conference is scheduled to go the way of the handwritten letter and the vinyl record – transformed beyond recognition by the information age.

Justin Thomas is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Zayed University and Author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @Jaytee156