VOLUNTEERING AT QED 2015

There’s been loads of really informative and complimentary blogs about QED generally (there’s some links to them at the end of this post), but none so far (as of this moment!) about what it’s like to volunteer there.  So, let’s put that right:

I signed up months ago, and got my orders a few weeks before the event.  I’d been to QED before, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect, but I still had to attend a briefing session where they gave us the rota and our sexy uniforms (an orange T-shirt, which went with literally nothing.  Hey, at least we were easy to spot).  I wasn’t needed until the Saturday, but for me, the fun began on Friday at Skepticamp (clicky).  I also got to stay over in the hotel on the Friday night, because Mr. Science Gentleman is one of the organisers.  This was a mixed blessing – we got to be there to support each other, but I was basically ignored for most of the time as he was too busy making sure things were going smoothly, and I was running around all over the place herding, advising and being visible.  But it was kind of nice not being in each other’s pockets; I’m independent anyway, and otherwise we would have driven each other insane / got nothing done.

Being a volunteer, you have three main duties:

  • Get people in and out of the rooms where the talks are
  • Direct people to where they need to be, and help with queries and other needs
  • Look after the bookstall

As well as that, you have to be nice and approachable, but I’m sure you know what a great reputation we skeptics have so that’s definitely not a problem.

Each volunteer was given a specific set of times to be in certain places, and there seemed to be a slight surplus of people in orange shirts, so there was more than adequate cover – which was great.  The bookstall got a bit crowded at times, but you can’t flog too many books, right?

One of the super-fun things about the weekend was finding and remembering all the different routes between places in the hotel.  This is important because the “accessible route” took you through numerous winding corridors and ran between three floors (I’m pretty sure someone is having a laugh here).  The hotel is a beautiful, old, rambling building, and as such it has more mezzanines, galleries, half-levels, secret passages, and doors to Narnia than more modern structures.  I found at least seven different routes back to my room and I still can’t remember where it was.  Fortunately someone put together a handy map of the hotel:

Enter, Stranger!
Artwork courtesy of @PencilBloke.

Attendees were used to seeing crew and volunteers popping in and out of the halls, so it was fairly easy to catch most of a talk and then discreetly make it to my place of duty.  The only time I’d miss a whole talk is if I was assigned bookstore duty for an hour. This was great as I got to see pretty much everything I wanted to (barring clashes in the schedule – choices, choices) and still make myself useful.

Being a volunteer this time, I felt more a part of it than I did at my first QEDcon, and having to be disciplined (no oversleeping, no drinking so much that I’d get a crippling hangover), probably did me some good (yaaaaawn).

I also got to see a load of people I’d not seen in person for over a year, which was wonderful.  Sure, this would have happened whether I was volunteering or not, but it’s still worth mentioning how important this event is for bringing like-minded people together and creating a sense of companionship (I’m not a fan of the word community, I feel it gets overused.  Plus, I don’t need to belong to a “community” – but I acknowledge that some people do).  I do speak with many of them online throughout the year, but it’s always cool to meet up with them face-to-face, and feel like we’ve only been apart for a matter of days or weeks.

I spent much of my spare time at the bar or enjoying posh dinners in Manchester’s finest establishments (nothing to do with being a volunteer; it’s just what I did), and this year I spent a lot of time conversing with the speakers.  I’m going to be honest here, last year I was a bit of a shrinking violet and felt overwhelmed in the presence of greatness.  Well, none of that crap this time.  I was talking with anyone and everyone, and that is the coolest thing for me.  Between lectures, or at the end of the day, just chatting about intellectual matters (and a ton of totally non-smart stuff, let’s not big ourselves up too much here) with similar people is so rewarding, and the reason I started going to skeptics events in the first place.

Loads of other people have written about QED, and on the talks and other activities, so I won’t add much more.  But there are some really excellent accounts here, so you should check out these great blogs, and read some of their other posts too.  There are people who have far more time to devote to this than I do, and as a result they write some incredibly interesting and well-constructed stuff.  I recommend:

QEDcon 2015 | Purely a figment of your imagination

I Am A QEDcon Fan, Here’s Why | Hayley M. Stevens

QED Con, Trigger Warnings, Dillahunting and an Ockham Award) | Godless Spellchecker’s Blog

QED 2015 Roundup | Sunny Spells

QEDcon happens next in October 2016 – if this post and the above blogs haven’t convinced you, you still have 18 months to do your homework (may I suggest some regular SitP followed by a course of Be Reasonable).

SKEPTICAMP 2015

The Friday before QED is a free day, in which the Skepticamp event is run.  This is a full day of short talks by skeptical activists to showcase their project or speak on a subject that they are passionate about.

I’m involved in running the PubhD project in Manchester, and I’m keen to find opportunities to speak in public as it’s something that’s necessary for my career development.  I also want to be more active generally within the skeptical community, and I want to build my talk portfolio (is that a thing?) so that I’ll get better at it / be less terrified, and so that people will take me seriously as a presenter.  It’s also something that I can put on my academic CV.  So I signed up for Skepticamp and I took part in the event yesterday.

Here's me talking before I completely dispensed with the notes. Picture taken by @Your_FunnyUncle
Here’s me talking before I completely dispensed with the notes. Picture taken by @Your_FunnyUncle

There were 17 available speaking slots, and I was number 8, which was the one just before lunch.  So I was able to see how other people did and get myself psyched up for my own talk.  The talks were each 10 minutes long with 5 minutes afterwards for Q&A.  Each presentation was to use the Ignite format, which uses a slide change every 20 seconds, so the talks must be written to match the timings of the slide.  This got a mixed reaction from the speakers and audience, summarised as follows:

Pros:

  • It keeps the presentation to time.  You can’t waffle on for hours if the slides are running away from you.
  • There was consistency in the format of the presentations, even though they were all completely different talks presented in different styles.
  • As a speaker, it gives you a good structure for your talk and pushes you to speak about the thing on the slide -because it will move on to the next thing!
  • Even if you’ve rehearsed and made notes, the format will push you to speak more naturally.  What if your carefully crafted speech doesn’t line up with the slide change on the day?  You’d better come up with something to say quickly!

Cons:

  • The slide changeover was actually a bit clunky for some speakers.  This detracted from otherwise excellent talks because the transition wasn’t perfectly polished (yes, mine was one of these).
  • One piece of advice I’ve been given about presentations is that if you’re panicking / forget what to say / otherwise inept, you should take a few seconds to pause and regain composure.  This also allows the audience time to digest what you’re saying.  But there is absolutely no room for this with the Ignite format.
  • I would have like to have control over the slide transition myself.  If I’d been given 10 minutes to speak, formatted how I like, I’d have produced slides of varying length and might have even brought some props.  It would have been a completely different talk, but hey, maybe that’s not what the Ignite format is about.

I spent about a week preparing for the talk.  I knew what I wanted to say, and it was easy to create slides to fit with this message.  I was really keen to avoid Death By PowerPoint, so I summarised briefly on each slide and prepared a more detailed and related thing to say while the slide was on.  I was extremely careful to not just read off the slides.  I’m not a pro yet, but I do have standards.

On the day, I did have notes with me, but I ended up not using them.  I’d practised lots, and these were more of a comfort blanket than a necessity.  Anyway, I put the notes down about halfway through and just carried on talking.  I wasn’t paying attention to them anyway.

Before my talk, I spoke with the crew and received some sage advice from @InKredulousi with apologies to Kenny Rogers: You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table.  i.e. get up there, say what you’ve got to say, and then sh!t yourself afterwards (yes, he actually said that too – not Kenny Rogers, the other guy).

So there were no involuntary bowel movements, but I was pretty scared.  Mr. Science Gentleman had told me to expect 20 – 30 attendees.  I turned up and there were over 200 people in the audience (thanks, babe).  But I sort of fed off of it.  I had to do this thing, I knew it’d all be over in 15 minutes, and this was an opportunity to shine, not shy away.  I loved the feeling of having all those people listening to what I had to say, and it was great to get a laugh out of them as well.  It made me want to do more talks, and I’ve already got a couple of ideas lined up.

But in terms of getting my message out there, it went well too.  Lots of people came up to me not just to congratulate me on a good talk, but to ask more questions about PubhD and how they can get involved.  Being able to present to an interested audience is a wonderful opportunity to further your aims, and to meet people doing similar things.  I also got to hear 16 other talks on skeptical & science topics.  There’s a summary at www.skeptical-science.com, and here, below, with a few of my thoughts on some of them:

Emma McClure Peter Popoff – My Persistent Penpal (this was about a sort of mail order televangelism, with examples of “literature” that were both shocking and intriguing)
Michael Hales Don’t put your daughter into STEM, Mrs. Worthington (I’ll be writing a separate post on this topic – the speaker made some interesting observations on current recruitment drives in the sciences)
Michelle Ashworth The Birth of the New Horsemen (an online community for education and fostering understanding of skepticism & science)
Andras G. Pinter The Authority Problem (relating to reliable sources of information, and how skeptics can get involved)
Jessica Rose Cognitive Biases and Competence (this covered the problems of Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect: two sides of the same coin)
Pontius Bockman The Swedish Skeptical Movement (how they do things in Sweden – the skeptical movement is smaller in Sweden but they do some very cool things like going to schools to give workshops on critical thinking)
David Gamble Why do humans ignore facts and embrace myths as truth?
Kat Gray PubhD (about setting up and growing a pub-based presentation series for postgraduate researchers of all disciplines)
Ben Makin Not just Tommies in France – Indians on the Western Front
Brad Levin Skeptival – the camping festival for the skeptic community
Tom Williamson Skeptic’s Guide to Vexillology
Diana Barbosa COMCEPT – a skeptical adventure in Portugal
Heather Pentler How alt med tried to kill me (the adventures of a chronically ill person in the peculiar world of alternative medicine)
Diane Waugh The Fringe of Reason – Edinburgh Skeptics at the Edinburgh PBH Free Fringe
Myles Power AIDS Denialism………yep that’s a thing (Myles produces YouTube videos on many topics, and this is one of them – view his channel here)
Paul Fitzgerald Cartoons as a weapon (Paul spoke about the power of controversial cartoons; he also has a new book out soon)
Jon Stewart Inside AA: Can God Cure Alcoholism? (a view of the 12-step program from someone who’s been through it)

That was a whole day of wonderful and enlightening talks, and for free! The next day, QED began properly, and I’ll be blogging about that in a new post.