I’ve had those 8:30 am conference slots with half a dozen people in the room, most of them not fully caffeinated.
I’ve also had someone much more senior and well known than I stand up and berate me in front of hundreds of people for approaching an issue differently than she did. (Surprisingly, I think I came off better than she did in that circumstance. It prompted lots of people to come up to me and make a point of commenting positively on my presentation, for one thing.)
There is plenty of evidence that conference presentations don’t necessarily get you any useful feedback.
But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t.
You have to build an audience
Do you tell people you know are going to be at the conference when you are presenting? Do you ask them to come? Do you tell them you would like feedback?
Do you ask colleagues and friends when their papers are? Do you make a point of going? Do you offer feedback?
You cannot force anyone to turn up or to comment. And you shouldn’t take it personally if they choose not to.
You have something important to share. You have ideas you want to discuss with other people interested in those ideas.
The shame is that you are not giving them the opportunity to discuss those ideas with you.
Engage in conversation. Build relationships. Tell people you are doing things in ways that let them make their own decisions. Go to their things (the ones that interest you). Make appropriate contributions to their panels.
You don’t have to do anything unsavoury. No grandstanding. No arrogance. Invitation.
Invite the comments you want
Give your presentation in a way that invites comments. It is pretty normal for a conference paper to be a work in progress so be up front about that.
Ask for feedback. Explicitly. If there are particular areas that you’d like to discuss in more detail say so. There may not be time during the official conference session but there is no law saying you can’t invite people to continue the discussion over lunch/beer/coffee/email.
Plant questions. Really. If you have friends and colleagues attending your session and they are familiar with your work, talk to them in advance about questions they might ask to get the discussion going or to redirect it if someone says something nasty. You don’t want people you talk to anyway to dominate the conversation but if no one is speaking, getting them to start the ball rolling is a good idea.
Not all interventions require a response. If someone says something that isn’t really contributing to the discussion, you can thank them for their comment (whether you are grateful or not) and then move on to the next question. That might be where your friend with her prepared question comes into play.
Act as if the culture you want already exists.
If you want a culture in which we give supportive and constructive comments on each other’s conference presentations then ask for that kind of discussion in your session and give those comments in some of the presentations you attend.
If you want a culture in which people ask for a copy of your paper, read it, and send you an e-mail with comments, or start a discussion via e-mail or some other means after the conference is over, invite those who attend your session to do this (have paper copies available, or take their contact details so you can send one) and do that for a couple of the presentations you attend. Also, have business cards or some other means of giving people your contact details so they can give you feedback later after they’ve contemplated your paper a bit more.
If you want a culture in which putting other people down in order to make yourself look smarter is unacceptable, then don’t do this. And respond to any instances of this behaviour that you witness appropriately. Challenge the person doing the putting down if you feel comfortable doing so. Or make a point of saying something supportive to the presenter. (Even afterwards over dinner is helpful. Believe me.)
Enjoy the conference
This is one of the opportunities you have to engage in interesting conversations with other people who share your intellectual interests. Any use of conference time that involves (or leads to) interesting conversations with people who share your intellectual interests is a good use of your time.