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I am a university professor in Europe and was recently invited by my alma mater in the Middle East to give a talk on a topic of my choosing. Excited to accept the invitation, I traveled to the university to deliver my lecture. Upon arrival, I discovered that my talk had been scheduled in a small room, in contrast to the larger main halls used for other talks in their guest speaker series, including those given by graduate students from other institutions. This disparity left me feeling disrespected and considering declining the invitation.

Additionally, I noticed a cultural trend in my home country where accomplishments are often exaggerated. For example, a first-year PhD student's biography might seem more impressive than mine, despite my more extensive experience. I'm unsure if this detail is relevant to the situation but wanted to mention it for context.

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    Have you tried to bring this issue up with anyone from the university and tried to inquire why your talk is scheduled to take place in the small room. Or do you feel that would not be considered appropriate culturally?
    – Sursula
    Mar 15, 2023 at 11:10
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    Is there any cultural or local consideration that I am not aware that suggests that room size should be correlated to the prestige of the speaker? Maybe you are reading too much into this choice. It is possible that they simply had a busier schedule for that day. Mar 15, 2023 at 11:54
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    Is it possible that your topic/field is narrower and therefore has a smaller potential audience population to draw from? Mar 15, 2023 at 15:56
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    You can, of course, decline future invitations if you feel slighted. But it would be unprofessional to back out after having accepted the invitation merely on account of the room chosen for the talk not being to your liking, especially after having already traveled to the institution for the event. Give a good talk, with good grace. Mar 15, 2023 at 19:15
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    It is possible that you are reading too much in this situation. At my University, when we schedule a talk, the room size only depends on two factors: which room is available and what is the expected audience. The room availability is the most important factor... As a side note, I would expect my talks to be in smaller rooms than my student's talks, since my talks are very technical and typically too advanced for our students, my student's talks are much more accecible to their peers.
    – Nick S
    Mar 15, 2023 at 19:25

5 Answers 5

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If I was you, I would feel slightly surprised and puzzled for a few seconds, and then forget about it and carry on.

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Cultural and local differences aside: As long as there are a few people in the audience who really care about what you have to say, it is worth it to give a talk. I have talked for an audience of 6 and for an audience of 600 - and they can both be great talks and great discussions (usually better discussions with a smaller crowd). So I would not be too hung up on the room size (actually, as a host I always try to book a room that is easier to make look full, which is then by definition a smaller room so it doesn't feel too empty if the audience turn up is smaller than hoped). Let us know how the talk went!

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    I think this is an excellent point - if attendance for talks has been low recently, I've shifted talks to a smaller room. It's nothing to do with any of the speakers attributes, but more a desire to avoid it being embarrassing if only a few people show up for a giant room, and some recent historic trends on talk attendence
    – lupe
    Mar 16, 2023 at 10:27
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I disagree with your underlying notion that the size of the room has anything to do with the importance of the speaker. There are many perfectly normal reasons why you might be scheduled for a smaller room:

  • You were added late to the roster and the larger rooms were already booked.
  • The larger room has some sort of special equipment or resources that the grad students need for their presentation but that you do not (or vice versa). For the same reason, some presentations may get recorded, and will necessarily end up in whichever room has the A/V equipment set up.
  • Some rooms (large or small) get reserved for presentations that are part of a series, where audiences can easily sit through multiple talks on connected topics. Whether or not your presentation fits one of those series can dictate where the presentation takes place.
  • Student presentations could be expected to draw large crowds of friends, fellow students, etc., that would necessitate the larger room.

The last time I gave a conference presentation, the organizer put me in a smaller room because he was particularly interested in the topic and the smaller room meant that it was easier for him to hear me since there wasn't a microphone/loudspeaker involved.

All said, I wouldn't think twice about the size of the room that they put you in. Unless you have reason to believe you'll draw a crowd that's beyond the room's capacity, I don't think it's worth mentioning at all.

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    It may simply be that there's something else going on which needs the larger room. For example there's an exam that needs NNN students present there at the same time. Your talk is flexible in terms of space allocation, the exam isn't, so the exam wins. If there are actually too many people than will fit, you could always offer to give the talk a second time. Mar 17, 2023 at 12:08
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Audiences for in-person events are much smaller post-COVID. Many people attend events online. Our department seminars are typically less than half as big as they were in 2019 because many more students and faculty work from home. And, during the February one we held in-person (we asked people to come in if they could to make the big name person feel appreciated) several people got COVID. I am guessing that the next ones will be smaller again.

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    We have a series of hybrid talks at work. Presenters at different locations don't need to come, but it's quite disparaging for the speaker if they only see six people in the audience, even if they know another 80 are watching online. Many online participants, including some speakers, joined remotely despite being in the same building. We're looking for ways to get more people to join in-person (sadly we can't sponsor cookies unless external guests outnumber internal guests). Next time it'll be mandatory for speakers and their PIs to attend physically — let's see how that goes.
    – gerrit
    Mar 16, 2023 at 17:21
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Conference organizers usually assign room sizes for presentations based on how large of an audience they expect.

Some topics attract large audiences, others only small audiences. But just because the organizers expect that the topic of your talk to be aimed at a niche audience does not necessarily mean they consider the topic or the presenter less important.

Note that conference organizers do not always have the best intuition regarding how popular each talk is going to be. I was on conferences where I couldn't join talk A because the small room was already full, so I went to another talk B in the great hall instead where only the first 3 ranks were filled.

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