Presenting Conference Papers

The research communities blog at Vitae contains advice on which conferences to attend and conference etiquette but nothing about presenting conference papers. I submitted the below as part of an application to attend a training event next month.

Presenting at the English PG Forum, December 2010

It is quite easy to recall conference papers that really stand out. On the other hand, it is very much easier to forget the rest. Not all established academics are comfortable or capable performers. Nobody sets out to be dull and yet it still happens. Thus, presenting should be seen as a skill, and should not be taken for granted.

A few rudimentary tips.

Know the format.

It’s not uncommon for debutants – especially international postgraduates – to be unsure of the conference format. Usually, conference participants should expect to present work rather than lead a discussion, though time is normally allowed for questions. As a contributor, your role (and time) should be made clear by the event organisers. Raise any queries with the organisers if you’re not sure.

Present. Don’t just read.

Presentations are about performance as well as content. Engaging an audience for 20-30 minutes, perhaps at the end of a long day, takes effort. It won’t be helped if delegates feel that they are being read to aimlessly. There has to be a sense of connection. We’re not all blessed with charisma, but what can we all do? Standing, wherever possible, helps to command attention, and eye-contact/surveying the room is useful for keeping an audience on your side.

Write for the purpose.

Why do so many fail to get this? Oral and written communication are strikingly different. We skim listen, so narrating a draft of a monograph chapter is almost impossible to digest. Sentences are longer, the syntax more expansive, the language more intricate. Thinking in spoken sentences pays dividends. Adjust your work considerately for a listening audience. Imagine yourself as one of them as you follow your script.

Know your audience.

Conference presentations aren’t a one-way relay. You can benefit from feedback too. But it’s an advantage most likely to be realised if your paper is pitched at a level consistent with the majority of the audience. How much can you expect your spectators to follow your research in its concentrated form? Perhaps your paper will need to be ‘diluted’ to a degree. Much can be gained from non-specialists of your field if they are given an accessible route into your work.

Integrate your visual aids.

Presenters often provide handouts or use Powerpoint – useful when used correctly. Use simple cues to integrate your material. If you launch into a quotation without first signposting a handout, the audience is working harder to follow and paying less attention to you. Similarly, ensure that electronic media does not distract unnecessarily. If, at the end of a paper, you think more about a speaker’s slides, the media has done too much, or the speaker too little.

Attention to time.

The Achilles’ heel of many an accomplished academic. The best way to monitor timing is to practise reading aloud [below]. One tip is to mark where you expect to have reached by 5 mins, 10 mins, etc – then you can subtly amend your pace if you fall behind. Accurate timing is a respected skill. Often, presenters rue that they have to skip ‘so much’ of their material, which only emphasises really poor judgement. The success of a panel relies on everyone sticking to schedule, and I’ve heard some regard overrunning as ‘unforgivable’.

Practise.

Practising your presentation shows you where sentences are too long, missing cues, etc. It’s also very useful for accurate timing. Nerves may cause you to begin more quickly or slowly than normal, but you will be more confident just knowing you will finish on time. Even for experienced presenters, practice provides that extra ounce of assurance in delivery. Be professional, organised, and disciplined. That’s half the job.

Q&A.

Scholars convene to share, and speakers can benefit massively from the knowledge base of a good audience. Delegates may ask questions with a view to making a suggestion, or because a paper sparked their curiosity. Nobody, least of all postgraduates, can be expected to know everything, but it does help to have the bases covered [something I have fallen foul of before]. If a question is asked that we cannot answer, we can thank the questioner for bringing it to attention. Do keep a pen close by to jot down difficult questions and to add suggestions.

And so…

Since we cannot expect to be the best judges of our own performance, it does not harm to imitate presenters who inspire us. Learning from the best and worst conference papers helps us to attune our skills, make the best impression, and have delegates chatting about our research. In times when impact is becoming increasingly important, this is a vital way to make our mark.


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