Presenting Conference Papers (for Vitae)

Vitae: ResearchersAn edited version of the following was submitted as part of an application to become a contributor at the ‘What’s up doc?’ blog at Vitae and to attend their training event next month. The site prefers remarkably short articles (c. 300 words). I reduced this so as not to totally disregard their mantra, but why let the full effort go to waste?

Existing articles on the blog had offered different sorts of advice on conferences: choosing which to attend, and a set of ‘dos and don’ts’ for the events themselves. What had not yet been covered was the presenting of a conference paper. Late last year marked my eighth presentation, and I might expect to add two more to the list in this calendar year. There are areas of research activity in which I am considerably less experienced, but this is one of my stronger zones. If privacy is to become public, it might as well learn to do it well!

Presenting at the English PG Forum, December 2010

It is quite easy to recall conference papers that have been delivered in a charismatic manner. On the other hand, given the nature of oral medium, it is disturbingly easy to forget material presented in a less engaging way. Not all established academics are comfortable or capable performers. Presenting a conference paper may appear to be a simple formula, but nobody sets out to be dull or uninspiring and yet it still happens. Thus, the skills we should be thinking about should not be taken for granted.

Those who attend conferences and research events regularly will appreciate the value that presenting skills offer. Those new to presenting, meanwhile, are often particularly anxious about their first presentation, and it is useful for confidence if the first experience goes well. Here, then, are a few rudimentary tips.

Knowing the format

It’s not uncommon for debutants – especially international postgraduates – to be uncertain of the conference format. Almost invariably, conference participants will be expected to present a paper rather than lead a discussion, though organisers generally allocate time for questions. As a contributor, your role, and a time limit, should have been made clear by the event organisers. Queries should be raised with them, but if in any doubt at all, do prepare to present.

Present. Don’t just read.

Presentations are about performance as well as content. Conveying a long message takes effort with the delivery. The task of engaging an audience for 20-30 minutes, perhaps at the end of a long day, will not be helped if delegates feel that they are being read to aimlessly. There has to be a sense of connection. Standing, where possible, helps to command attention, and eye-contact/surveying the room is useful for keeping an audience on your side.

Write for the purpose.

Oral and written communication are strikingly different. As a listener, polished written work – a draft of a chapter for example – is very difficult to digest. Sentences tend to be longer, the syntax more expansive, the language more intricate. Adjust your work carefully and considerately for a listening audience. Imagine yourself as one of them as you follow your script. Thinking in spoken sentences pays dividends for an effective paper.

Know your audience.

The benefits of conference presentations pass in both directions. This advantage is best realised when a paper is delivered at a level consistent with the majority of that audience. How much can you reasonably expect a room of spectators to follow your research in its concentrated form? It is quite likely that your paper will need to be ‘diluted’ to some degree. But, believe it or not, just as much can be gained from non-specialists of your immediate field if they are given an accessible route into your work.

Integrate your visual aids.

It is common for presenters to provide handouts or to use Powerpoint slides. These are extremely useful supplements when used correctly. If a presenter launches into a quotation without reference to their handout, the audience works much harder to follow and pays less attention to the material. Simple cues within your prose can easily integrate your supporting material. Similarly, ensure that electronic media does not divert attention away from any integral part of your presentation. Text in an electronic aid must be used sparingly. It’s a tough balance to get right. If, at the end of a paper, you think more about a speaker’s slides, however impressive they are, the media has done too much, or the speaker too little.

Attention to time.

Time is the biggest Achilles’ heel of many an accomplished academic. To overrun is, effectively, to arrive late at an ending. The success of a panel depends on cooperation from everyone to stick to their allocated time. The best way to monitor timing is to practise reading aloud [see below]. Accurate timing is a skill that is widely respected. Often, presenters will rue that so much of their material will have to be skipped. Is that not, quite simply, poor judgement? We impress few by overrunning, or by looking sorely disorganised.

Practise.

Practising reading aloud will indicate whether sentences are too long; whether you are directing sufficiently to your handout; and whether an audience is likely to follow your intricate points. Practice is also very useful for timing. Nerves may cause you to begin more quickly or slowly than normal, and you may automatically seek to compensate, but what is important is complete confidence that you will finish on time. A rushed ending to a paper often ruins all that has come before. Even for experienced presenters, practice provides that extra ounce of confidence and assurance in delivery.

Q&A.

Scholars convene to share research, and speakers benefit massively from suggestions and the knowledge base of an educated 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 will always struggle to be competent judges of our own performance, is our best chance to imitate the presenters who we have inspired us with their own delivery? To learn from the best and the worst conference papers helps us to attune our skills, make the very best of impressions, and have delegates chatting about our research. In times when impact has never been more important, this form of propagation is a vital way to make our mark.

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