Academic conferences are the principal social arena for discussing your work. In fact, giving a conference paper is one of the few opportunities you will get, in person, to transmit your research to, and receive feedback from, others in your field. So it’s a good idea to make your conference papers count.
The calibre and types of papers presented at conferences can vary widely. Some are dry, others inspiring. Some are high-tech and others bare bones. Some are works in progress and others are already in print. Differences in academic styles among different disciplines make it impossible to identify a single formula for a successful conference paper. But here are a few best-practice suggestions to improve your presentation and make a positive impression. Some suggestions might seem obvious, but anyone who has attended a conference knows they bear repeating.
Give a paper when you have something to say
Giving a conference paper represents more than a line on a CV. It is an opportunity to test your ideas, get useful feedback, and publicize your work in the academic community. You are on display at a conference – that means unexpected benefits if you impress favorably as well as consequences if you flop. The people in your audience also adjudicate research grants, referee articles, and sit on hiring committees. So, if your research does not yet support interesting insights or tantalizing speculation, don’t sign up to give a paper. This does not mean you should only present work that is near publication. But do be sure that your research and thinking are developed enough to permit fruitful discussion.
Practise for substance, style and timing
It is hard to reduce years of research, vast information, and complex ideas into the standard 20-minute presentation. You need to include some context so your paper makes sense to the audience, develop a focused argument without too much detail, and draw out conclusions that demonstrate the relevance and reach of your work.
Presentation styles also take time to perfect. Early in your career, practise in front of a colleague, supervisor, spouse, parent – anyone who will give you feedback rather than try to make you feel good. Even if the person only points out stylistic quirks – uhms and ahs, fiddling with jewelry and over-zealous gesticulations, he or she is doing you a favour.
With experience, you won’t need to practise in front of anyone, but it’s still a good idea to have trial runs, alone in your hotel the night before the paper. This will ensure that as you pare back information and ideas (because the paper you prepare will always be too long), your paper’s coherence and purpose are preserved, and you stick within the time limit.
Speak to the audience
Some people find public speaking more terrifying than death – truly! Even if the fear is not paralyzing, many academics suffer from public speaking nerves. One way to have a measure of control is to write out your paper and then read it. Resist this temptation.
Reading a paper is a less dynamic and less interactive way to present your findings, and the audience has to work harder to stay engaged. Instead consider writing a paper, which could be a chapter in a thesis or a draft of an article, but still prepare talking points for the conference. The talking points are like a script, with prompts, quotations, and segues. You might only have a page or two of notes at the podium, but you also have a closely reasoned paper behind you which should boost your confidence. With surprisingly little practice you will almost memorize your talk. No one in the audience will be the wiser. Despite rehearsal, your talk will have a spontaneous energy and natural flow to it.
If you must read, write with your audience in mind. A written talk should use direct language, shorter sentences, and have a less complex structure than something you write for publication. Also consider inserting directions to yourself, such as a cue to speak extemporaneously (or so it appears), to break the rhythm of the talk and make eye contact with the audience.
Stick to the time limit, out of professional courtesy and self-interest
The people on your panel and in the audience are colleagues you will be working with in future. If you go over time, your fellow panelists will resent it, especially if you cut into their time. A presenter who attempts to justify an ill-conceived talk by saying, “if only I had more time,” elicits no sympathy. Respecting time limits shows that you are professional, prepared and collegial. Also, you do not want to shorten the question period. The main reward for giving a paper is the response. If presenters go over-time, the question period shrinks. While some discussion can occur during the breaks and meals, the main opportunity for discussion is during your session. When a session ends without a question period, an opportunity has been squandered.
Be enthusiastic and enjoy the limelight
Presenters are always more engaging when they are enthusiastic; people pay closer attention when enthusiasm abounds. The audience members will have more interesting and helpful things to say about your paper. It can happen that eventually you will tire of speaking about a subject of your research. When you feel yourself getting bored, shelve that particular talk.
Other common sense tips
- Be sure of the time and day of your presentation.
- Double check the amount of time you have to speak – last minute changes are often made to programs and can include adding a speaker to your session.
- Stand up to speak, do not sit.
- Do not put all of your spoken text on power point slides: this makes the presenter redundant.
- Text on a power point slide should be legible to the audience.
- Be sure to check that all AV equipment is turned on before your session begins.
- Do not give a paper doped up on cold medicine. (Don’t ask!)
Francine McKenzie is an associate professor in the department of history at the University of Western Ontario.