No matter if as part of a seminar or a postgraduate conference at your own university, as part of your job interview, or as a requirement for your annual progress review as a doctoral student, at some point in your academic life you will – for better or worse, some might say – be asked to present aspects of your research to other academics. Some of what I discuss in this and the next post applies to all of these different situations (and, indeed, beyond academia), but what the following lines aim to do is consider the process of preparing and delivering a conference paper (a task described by some as exhilarating, by others as bordering on the traumatic), as well as the conference experience and its benefits more generally, bearing in mind those of you who are perhaps rather shy and introvert, prone to hiding behind a cup of tea in the corner of the refreshments room, and those who might best be described as extrovert social butterflies (talking to anyone in their proximity about anything imaginable). As always, my perspective is that of someone who is firmly routed within the arts and humanities, and experiences and opinions may vary within and beyond this realm, so please feel free to discuss and ask away in the comments section at the bottom of this page.
A good CfP (Call for Papers) will usually provide an interesting, original theme or field of research specific enough to make for a coherent event, yet broad and open enough to allow for a range of submissions approaching the topic in various ways and from diverse directions. So, how do you give yourself the best chance of having your abstract accepted, and what should you consider before submitting? Here are some seemingly obvious (though, I can guarantee you, not always adhered to) pointers:
– Are you covering material on which you will work anyway?
– If not, does new research fit into your schedule?
– What do you want? A publication? Experience? New contacts?
– Is the type of conference suitable for what you want to achieve?
– Do you have funding to cover costs? How will you pay? Are there bursaries available?
– Stay within the specified word limit.
– Submit by the specified deadline.
– Include all requested information.
– Submit to the email address specified.
– Ensure your proposed topic falls within the remit of the conference.
– If it does not obviously relate to the conference theme, signal how it does so.
– If you are unsure whether your topic is suitable, contact the organizers.
– Don’t propose a topic which is outdated or unoriginal.
– State how your paper fits into/ adds to existing contexts and scholarship.
– Propose a topic that is focused enough to make for a coherent talk within the specified time limit.
– Organizers know abstracts are often speculative, but be as clear as possible about what you hope to discuss.
– If your abstract is accepted, send an updated version before the conference programme goes into print.
– Thesis topic or current research topic
– Wider research interests
– Relevant publications
– Other relevant research and teaching experience, if appropriate/ possible.
– Address for research blog, website or CV
– If your abstract is accepted, send an updated biographical note before the conference programme goes into print.
Being rejected for a conference is a common experience among academics of all career stages, and usually it is no reflection on you as a person or scholar. Apart from not addressing the conference theme, here are some very likely reasons an abstract may not be accepted by organizers:
– Your paper doesn’t fit into a coherent panel.
– Abstract submissions have exceeded conference spaces.
– The event is funded by a body that requires organizers to give preference to their funded students/ scholars.
So your abstract has been accepted – well done! Very often, after the initial sigh of relief or celebratory squeal, a sinking feeling sets in because you realize you now actually have to do the research and write the paper (this realization is usually followed by doing neither for a significant amount of time; don’t worry, that’s ok … for a while).
By the time you come to write your paper, or in the process of writing it, it may well transpire that your focus or opinion has changed. Again, don’t worry. That’s ok and actually very common, and organizers know this. As long as you stay roughly within the parameters of the topic you promised to cover, there usually isn’t a problem. You will often find speakers beginning their talks with a brief note to apologize because their presentation does not exactly do what their abstract promised (that is usually because they did not send an updated abstract once they realized things were working out rather differently, or it was too late by the time they realized).
Once you know what you want to say (or once you have drafted a paper/ taken notes, if this is the way you work), think about the following:
– Have three clear main points you want to communicate with your talk.
– Do not try to cram too much information or too many ideas into the presentation. Stay focused.
– Be aware of your audience. What is their background? Do you need to explain any terms or contexts?
– Be aware of fellow panelists’ papers. Are there links between papers you can already preempt?
Nerves can be a big factor on the first few occasions on which you deliver a paper at a conference, and indeed throughout your career. There are plenty of ways in which you can control your nerves, and this is not the place to go into them, but here are some thoughts which may help:
– No one wants things to go wrong for you. People are supportive.
– You are at an event with people who share your interests and your passion.
– People are interested in your topic. They want to hear what you have to say!
– Don’t be put off by senior academics. They were once where you are now, and they (should) know this.
So, with this in mind, what I want to turn to in the second part of this post is the manner in which we can prepare for and deliver conference papers, including body language, tone of voice, speed of speech, and visual aids, before moving to how to deal with questions and to how I think we can make the most out of the conferences we attend when it comes to networking and learning.
GIVING YOUR PRESENTATION
We’ve done much of the groundwork: writing and submitting an abstract, thinking about the audience and content of your presentation, and some general – hopefully calming – thoughts on your pre-conference nerves. Now that you’ve been accepted to the event, know what you want to say and in front of whom you’ll be talking, and before we skip to some ideas on how you can ensure you make the best of the conference experience as a whole, I think it’s probably helpful to look at what many consider the make or break of a presentation, almost irrespective of its content: your delivery of the material you’ve prepared.
The suggestions that follow are just that – suggestions – and you may find that other methods work better for you. The notes below originate from both observations of others as well as (and probably much more) from reflection of my own continuing mistakes when preparing and delivery conference presentations. Whatever approach you decide to take, remember that your aim should always be to communicate your topic clearly and to convey your enthusiasm for it (that is, do not assume the world should be grateful for your decision to share your infinite wisdom).
– Be clear. It can be hard to process spoken information.
– Conferences can be tiring; your audience appreciates a light note or two.
– Don’t, however, let this compromise the intellectual quality of your paper.
– Begin with a few sentences of contextual information to set the scene.
– Explain briefly how you will approach this aim (i.e. your talk’s structure).
– Include signposts in your talk so your audience can follow your argument.
– Include cross-references to other speakers’ papers (annotate your notes accordingly).
Notes & Scripts
– If you type up your full talk, avoid writing it as though it was intended for a reader rather than a listener.
– Use shorter sentences and more conversational structures than you would for written work.
– If you decide to use a script, practice it well and look up regularly to make eye contact with your audience.
– If you prepare notes, ensure you really know what you want to say and how.
– Do not use your visual aid (PowerPoint, Prezi or handout) as your script/ notes.
– Practice and time your talk. Going beyond your allotted slot is disrespectful to the audience and panelists.
– The timing of the paper is part of the task (just as the word count for an essay, for example).
– My personal rough guideline: 3,000 words = 20 minutes (at moderate pace, allowing only for little improvisation).
Tone & Speed
– Even if you’re nervous, don’t race through the talk. Communicate your ideas; don’t rattle them off.
– Next to moderate pace, intonation is key to conveying both meaning and enthusiasm. Don’t be monotonous.
– Practice both tone and pace. If you have a script, underline words or phrases you want to emphasize.
– Taking a sip of water can help shakiness, a dry mouth, and increasing speed. No one will mind the pause.
– Whatever happens, be friendly, enthusiastic and positive.
Visual aids are usually not compulsory, but – if utilized effectively – they can really help your audience to take in your talk and stay focused. If you decide to use a visual aid, consider the following points.
– For PowerPoints or Prezis, ensure the venue has the right facilities.
– Ensure your file is compatible with the venue’s system.
– Save the file on a USB stick and email it to yourself.
– Get to your session early to test your presentation file.
– Invest in your own “clicker” so you are not bound to stand/ sit where the mouse is.
– Practice your talk with your visual aid.
– In your script/ notes, include when to click to the next slide.
– If you choose to produce a handout, number the quotations and refer to them by their number.
– For handouts and presentations, ensure you use a legible font and font size.
– Use easy-to-read color schemes (e.g. pastel backgrounds with dark writing).
– Try to make it look good, not just like a copy/ paste job. – Avoid unnecessary effects.
– Be selective with the text and data you include.
– As the name suggests, your visual aid is intended for your audience. Don’t use it as a script.
– Proofread your presentation/ handout to avoid typos.
– Read out the quotations you provide; don’t let your audience read in silence.
At most conferences, each panel will include a certain amount of time for questions and discussion. This can happen after each paper, or after all panelists have spoken (we’ll look at the some of the benefits of these formats in the post on conference organization in a few weeks). As a very general rule, try to adhere to the following basic points. As so often, most of these tips will hopefully seem like common courtesy, but most of us have witnessed uncomfortable situations where common courtesy was clearly discarded, not infrequently for the purposes of ego boosting.
– If a question is directed at you, have pen and paper handy to take notes.
– Thank the person who asked a question.
– If you are unclear as to what exactly a person is asking, politely ask them to clarify.
– Don’t be defensive or rude (even if others are). Be friendly, open and thank them for the question.
– If you cannot think of anything to say in response to a question, ask what the person who asked it thinks.
– Alternatively, say that it’s an interesting point and that it’s something you really should look into.
– Be enthusiastic but concise with your responses; there’s questions waiting for other panelists.
– If you have more to say than there is time for, arrange to meet the person during the next break.
– Treat questions as a valuable contribution to your work, not as a personal attack.
ENHANCING YOUR CONFERENCE EXPERIENCE
At their best, conferences can be stimulating and exciting events during which you discover new ideas for your own research, develop professional relationships which turn into fruitful and rewarding collaborations, and get a sense of the most recent developments in your field. At their worst, conferences are exhausting, awkward and not to mention expensive. So here are some general thoughts on what you can do to make your conference experience as positive as possible:
– If possible, allow yourself to relax. Don’t arrive at the last minute. Stay over the night before if costs permit.
– Have your paper printed beforehand (I’ve travelled with my printer in the boot; not a good idea!).
– If you don’t know anyone and are rather shy, don’t be afraid to start speaking to people about their work.
– It can be difficult and awkward, but you can practice your social skills for these occasions.
– Don’t be afraid to ask people for their contact details, and follow up discussions via social media.
– You can make contact with other delegates before the conference, too, which makes it easier to talk to them on the day.
– If there’s someone you really want to meet, approach them and tell them!
– Most importantly, these people share your interests, and are just as nervous as you are!
I was really excited by all your responses to the first post via Twitter and the comments section. Please do keep the conversation going, not just with me, but with others, too! I’d love to hear what your first conference experiences were like, or whether you are currently preparing for a conference. Are you nervous? Have any questions or issues come up that I haven’t discussed here? What have you learned from your conference experiences?
This Friday, we’ll stay within the realm of communicating and presenting ideas, but turn to a different audience with a post on ‘Great Expectations: Beginning University Teaching’. If you have any particular things you’d like me to cover, get in touch.
Until then and as always, thanks for reading and have a great week!