I’ve been handing out a lot of this of late, so I thought I would centralize it here. Maybe you’re presenting at your first conference, or maybe it’s not your first time but it’s a really major meeting and you lack confidence. Either way, perhaps you should consider these points. Don’t be one of those people who give dire conference papers that everyone remembers for the wrong reasons.
1. It’s a conference paper, not a journal article
These two genres are very different, yet many people – especially in the humanities – treat them as if they are the same. In other words, to prepare a conference paper, many humanities students/academics sit down and write. They produce elegantly phrased sentences of complex construction. They delay the moments of ‘big reveal’, maybe by opening with an evocative quotation or posing a puzzling question that won’t be answered until the end. These strategies might work fine in a written version (although, actually, I advocate coming clean on what your argument right from the beginning even in print), but a conference audience can’t flip back and forth through the pages to double check they know who Llywelyn ap Gruffydd is, or what the quote you used said. Take pity on them! Plan your paper from the outset with the awareness that it is an aural object, designed to be spoken aloud and received by listening. This awareness will lead you to the following points…
2. People have to be able to follow your argument in real time
Signpost. Signpost. Signpost. State your argument (and even its parts) right from the beginning. When you (and the audience) arrive at a new part of the argument, say so. Explain why the audience should care before you launch into each new quote, or complex description of influences on an idea. If you expect them to indulge you in an extended aside, say that that is what you’re doing. Tell them when you return to the main point. Give people plenty of hooks and ‘stage directions’ so they can follow you as you speak in real time.
3. You only have time for one key argument
Don’t try to cram your entire thesis on a given topic into 20 minutes. Although it may all be relevant to the title you proposed (oh so long ago!), it will just push you over time, and clutter your audience’s mind. Plus, I think it’s simply bad manners when lots of other speakers (many of them dutiful higher degree students) will have worked hard to make sure they keep on time, and everybody’s time is valuable.
As you begin to prepare, sit down and deconstruct your larger argument to its skeletal outline. Reflect: who is my audience? How much background will they already have? What will I need to explain so that everyone can follow me? Once you’ve dealt with the context that is essential to allow an intelligent non-specialist to follow your ideas, you won’t have a lot of time for complex exposition. Stick to the key point, and save the flourishes for the written version. Maybe your argument has lots of parts… but probably you only have time to deal with some of them. So what will you prioritize? What is the main ‘take home message’ you want to convey. Like Nick Hopwood, I’d encourage you to get it out in the open from the opening words – and then stick to it.
4. The details are devils
In a written version of a paper, you will give extensive footnotes, and probably provide a number of examples or pieces of evidence for each point in your argument. These details do not all belong in a spoken version, however. See points two and three! Just as you must reduce your argument to its essential skeletal outlines, you must be ruthless about how much evidence is needed to illustrate it in this format. Some will be essential in order for people to see, recognize the validity of, and remember your central point. But the rest can wait for extended treatment in print.
5. Only use visual aids if they help
Some presentations naturally work better with a bit of visual assistance. For example, if you’re going to rely on the physical layout of a document to draw some conclusions, having an image of it will no doubt be useful. Or you might want a family tree so that the audience can keep track of the relationships between lots of individuals. This might work best on the old fashioned handout. Or it might be ideal for a Power point or similar projected technology. But never, ever, do this gratuitously. A pointless power point slide show just makes people wonder if that’s where you put your energy instead of into refining your ideas. And if you are going to use visual aids, work to integrate them into your presentation actively – rather than just distributing the handout / whacking up the slides without comment and forgetting about them. When it works, visual supplementation is great. When it doesn’t, it looks – and is – redundant, and detracts from your work.
Any other tips from your experience?