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Nail Your Next Conference Presentation

Writing a better conference presentation might require you to break the paper format.

January 8, 2019
 
 

Alexandra (AJ) Gold recently completed her Ph.D. in English at Boston University. She currently teaches as a Preceptor in the Harvard College Writing Program. Follow her on Twitter @agold258 or check out her website.

You’ve been there: sitting at a conference panel listening to someone drone on as they read their 20-minute conference paper aloud, in monotone, scarcely looking up to notice that they’d lost their audience five minutes in. Worse yet, perhaps they are completely oblivious to the time limit, head buried so deep into their 10-page paper that they fail to see the panel moderator anxiously glancing at his watch or gesturing (futilely) that time is nearly up.  

I’ve been to my fair share of conferences, and I’ve yet to go to one where I haven’t encountered this scenario – one sometimes replicated three or four times on any given panel. It’s proved to be less the exception than the rule. And I’ve watched as audience members, though dedicated, interested academics, checked their phones, answered email, worked on their own papers, and even nodded off while others were reading. I don’t exaggerate: I was once in a panel audience where a fairly well-known professor in my field straight up fell asleep. Rude as these things may be, I can’t entirely blame others for indulging these impulses. Too often, conference panels are dreadfully, painfully boring. (Side note: Is this humanities-specific?)

When I first started going to conferences, I thought that I, too, had to read a paper aloud. That’s what I was told and so that’s what I did. But the summer before my third year, I went to a panel that changed everything. While two of the three speakers sat at the table and read their papers aloud, as I’d grown accustomed to, one got up, stood at the podium and gave a presentation: he used a PowerPoint, read from notes he’d written down, sometimes spoke spontaneously, explaining the slides in more detail, and made actual eye contact with audience members. He was even funny! I was riveted, and not just because I was interested in the topic. I’d never seen anyone at a conference present that way – a way that really engaged me and fellow audience members in the subject matter and argument. I had no inclination to doze off, no interest in my phone, and I wasn’t praying I was anywhere else. I was, quite simply, hooked. Why wouldn’t everyone choose to give their talks this way?

The idea of really presenting rather than merely reading seems at once so simple and so revolutionary. And more than that, it seems so intuitive. After all, isn’t this how we typically teach? In November, GradHacker Daniel argued that we should teach like we write. But I tend to think that the opposite is true, especially when it comes to conferences: we need to write and present like we teach. We should strive for clarity, brevity, audience awareness and engagement. Plus, getting comfortable with presenting effectively is great practice for things like dissertation defenses and job talks. Honing your own presentation style and learning how to engage your audience (and different audiences) is a vital skill you should be actively cultivating in graduate school.

Of course, a flashy presentation is no substitute for solid ideas, and it’s not that I’ve never seen someone genuinely read well or give an interesting talk from a paper. I have. Yet ever since that fateful presentation several years ago, I vowed never to simply read a conference paper again – and I haven’t. Instead, I continue to try to emulate, in my own way, that presentation I’d seen. I’m still working on it; like anything else, presenting well is a skill that takes practice, especially for someone (like me) who often feels more confident expressing my ideas on the page. Nonetheless, I’m a full blown conference paper convert, and I think you should be one, too. Not only will it make your talk much more memorable, but your audience will thank you -  I promise.

So, without further ado, here are some tips that I’ve both observed and employed over the years. Add them to the list of things I wish I knew when I was starting out.

1. Good Presentations Start with a Good Abstracts
When I applied to my first conference I had no idea what I was doing. I’d seen abstract models and followed them, but I’m not sure I fully grasped the logic behind the thing itself. My abstracts were rambly, vague - they didn’t really make a case for the paper or its relevance. I figured more information was better, leaving those poor souls on the receiving end to weed through the morass (Predictably, my early attempts were often rejected). Fast forward a few years and I still see abstracts like this. Having organized a few panels myself, I’ve received many abstracts that fall prey to the same issues. But there’s an easy fix.

It all “clicked” when I started teaching first-year writing. In my writing classes (as in many writing classes, I’d guess) I teach students a three-part “CPR” intro: Context, Problem, Resolution. First, you establish some background on the topic: this might include a brief lit review (one or two touchstones), historical context, or anything else that would be readily familiar to a reader. Second, you call this context into question: introducing a tension or contradiction, articulating a problem with a commonly held idea or approach, or raising a pointed question. This helps point to the argument’s significance - its stakes. Finally, you “resolve” that problem or tension or answer the question - that’s your argument, stated clearly (“In this talk, I argue that…”). It soon dawned on me that this would be an excellent way to quickly and succinctly structure my conference abstract as well, adjusting the structure to suit the call for papers’ length demands. In some ways, the structure is similar to the “Foolproof Grant Template” that Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In advocates. And for good reason: it works! It also provides an overarching structure for your conference talk itself. At the very least, as I tell my students, the CPR structure keeps the paper from being “Dead on Arrival.” (They, appropriately, groan).

2. Do the Visual Aids First (Powerpoint and/or Handout)
This might seem counterintuitive, but for the last few conferences I’ve gone to, I’ve put together a PowerPoint first, before I actually filled in my “script” so to speak. It’s been a game-changer, with manifold benefits. For one thing, it forces me to build my talk to offer maximum audience appeal. More important, it forces me to edit, because I can see how the talk’s order and examples flow, giving me a visual outline to the presentation (which might be quite different than that I’d employ in writing). I allows me to think through how I want to “translate” what’s on the slide to my audience in the simplest, most effective way possible. Of course, the method doesn’t work if you have 20 slides for a 15 minute presentation or fill the screen with endless text, but it’s often easier to cut slides than it is to cut whole paragraphs. If PowerPoint is not your preferred visual aid method, try handouts instead. Or do both, for maximum accessibility. Use the physical page as your guide: if it doesn’t fit or takes up too much room - cut it down or cut it out. After I’ve established what can reasonably fit on the PowerPoint, I use the “Notes” function to fill in my talk, and I hold myself to a word limit (roughly 100-200 words per slide). I then print out the notes with the slides, which gives me more leeway to toggle between what I’m saying and what the audience is seeing, and even to look up and direct the audience’s attention to the screen when needed. It also gives me flexibility to elaborate or speak spontaneously when necessary.

3. Imagine Talking to Undergrads
While the members of the audience at your panel are peers, not students, and likely have a much stronger grasp of your given topic or field, I still think about my presentations as though I were presenting them to a room full of undergrads. In addition to things like speaking in simple, colloquial language (down with the jargon!) and pared down sentence structure (beware lengthy dependent clauses!), the biggest takeaway from presenting as though you’re speaking to undergrads is to consider just how much information the audience actually needs to know. When we teach, we don’t give our students every example possible of a given phenomenon. We don’t assign entire anthologies. We excerpt. We choose judiciously. We are selective. There’s something to be said for replicating this idea in your talk as well. Here’s a secret: your audience can still walk away with a solid sense of your argument if you only give two or three (or four, depending on talk length) of the most relevant, illuminating examples. You can save other examples or pertinent ideas for potential Q&A answers, giving you an arsenal to draw on in what can sometimes be the most daunting part of the whole talk. You can also gesture to a larger project, if applicable, to indicate the other sources, topics, or variables you consider - which hopefully will pique the audience’s interest or spark further questions. Simply put: leave them wanting more!

4. Make it Functional
Craft a smart and accessible presentation. When using PowerPoint or similar technology, opt for a dark background and light font. Optimize your font use so that the slides are easy to read (likewise, for handouts). Make the font large enough, which means don’t inundate your slides or handout with text (See #3). Include your contact information on the handout and/or PowerPoint. Use images. Audiences like having something to look at. If you reference a book, put up an image of the cover in case the audience wants to read on. Have someone else look at the PowerPoint to make sure they can read it easily from afar. Put it up in your classroom or other presentation room to see what it looks like on a large screen.  Sure, this requires some advance planning, but the payoff is worth it. A final pro tip? Invest in a clicker. You can find a range at all different price-points on Amazon. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it will keep you from being tied down to the podium, meaning you can walk around and point things out as you reference them. It’s been another game-changer for me.

5. Practice, Practice, Practice
I can give you no more common sense knowledge than to practice your presentation. I don’t just mean practice alone, though you should do that too. I’ve found it helpful to present to fellow academics, including grad school peers, but I’ve also found it equally, if not more, useful to present to someone totally removed from academia: a parent, friend, or spouse, etc. I figure if they can follow reasonable well, it’s likely that an audience more versed in the topic will be able follow, too. My partner, a patient man far removed from academia, has endured several mock conference presentations. It’s been invaluable. He’s been able to tell me from an outsider’s point-of-view when something is confusing or when the PowerPoint isn’t legible or when I’m speaking too fast. And he can time me, which is crucial to ensuring I’m not over the limit. Don’t do it once, practice several times in front of people until you feel reasonably comfortable giving the talk. You’re going to be nervous when the time comes - that’s normal - but practicing can give you some peace of mind as you head into showtime. Finally, don’t forget to breathe and end strong. Take a pause, look at the audience, and say thank you.

Now go forth and conference like a champ - you got this!

Do you have any great tips for nailing the conference presentation and making it exciting? Tell us in the comments below!

[Image by Flickr user Ryan Straube and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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