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Preparing for Conferences

How to prepare for your first academic conference.

April 19, 2015

Lindsay Oden is an MA student in History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can listen to his podcast and read his blog.

Athletes practice; academics prepare.

Conferences are absolutely essential to networking, intellectual growth, and professional development. They give you an opportunity to meet your heroes in a venue that invites you to interact with them and get your foot in the door for future opportunities. Many prospective grad students may find a luminary in their field with whom they want to do their Ph.D., while job candidates may be looking for a department to land in after graduation. Conferences give you the chance to make a lasting impression that may be the difference on your applications.

Despite the importance of conferences, I’ve witnessed some grad students making mistakes in preparation that have negatively affected their presentations and probably hurt the impressions they made on the audience. With these errors in mind, I’ve tried to put together a list of ways that can prepare you for conference presentations that will establish your credibility, showcase your talents, and ultimately boost your academic profile. After attending several conferences, here are my suggestions, based on observations I’ve made:

  1. Practice, practice, practice: it sounds cliché, but you would be horrified at how many people didn’t seem to have practiced their presentations before speaking to the conference audience. Many of the presenters exceeded their allotted speech time, and therefore missed out on giving their conclusions when they got cut off by the moderator. Some others made small mistakes that could have been easily fixed before the conference. For example, it’s important to read your work out loud, allowing you to practice tough pronunciations. In one case, I observed a student giving a presentation on Eastern European politics and they stumbled over every difficult name. Unfortunately, these small mistakes can undermine your credibility and turn off the audience’s attention. But practicing in front of a mirror, or with an audience like your roommate, your pets, or your houseplants can help you discover problems with language, pronunciations, word choice, and sentence construction.

  2. Audio-visual materials must match up with your presentation and you have to actually use them. Slapping together a PowerPoint of images somewhat related to your topic is not sufficient; your images should have explicit meanings for your talk. Not only that, you should reference them and make them part of the presentation—explain to the audience why you chose them and why they’re relevant. Waldo Martin from UC Berkeley gave an excellent talk at UNLV in February about the Black Panther Party, during which he played two songs in their entirety for the audience. After the songs finished, he turned to the audience and said that for the Black freedom struggle, “the music was not the soundtrack of the movement, it was the movement.” Audio-visual materials should never be examples of your argument—they should be the evidence that makes your presentation compelling.

  3. Work on your “elevator speech”: You may find yourself face-to-face with a scholar you admire, so have your fifteen-second spiel ready to go. It should be brief (about the length of an elevator ride), but it should also get at the core of your research and why you think this person should care about it. Include a sentence about how it relates to the current state of your field, and then explain why your contribution is important. This might be the only chance you have to convince someone to remember your name so when you speak to them again in the future they will already by familiar with your work, your physical presence, and who you are. If you want to take an extra step, make sure you have professional business cards that you can give out.

  4. Ask good questions: most panels and presentations reserve time for audience questions. If you want to get noticed, prepare some questions before you even arrive at the conference, or at least outline an issue you would like to raise with the presenters. Presenters may say something intriguing, or you may come up with (polite) constructive criticism, so asking an insightful question is almost as valuable as giving a good presentation yourself. Questions draw attention to you, so show off your critical thinking skills and knowledge of the topic in question (but be careful not to dominate the conversation or give a monologue about your own research—make sure you ask a question with an insightful point). Oftentimes, audience members who asked questions were the first people presenters talked to after the session had concluded. These seemingly insignificant interactions actually make the difference in personal interactions, especially if a presenter you liked can now recognize you as someone who engaged with them.

  5. Be ready for tough questions: you are probably familiar with the shortcomings of your work (or you should be). You understand where your blind spots might be, where you may have overlooked or under-covered something, or perhaps how your research could be improved in its next iteration. If you get a hard question, you should already have an answer prepared, whether it’s about how you plan on improving, why you didn’t think something was relevant to your current work, or how you think you did address it in your presentation (or in a larger project you’re working on). Getting stumped can be embarrassing, so having a response ready can effectively deflect criticism. Moreover, a great response can demonstrate your control of the material and make you look even better.

  6. Be confident! This is your research, you’re an expert on it and you probably have more detailed knowledge than anyone else in the room. Own your presentation, make it something you’re proud of, and then deliver it with a sense of enthusiasm. No one wants to listen to someone who’s nervous or boring talk for fifteen minutes. Audiences want confidence; they want to be shown why your research is interesting. You already think your research is interesting, or you would not have pursued it. Conferences allow you to broadcast why your research is significant and noteworthy, which may help you get into tougher programs, find jobs, and find fellowships.

Most of all, have faith in yourself. Conferences are not just about listening to interesting presentations and exploring your field of study, they’re opportunities to market yourself. The best way to make a great impression is to be prepared, not only in terms of your presentation, but also about how you comport yourself around your peers or people you would like to be your peers. Illustrate for them how you are an emerging scholar and someone they should be aware of.

What advice do you have for a grad student attending his or her first conference? Share your suggestions in the comments!

[Image by Wikimedia Commons and used under Creative Commons Licensing]


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