Conference Presentations

At some point in your academic career, you may face the opportunity to present a paper at a conference. This could be a version of a seminar paper you have already written for a class, or you could write a paper specifically for presentation at a regional or national conference. This page contains tips on tailoring your paper for presentation and preparing yourself for the conference presentation experience.

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Getting a paper ready for presentation

Responding to a Call for Papers

Typically, you don't send the complete paper to the conference organizers if they haven't asked for it as part of the proposal or made arrangements for you to send it by a later deadline. Most places now just ask for abstract proposals, and trust you to have the paper ready by the time of the conference. Be sure that you keep this trust.

Modifying your Paper for Presentation

Paper presentations are typically of a 20-minute paper (about 7-9 pages) that you read, making sure of course to maintain eye contact with the audience--and vary the pitch of your voice so the monotone doesn't put them to sleep! It's amazing how many scholars haven't mastered that. About two minutes plus a few seconds more per page is a reasonable pace. This means, of course, that you won’t present a full-blown seminar paper, but a conference version of your work that lays out your argument in detailed-summary form and only presents key pieces of evidence and major points of the methodology.

Laying Out a Game Plan - Practice!

If you're planning more of an off-the-cuff presentation without a set text, be sure to practice ahead of time! No one wants to hear a presenter talk for 45 minutes with nothing to say and no point (The worst example I know of firsthand involved a scholar's rambling on about Veggie Tales). If you want to do a presentation that appears unscripted and that does allow for audience interaction, you should still have an outline for your idea order and try to anticipate some of the questions the audience might have so that you can switch gears easily and still manage to organize the presentation logically. Even if you can't practice on a live audience, map out how many minutes you'll give each point, what key details you will mention, and how you will introduce and wrap up your work. You can also try having the different elements on notecards and practice rearranging them in possible combinations, depending on how the audience might react, that will still flow logically (sort of an algorithmic approach: start with point A, if audience asks X you can go to point C, then B, then D, but if audience expresses interest in Y first, then go on to B, etc.). This will help you be comfortable with being flexible. At the same time, though, don't work yourself up so much that you melt down from over-practice!

Dress the Part

Even if you hate to dress up and like to make each day "casual Friday," a conference presentation is not the time to sport your new "I Heart Puppies" t-shirt and cut-offs. You do not have to run out and buy a brand new suit, but do wear at least business-casual clothes. Not only will you look more professional, but you will feel more confident if you are dressed up a little. A little color might be good, but you do not want your outfit to distract the audience with psychadelic swirls or enigmatic argyle. Keep your hair neat and, if it is long, out of your face. And last but not least, wear nice but comfortable shoes. You don't want your audience to see you wincing in pain and think that you are unhappy to be there.

Use Power Point Responsibly for Everyone's Sake- DON'T READ SLIDES, PLEASE!

If you use PPt slides, use them for visual notes only. Don't put the full text of that point on the slide, and don’t read the slides to your audience (they could do that for themselves)! Include just a phrase to mark your point or an image to illustrate it on each slide, and keep the emphasis on the audience’s listening to you explain each point rather than on trying to read each slide while you drone on. In short, use the slides for emphasis, not as a substitution for your presenting the work orally. If you want to make handouts with full-text notes, do those separately.

Keeping to Your Time Limit

Don't rely on the session chair to keep time for you, because many are not good at that. Everyone will appreciate your managing your time yourself and showing courtesy to the other presenters. If you have been told you have 20 minutes, then use no more than twenty minutes. Some session chairs will give a two-minute (or five-minute) warning when you’re nearing the end of your time. Acknowledge the signal without stopping your presentation, and begin to wrap up your remarks at that point even if you have to skip some of what you’ve prepared (you can summarize it briefly if it’s crucial), and move on toward your conclusion. But, if you've practiced the presentation, you shouldn't have to cut anything crucial out during the big show.

Next: Symposium Writing

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