Giving an academic conference paper

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Giving  a conference paper can be one of the most intimidating aspects of doctoral research.  On the bright side, successfully presenting your research to an engaged audience can be incredibly rewarding.  Although becoming a skilled orator takes time, there are a number of relatively simple steps you can follow to make your debut performance less stressful.

Preparation is key – if you’ve addressed all of the areas outlined below, you’ll feel more confident and in control.

NB This post doesn’t  cover use of audio visual material, which is a whole other matter!  Also, the guidance is based on delivering an oral academic conference paper (ie reading from a script), rather than a presentation, where you might be required to speak just from notes.  In some disciplines delivering a paper verbatim is mandatory, in others it is strongly discouraged, so establish what is appropriate for your event.

About me

I’m a first year PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London, and also work part-time for the Science Postgraduate Support group (SciPS) at Sussex.  My thesis is in the area of nineteenth-century women’s writing and I maintain a blog on the subject.  Having worked in a previous existence as a web developer and an IT manager, I’m interested in using web 2.0 technologies in my research and helping the less geekily-minded to do the same.

Preparation:

  • Find out exactly what is expected of you. Most conference papers are 20 minutes long, but this does sometimes vary.
  • Establish who your audience will be. Are they experts in your subject, do they know virtually nothing, or will there be a mixture?  You will need to pitch your paper accordingly.
  • Check the details of the venue. Is it a small room where you’ll be seated during your paper, or will you be addressing a large hall from a lectern, with or without amplification?  If possible, visit the venue to familiarise yourself with the environment.
  • Think back to conferences you have attended and recall good and bad papers.  Reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

Writing your paper:

  • Start drafting your paper as soon as possible. Successful conference papers have usually involved months of work.  Seasoned performers can write them much more quickly, but that has come with years of experience (and they’re probably also recycling their own material).
  • Bear in mind that a 20 minute conference paper probably means around 3,200 words. Aim for this number and then time yourself.  Nerves might cause you to speak more quickly on the day.
  • Use a clear font so that you’re not peering at the script. Double or 1.5 line spacing can make it easier to read and can slow you down naturally.
  • Read aloud as you are writing. Some words look great on the page, but might be difficult to articulate in a stressful environment (“remunerative” was almost my nemesis).  Make it easy on yourself.
  • Make your sentences short. Endless sub clauses might cause you to run out of puff and turn blue.  Complex sentences are also more difficult for the audience to follow.  Scribble notes to yourself in the margin, if it helps, eg “slow down”, “you’re doing well”, “pause for a moment”.
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms. Your audience might not be familiar with them and it’ll be distracting for you if they start Googling on their iPhones.
  • Keep it simple. If you’ve been to an academic conference, you’ll know how hard it is to follow a paper on a subject with which you’re unfamiliar.  This is not a journal article – the objective is to communicate your idea or argument clearly.
  • Focus on one argument or idea. 20 minutes isn’t much time to explain your work in any great depth, so don’t try to tell the audience absolutely everything you know on that subject.  Also, state your argument at the beginning of the paper, don’t suddenly reveal it at the end.
  • Be careful with humour. If you say something hysterically funny, prolonged laughter could disrupt your momentum; if it falls flat, you might be dispirited by a sea of stony faces.
  • Don’t make enemies. Unless you know they’re dead or otherwise indisposed, don’t attack the work of other academics in your paper – they might just be in the audience.
  • Practice. It’s easier to perform on the day if you are familiar with the sound of your own voice.  Also, reading it through aloud 4-5 times will identify any problematic areas, eg difficult words, awkward  phrasing.  It’s also important to ensure that you’re within the time limits.  Overrunning might cause annoyance, and even hatred, in your audience and fellow panellists (especially if you’re speaking just before lunch).
  • Try to anticipate any questions. Formulate brief responses, and possibly prepare a list of references to which you can direct particularly keen enquirers.

The Big Day

  • Get there early. You’ll be less stressed and will be able to familiarise yourself with the environment (if you haven’t already done so).  Chatting with other delegates can make them seem less intimidating.
  • Wear comfortable clothes. Also make sure you’re smart and haven’t got spinach in your teeth.  If you’re speaking after lunch, be careful of spillages.  Tucking your napkin in your collar might look silly, but then so does having curry all down your front.
  • Breathe. That might sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget.  Slow breaths will help you feel calmer, and you’ll be less likely to faint.
  • Watch your nerves. A certain amount of adrenalin with help with the ‘performance’ element, but don’t let your nerves take over.  Remember: essentially you’re just reading some words from a piece of paper.  How hard can that be?  Your audience want you to do well, and will be more relaxed and receptive if you at least give the impression of being confident.
  • Enjoy yourself! Yes, you read that correctly.  It’s not often you’ll get to communicate your ideas for 20 minutes without being interrupted.  Show your enthusiasm through vocal inflection.
  • Don’t overrun. Even it has gone really well, stop when you reach the end and don’t be tempted to digress.  Don’t conclude your paper with “that’s it, really”.  Unless your concluding sentence is obvious, then simply finish with “thank you” and a smile.
  • Manage questions. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “I don’t know” in response to a stinker of a question.  A diplomatic response is “Oooh, that’s a really good point, I hadn’t thought of it in that way”, then scribble something on your pad as though you’re going to follow it up.
  • Give yourself a pat on the back. It’s a considerable achievement, and giving your next paper will be much easier.

For a more entertaining approach, the Royal Society of Chemistry blog includes a post on bad presentation bingo.

If you have any tips or experiences to contribute, please add a comment below.  And good luck with your paper.

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6 thoughts on “Giving an academic conference paper

    […] music so it is useful to know this can assist with viva preparation. There is also a useful post on Giving a conference presentation, how to prepare, write a paper and deliver the presentation on the day. The Infoplus online […]

    standingonmiddleground said:
    July 4, 2013 at 10:42

    Another important tip is to write out the WHOLE paper – don’t leave stuff in footnotes because then you end up frantically trying to incorporate it into the main body of the paper and it never sounds good. If you’re adapting a thesis chapter or article or whatever into oral form, you need to write it all out – literally everything you’re going to say. I also translate quotes in foreign languages. There’s nothing worse that stumbling over reading them out and THEN having to translate them ad hoc for a bemused audience.

    Writing Conference Papers » PhD2Published said:
    April 14, 2012 at 15:39

    […] Share “ There’s some practical advice here about writing a conference paper: #acwri doctoralschool.wordpress.c… […]

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sara, Doctoral School. Doctoral School said: New guest blogger Catherine Pope posts on writing and giving a paper at a conference. http://bit.ly/d9mRWq good tips! […]

      Dorothy Bishop said:
      February 24, 2011 at 12:24

      I have to say that the advice I’d give is DON’T READ YOUR PAPER.
      I guess this may just reflect the great gulf between different disciplines, but I’d expect my grad students (in psychology) to talk from notes (or from a powerpoint, which effectively has replaced notes from many people).
      Even if the default in your discipline is to read a paper from a text, I think you could create a sensation if you departed from this and spoke more naturally.

        Catherine Pope responded:
        February 24, 2011 at 15:27

        Thanks for the comment, Dorothy. There’s really no choice but to read the paper in my discipline. Ad libbing would certainly create a sensation, but not in a good way! I suspect a senior academic could get away with it, but it’s not worth the risk for a lowly PGR.

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