Saturday, July 07, 2007

How to prepare a conference presentation.

An after-dinner discussion the other day got me thinking about the elements of a good oral presentation. See, us historians don't tend to use visual aids, and while we're used to listening, it can be difficult to concentrate at conferences. The problem is that most presenters read their papers. Accepting that this is going to happen, and that this might be the best thing for most new conference presenters to do, I have a few pointers.

Don't think of it as "writing" a conference paper. You write something for people to read. A conference paper---even one that exists in written form---will not be presented as a written document. So instead of drafting a good paper qua paper, outline your points and then write it out as you would speak it. Pretend someone is asking you about your topic. Write out your answers verbatim. This is a useful exercise, and will help get you in the right frame of mind. As you fill out your arguments and pick your examples, listen to how you speak these things, and take note. In the end, your written paper should be lively and interesting, because it will be a transcript of you delivering your paper if you were a pro at academic public speaking.

When you speak, you no doubt use shorter sentences and more colloquial language than when you write. This is a good thing. We have all spent years and years learning how to deal with complex ideas on the page, but we're not nearly so well rehearsed in taking things in orally. Do your listeners a favour: write short sentences, using "and" and "but" to connect them. Do you use "however" and "indeed" when contributing to a discussion in a grad seminar? No? Then why say these things in a conference presentation? Make use too of the declarative voice.

I haven't read the research, but people have studied things like how much information listeners can take in (and keep in). And if you've ever been to a conference, you'll know for yourself that there's not that much information from any one paper you'll remember. Heck, I count myself lucky if I know what the main thesis of the paper was by the end of the talk! If I can still remember a week or two later, then that's the mark of a good presentation. To make sure you reach your audience, be very clear about your thesis and maybe a couple supporting points. Repeat this thesis several times. When you want to emphasize something, do it: use pauses and say things like, "this is key." If you are going through points in succession, number them clearly. For example, "There are three things I want to say about this issue. The first thing is . . . . The second point is . . . . And finally, the third thing to keep in mind is . . . . These three things---[list them briefly]---. . . ." See? It seems repetitive on paper, and it is. But orally, it works well.

There's one technique that always draws me into a presentation no matter what the topic, and that is when the speaker inserts his- or herself into the paper. Tell your audience how you came across the topic, relate an anecdote from your research, or manage in some other way to come across as a human being when you begin your presentation. I am always more likely to pay attention and feel some affinity for the speaker if I know some personal information about him or her right off the bat. Is this a topic you came across unexpectedly while researching another project? Great! Say this. Are you going to argue something that you found completely counterintuitive, or that goes against established historiography? Make this clear from the beginning, and remind the audience of this again at the end (and probably in the middle too).

When you prepare a conference paper, you can still write it out (and read it when your time comes). But if you do it with these things in mind, you will end up writing a paper that sounds much better when spoken than the one your otherwise might have written. It might take more time to prepare, but I think it's worth it.

8 comments:

Alexandra said...

VERY good advice. I'm presenting a paper at a conference in Chicago in April and will certainly take your advice... I agree that conference papers that are written the same way as articles or chapters are very hard to follow...

Ernest said...

Great advice. Universally applicable. Much appreciated.

a2lexus said...

Many thanks for that's detailed instrustuions

nddunga3 said...

hi, I'm from Korea. I found your blog when searching around. These are good advices and I appreciate. If you don't mind, it's my pleasure to be your friend ^^

hanif said...

I thank you for the good, detailed information. I'm going to present a paper in Bali, Indonesia this weekend, and I happened to find my way here through google. Hope I can put it into practice come this Sunday.

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Faisal said...

I really appreciate your advices. It was so much valuble to me. Many thank for your time.

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Anonymous said...

GREAT advice! Thank you much!

Allie