How do I act like I know what I'm doing at an academic conference?
January 15, 2009 4:22 PM   Subscribe

What do you wish you had known before your first academic conference?

I'm heading to my first academic conference where I will be presenting a paper. I'm a few months away from submitting my Ph.D. thesis and I've never been to a conference before. I'd love some tips - what do you wish you'd known before your first one? How did you meet people? What did you wear? How did you handle the Q&A after your presentation?

I don't know a soul there and am a bit nervous that I'm going to be the kid eating alone at the lunch table.
posted by meerkatty to Education (33 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: what do you wish you'd known before your first one?

Not to get drunk at the after-party and ill-advisedly flirt with one of the hot-shot leading theorists in my field while passing on some slanderous third-hand gossip about another hot-shot theorist in the field.

In retrospect this seems obvious, but it really wasn't at the time.
posted by scody at 4:37 PM on January 15, 2009 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Easiest way to meet people is through someone you know (often your advisor). If your advisor won't be there and you dont' have another established older mentor, then do it just like you did in grad school-- after somebody's talk, go up and ask them about the things you don't understand, or about alternative applications of their work. Talk to people and make sure to interact; conferences are unbearable otherwise.

What to wear is field dependent, pretty strongly; when I give presentations I usually wear jeans and a button-down; more formal would be wierd for a theoretical physicist, but I've definitely seen humanities folk in something more like a suit. Your field appears to be English Lit (from prior questions), so you should probably only listen to clothing advice from other English folk.

Do, however, make sure you'll be comfortable in what you're wearing, both shoes and reach-wise. You'll likely be moving around at least some while you talk. Might be a good idea to make sure there's a convenient place to clip a microphone.

For Q&A, I don't think there's much for it but practice. If you've taught before it'll be easier. Learn the art of dismissing, e.g. "You make an interesting point but we should talk about it later". And realize that anyone asking a question is already saying they care about your work; if it was totally irrelevant, they wouldn't engage at all.

As for this last, can you give a practice talk, even just to other grad students at your own university? It'll give you a chance to make sure the way you've arranged the ideas in your presentation is understandable to someone who hasn't been as deeply involved as you, as well as giving you general practice with presentations and questions and such.

Good luck!
posted by nat at 4:42 PM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: -Bring business cards with your email address on them.
-It's okay to skip sessions and talk with people in the hallway. This is how most things get done.
-Dress nicely while trying to stay comfortable. Most people (in computer science, at least) dress pretty sloppily. It will make a better impression if you want to network to find your next job. I wear dresses and cardigans with comfy shoes.
-If you have a hard question: "That's a great question! Can we take this off line so that I can have a chance to answer it fully?"
-Talk to everyone, especially if there is a poster session. You'll be able to get a feel for the quality of people at other academic institutions, and the young kids usually have the most creative data resources. Again, this might only apply to computer science.
posted by Alison at 4:43 PM on January 15, 2009

The point is to meet people and be memorable enough. The content is secondary.

Given the choice between going to a good talk, and having lunch with interesting attendees / speakers, choose the latter.
posted by zippy at 4:44 PM on January 15, 2009

It's quite possible that you'll present your paper to a nearly-empty room.
Don't take it personally. This is because, as Alison says, people are skipping sessions and talking in the hallway.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:46 PM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: You've been accepted to present this paper - you belong there. Don't worry about that so much.

It can be a little annoying to try to meet new people. As I've found, there are 3 good ways to do so: ask them good questions after their talks, give a good talk that inspires good questions, or get your advisor to introduce you, either in person or simply by emailing the relevant party and urging them to have lunch with you or something.

In fact, your concerns are probably best expressed to your advisor.
posted by TypographicalError at 4:49 PM on January 15, 2009

Seems obvious, but easy to forget in the midst of last-minute revisions: time your talk beforehand to make sure it isn't too long.
posted by washburn at 4:52 PM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: I've only been to two conferences--a small state-history one and a big annual meeting for my period of research--so maybe I'm wrong about some of this. But here's what I've found.

Try not to attend only panels in your specific area of research. I've learned a lot from going to completely unrelated sessions--once I even sat in the wrong room, stuck around, and ended up having a fantastic conversation with the dean of an Oxbridge college (as a snotfaced undergrad).

Don't worry if almost no one comes to your panel; that's what usually seems to happen, especially at the end of the conference or if you're scheduled at the same time as a Big Name or a panel with a sexy title.

Don't think of your presentation as an epic demonstration of your intellectual mettle. You'll be lucky if anyone even remembers your name after the conference is over. Just try to handle questions with grace and courtesy; if you're not sure how to answer a question, it's generally safe to say so and then extrapolate or make connections from the things you do know. Conversely, during other people's Q&As, it's good to phrase questions in a way that's broad enough that the presenter doesn't feel trapped. In other words, "How do you think this subject links up to this relatively broad historical trend?" is better than "How does your paper function in the context of the late-eighteenth-century enclosure movement in East Anglia?" or whatever. Personally, my greatest problem was asking too many overlong questions in a misguided attempt to show off or something. Keep it simple and to the point.

I had the most luck meeting people by going to their panels, running into them later, and then talking about their work--"Oh, I liked your paper about early industrial penitentiaries. What do you think of X's book?" and so on. It's very rewarding to be able to say "You know, I was doing research on such-and-such, and I found a source/theorist/whatever that might be helpful for your own project." "Only connect" is a great principle to follow here.

I was dressed academic-casual--jeans, button-down shirt, sweater, blazer. Maybe the jeans were too informal, most of the people I saw wore slacks. I'm not sure if it's even all that big of a deal.
posted by nasreddin at 4:55 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I once read about networking that you've got to act like you're the center of the network. So no rubbing shoulders and wanting to belong to a group. It has helped me tremendously, not because I got all inflated, but because I stopped worrying. That's when the lunch table issue solves itself.

S.o. here says that it is good to realize that there will always be professional interests that help you connect to people. So it's no big deal really.

Clothes - depends. As an European I'd say don't go over dressed, but that's me. I mean, it's no job interview!

If you're in a warm environment think about perspiration. I remember a conference in Italy... such days are long, I mean.

I time my papers meticulously. After a few, I now normally go after word count and am fine. Last time I had some music demos on top of the talk and got all nervous before, but it worked out well. Rehearse your speech, rehearse your computer presentations. Bad Powerpoint (or whatever) handling s a pain to watch. I allow for 5 minutes of q&a. In m field (musicology) this often becomes three in practice.

If you're reading off a manuscript, make a printout in big letters, use sturdy paper, rehearse the changeovers to the next page. Talk slower than you think you need to. Adrenaline and higher pulse rates mess up your feeling for timing. Train yourself to look at the listeners.

Both for the social non-session bit as for your q&a applies this: force yourself to listen.
posted by Namlit at 5:07 PM on January 15, 2009

Good advice above. Nthig business cards.

Try and go to some of the hokey social events: even if they are awful, you may find people whose body language betrays them - go and talk to them.

See if you can find other grad students / junior faculty socially, and just chat.

Don't be afraid, at lunch/dinner/breakfast/the bar of breaking out of your clique (or yourself) and walking up to a table, and just asking "Mind if I join you?": most of the time peope are fine with it.

Really. I can't emphasise this enough. Most people are fine and happy to talk to others.

Its important who you know in academe: begin to get to know people.
posted by lalochezia at 5:14 PM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: Tenured Radical has a lot of good conference-related advice--here's her guide to the AHA, but you can do some searches of the blog for more posts.
posted by paleography at 5:16 PM on January 15, 2009

Don't smack your lips into the microphone at the end of each sentence.

(This is something I wish someone had told to one of the first-time presenters at the last conference I attended.)
posted by peggynature at 5:28 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I really think this is good general advice, but for me it really depends on the conference. I'd say be prepared for the unexpected. I've prepared a very thoughtful presentation (because i expected a crowd) that ended up having an audience of two, me and the only other presenter that showed up. I've ginned up a presentation literally the morning of that I thought would be attended by a few grad student and had a standing room only, multi-disciplinary crowd, with two editors of respectable journals soliciting me for articles afterward. I've been on panels with attention whoring morons, and panels where I was incredibly challenged (in a good way) by the incisiveness of my fellow presenters. I once attended a local no-name conference as an M.A. student and had one of the most prolific and respected members of the field (whom I quoted heavily in my presentation) just happen to walk in and sit down two minutes before I was set to speak. She happened to be the college room mate of the conference organizer and agreed to give the keynote. Oh the unnecessary terror I felt there. My first trip to the major national conference in my field (as I was applying to Ph.D. programs, I walked into a meeting of all the heads of the graduate programs in the fields because I thought it was a recruitment seminar. No one told me I was in the wrong place for 20 minutes, after I was stuck in the circle, laptop ready and getting a sinking feeling I had done something others found very funny. Be prepared for technology to fail, or not to be available when promised, or the microphone to be too loud, or the need to cut 5 minutes off of your presentation, or to be ambushed, or be received too well for your own comfort, or to not be able to find the room, or most likely, something that can't be anticipated. Oh, and speak slowly, more slowly than you think you should be speaking.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:50 PM on January 15, 2009 [4 favorites]

Try to find the room where you'll be presenting well in advance of your session. The hotels hosting many of these conferences have pretty labyrinthine layouts.

Also, rooms in such hotels are often heated (or cooled) within an inch of their lives. Dress in layers and be prepared to add/remove garments as needed.

Finally, bring a small bottle of water in case none is available at your table (though it should be). Nothing is worse than getting a really dry mouth midway through a presentation.
posted by chicainthecity at 6:09 PM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: Some of the things there obviously vary by field.

In political science, you would be very unlikely to have a microphone at all. Odds are your panel will be in a room that seats no more than 30. There is a very good chance that there will be more people who have to be there than actual audience. Any question and answer would normally be after all papers have been presented, and would be communal -- no specific Q&A for each paper.

As a fresh graduate student, you are in a position where it is almost impossible to fail. Let's say that you do about the worst job that's reasonable to imagine -- you stammer, and forget your place, and blush furiously the whole time, and flub some obvious question. What happens in this worst realistic case is... nothing. Everyone says "Meh, grad student," looks down to see what the next panel is, and forgets you ever existed. Which, if you think about it, is awfully liberating -- as long as you don't strip naked and bite someone, the very worst thing that can happen doesn't actually hurt you at all.

So relax.

Do not assume that you will have a data projector, even if the conference program says you will. Bring overheads, and bring at least one set of handouts that you can quickly photocopy if you walk into the panel room and there's no projector and the overhead is busted. If your field uses overheads, of course.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:13 PM on January 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nthig business cards.

I think this illustrates why you need to get advice from your advisors and so on (people who know what the culture in your particular field is like) as well as what you're hearing here. They will also have more reliable advice on things like how to dress. In my field it would be really strange to have business cards.
posted by advil at 6:23 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah yes, a few more quick comments on presentation method:

If you're using overheads, remember the projector will be hot, and you will be standing near it. Dress accordingly.

If you're writing on a blackboard or posting something up on the wall, write big enough. Check by putting up the title and then walking to the back of the room; can you still easily see it? This applies to any form of visual aid, obviously; but it's harder to change the size of something other than handwriting on the spot.

If you're doing a laptop-based presentation, arrange to test out your equipment beforehand. Even so it may not work, but you lower the chance significantly if you check the video connection ahead of time, and you might have time to scramble another solution. You might also consider having a copy of your presentation on a USB key so you can borrow another laptop in worst case.
posted by nat at 6:24 PM on January 15, 2009

When I first went to a conference, I didn't fully take into account the fact that most of the other participants have been coming to that conference for years, or even decades. For many, it's a time to catch up with old friends, in addition to all of the other official business. As a result, it felt sometimes impenetrable and alienating to watch everyone else appear to know each other except for me.

Now, eight years later, I still don't know everyone (it's a small field), but I do bump into a fair amount of folks that I do know, so I look forward to it, mostly, instead of dreading it.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, if breaking the ice sometimes feels daunting, don't take it personally. It comes with the territory.
posted by umbĂș at 7:18 PM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: - overheads should be done in big, legible fonts. Unless you're Leonardo, no, your handwriting will always suck for many other people.
- find a pointer, either a metal/wood one, or a laser one, and get out of the way of the slides. They didn't come to check on your manicure.
- speak loud and clear, and a nice "can you hear me all the way back there?" is always a good safety check.
- don't fudge or babble to cover your ignorance/panic during Q & A, a polite "I'm sorry, I don't know the answer to that right now. Could we discuss it over the next break?" wins big kudos unless you're among a Lysenkoist Revival Festival.
- thank the audience for listening/attending to your talk.
- "cute" acronyms devised all by yourself to name whatsoever you work with might provoke mudering reactions on the older members of your audience. Stick to established terminology.
- if someone is talking on a slot after yours, try to make as fast and orderly a retreat once done. If you're a natural klutz like me, this might require some preplanning with the slides/laptop/cables/whatever. Folders, bags, clips, even human helpers: have them all at hand to help with the departure from stage.
- if you're going to mention someone else during the talk, learn to say their name decently enough, save yourself the embarrassment of being told you're massacrating said name in the middle of what was some technically ponderous run. *cough Not to say the person may be in the audience and you didn't even know. *cough*
- OBSCURE PUN IS OBSCURE. If your audience is international, as tends to be the case, cutesy jokes in section names or such will baffle many who are not native speakers.
posted by Iosephus at 8:39 PM on January 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't get drunk, be on time, and brush your teeth. And the advice to scout out the location as far in advance as possible is excellent. Whether the conference is in a hotel or on a college campus it pays to know where Stuff is.

Conferences are just about the only thing I miss about graduate school.
posted by Neofelis at 8:53 PM on January 15, 2009

Does the conference have a website? Many conferences have a conference organizing committee and, in my field at least, there will always be a website. It contains the program, but also information on registration and hotels and the like. Because if yours does then there are people on the program committee who you can ask questions to via email in advance. And there will probably be a "local liaison" to whom you can direct questions about the conference venue, what AV equipment is provided, and what food and bar options are nearby.

By all means, just start talking to people at the conference. In my field, all conferences have badges (and all the attendees wear them... even out to lunch 'in town' sometimes. weird.). So it's easy to see someone's name and affiliation and jus walk up and start asking questions about their city, their program, their research or whatever.

And definitely skip the presentations to chat in the hallways if you get into good conversations. Lots of the best and most interesting thinking and discussing is outside of the conference halls. You can say to yourself, "Oh, I'll just read that paper later.... The flip side of this is NOT to do this with your talk. I have no idea of your field and, in some humanities field, a paper presentation is basically a person reading their entire paper aloud. In HCI / HCC (parts of CS mixed with sociology, psychology, anthro, and design), we don't do it like that -- we summarize and only present between 30 and 60% of the paper's content.
posted by zpousman at 10:08 PM on January 15, 2009

Lots of good advice here so far.

Some of this definitely depends on your field. In philosophy, for example, you're going to read the paper verbatim to the audience and then have a prepared response from the session chair. In technical and science fields, you'll give a summary of your work. If that's the case, think of your talk as an advertisement for your paper. In other words, don't feel like you have to cram in every detail - hit the high notes, and leave the audience thinking "I want to read that paper" when they leave.

Everyone is right that the main purpose of conferences is networking. Most people find networking stressful, so give yourself permission to occasionally have some down time. Don't spend the whole conference watching TV in your room, but don't feel like you have to be 'on' the whole time. There are typically lots of breaks and receptions and time for people to chat; if you're comfortable striking up a conversation with people while in line for coffee, do so. If that's hard, find a reason to start a conversation - ask them about their paper or notice where they're from (everyone has a nametag).

You may find that there's a bit of a pecking order to networking - the big names will be interested in talking with each other, the up-and-coming professors will be talking with each other and trying to get the attention of the big names, and the grad students will be off to the side. That's actually OK - it might be less intimidating to talk to other grad students, and it's very important; they're the people who you will be interacting with for much of your professional life. In five years, you might be organizing a workshop or editing a journal with some of them.

Clothes - business casual is probably fine. Wear something comfortable but not grubby. Also, if it's in a hotel, the AC might be cranked way up.

As for Q&A, most likely you'll get clarification questions or 'how does your work extend to X' sorts of questions. Be confident, but don't be a dick. If you don't know the answer to something, don't BS about it, just say "I don't know, but can I get back to you?" If you're unlucky, you might get someone who wants to argue, either because your work contradicts theirs, or they just want to show off. Just tell them you'll be happy to talk offline, but don't get sucked into a back-and-forth during the session.

Everyone is correct that the audience is very unpredictable. If you're on the last day, or early in the morning, you might only have a few people. Or the room might be packed. There will be a few people who are experts on your subject, and many who know your field but not your specific subarea. Ideally, you want to have something in the talk for each of these audiences.

Remember all the public speaking things you've learned - make eye contact, enunciate, don't talk too quickly, don't face the screen if you're using powerpoint, don't do distracting things with your hands or shift around, etc.

Also, go see papers in subareas other than your own. This is a good chance to see what other folks in your field are doing and get some ideas for stuff you might want to work on in the future. Don't expect to absorb everything - usually, I just bring the program with me and circle things that seemed interesting so that I can follow up when I get home and am less overwhelmed.

Finally, if your conference is someplace fun, definitely take some time to do a little sightseeing. One of the big perks of academia is the opportunity to travel to interesting places.
posted by chbrooks at 11:24 PM on January 15, 2009

Best answer: Take along a bottle of water and some portable munchies (nuts, protein bars, whatever) to gobble discreetly between sessions in case you feel your energy flagging.

Wear comfortable shoes, especially if you're staying somewhere further than an elevator ride away from the conference rooms.

If it's an English Lit conference, you will know you have arrived at the correct hotel when you find yourself surrounded by people wearing black. Personally, I like to wear suits when presenting, but nice-looking separates are fine. Jeans are probably inadvisable for grad student presenters in this field.

Handouts are good but not mandatory, and far less technologically flaky than powerpoint slides or even overhead transparencies. Put your name and email address at the top of your handouts. Contents of the handout would be long quotes, obscure poems/passages that you're quoting from, or any sort of visual evidence (art, maps, bibliographic images) being used in your talk. I don't think I've ever seen handouts in English Lit talks used to give an outline or summary of the talk itself.

I haven't found the culture to be strongly pro- or anti-business cards. I've had people give me their cards occasionally, and I've been asked for mine a couple times, but the exchange of cards is not routine; I think some people consider them unnecessary and/or pretentious. DO NOT run out and order a box of 500 engraved business cards. A dozen laser-printed ones (from your university's printing and copying service, or from your home printer) will be more than sufficient. I wouldn't press them upon people unless they ask for your contact information.

IMPORTANT: Practice reading your talk out loud two or three times beforehand, and time yourself. Cut the paper down until the reading time is about 5 - 10% less than your target time. (For example, when I write a "twenty minute paper" I try to make it take 18 minutes to read.) Nobody will notice or care if your talk is a little bit short of the allowed time. On the other hand, if you run over time, your audience will get fidgety and your fellow panelists may get resentful.

How to meet people: You may not know anyone at the conference, but you have at least one micro-network already: your panel. If your panel falls early on the program, you can invite your fellow panelists out to lunch with you, or at least get to know them better during the reception(s) and other schmoozey opportunities. Apart from the panel, it's like any social situation where you don't know people already. Have a store of topics for small talk (the weather, the conference hotel, the city the conference is in; where do you come from, how was your trip to the conference, where are you staying; what do you work on, are you giving a paper, when is/was your paper, what talks are you attending). There will almost certainly be other people in a position similar to yours--grad students or young professionals who don't know many other people at the conference. They won't be too hard to find and connect up with. And lalochezia is right: "Mind if I join you?" usually works.

After my first couple of conferences, when I got home, I wrote down lists of the names of people I had met or whose talks had particularly impressed me, with the relevant details and observations. I don't do this any more, but I think it's not a bad idea.

Unless it's a really tiny conference, you shouldn't feel obligated to attend every session. It's already been mentioned above that you can (and should, if you get the opportunity) skip sessions in order to converse and network with the people you meet. I think it's also OK to take a recess for a nap or a little tourism in the host city, to recharge your energy for the rest of the conference.

Take postcard stamps with you so you can send postcards to your family. Postcards are easily procured from hotel gift shops, but the postage can be harder to come by. Most hotels will put postcards in the mail for you if you hand them in at the front desk.
posted by Orinda at 12:12 AM on January 16, 2009

Best answer: Book an hour or two a few days before the conference to look at the schedule. Print the abstracts and mark the lectures you definitely don't want to miss. Or, if your conference has two tracks, choose which of the two lectures you want to attend. It takes time to do this well, and during the conference you will be busy networking, and generally trying to figure stuff out. There won't be time.

Talking in the hallways is fine, but it's frustrating to realize afterward that you missed a unique talk because of it.
posted by gmarceau at 12:59 AM on January 16, 2009

Best answer: One other thing - work on your 'elevator pitch' beforehand. This is a ~30 second answer to the question of 'what's your thesis/paper about?'. You'll get asked this a lot in places (such as elevators, lines for coffee, and before talks) where you've got a small amount of time to explain yourself. You want to be coherent, and have enough depth to be interesting, but high-level enough to be comprehensible.
This is actually really hard to do - you've probably been thinking about your thesis for a couple of years, at least, and it's tough to boil it down to a few sentences. What's the really interesting nugget?
This will also come in handy when you're on the job market and have to give a quick summary to deans and other administrators.
posted by chbrooks at 3:28 AM on January 16, 2009

I always freak out a lot about my presentation, finding small flaws in my logic and anticipating devastating questions. And then it's always fine. And usually the questions you get are just someone indulging his own weird, random, unrelated research interest. So I always try to remind myself to chill.
posted by miriam at 5:15 AM on January 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all of these great conference tips. Hugely appreciated.

It's an English Lit conference and I think some of my intimidation comes from the fact that I won't be pursuing academia after completing my degree. This didn't go over so well with my fellow graduate students and I don't want the same thing to happen at the conference.
posted by meerkatty at 5:38 AM on January 16, 2009

Record yourself reading your presentation. Audio good, audio and visual better. Perhaps your laptop has a built-in camera you could use.

Not something to do as a habit, just a couple of times so you can listen to/watch yourself speaking. I found that very helpful when starting out lecturing, as it made me think 'hmm, that sounds really quite ok and normal'.

And definitely say you do not know an answer if you are stumped. Much, much better than rambling pointlessly.

People only extremely rarely try to trip you up with awkward question. If someone does, just like in any area of life, they are an asshole (and the rest of the room will be on your side).
posted by tawny at 5:50 AM on January 16, 2009

meerkatty, you don't have to tell anyone at the conference that you're not going on in academia afterwards, and I wouldn't, personally. It has no bearing on your presentation so there's no need to bring it up.

P.S. I'm very glad you asked this question. I'm doing my first conference in April (in English as well) and am terrified.
posted by pised at 8:12 AM on January 16, 2009

Agree with pised . . . I wouldn't volunteer the information about your non-academic career plans, and you might want to have a noncommittal response ready in case someone asks if you're "on the market."

That said, getting a Ph.D. while planning to pursue a career outside academia is not a crime, and it's really too bad that so many academics act like there's no value in networking with people outside the academic club. If you have a really confident, professional "elevator story" about what you plan to do with your degree and how your research will be valuable in that pursuit, it might be enlightening for people at the conference to hear that.
posted by Orinda at 10:25 AM on January 16, 2009

Best answer: Nobody will notice or care if your talk is a little bit short of the allowed time.

As a general rule at English conferences, I like to come in short as far as time goes. If I have 20 minutes, I like to come in at 15-16 minutes (the good will it generates is enormous) and reading slowly at that. I've seen presentations by a lot of great ideas come apart because presenters weren't better able to distinguish the rhetoric of speech from writing and rushed through a theoretically dense topic filled with five syllable words at speeds that made my jaw ache listening to them. Most people are only going to walk away from your conference remembering one or two key points, so rather than offering the complex theoretical backing that you would in a seminar paper or journal article, instead try to focus on making the crucial idea relevant to the needs of a listening audience. I think a good heuristic is that if you can't read your paper comfortably in a conversational manner, that your audience is going to have equal difficulty in distinguishing what's most relevant in what you are trying to say.
posted by mrmojoflying at 11:12 AM on January 16, 2009

Don't be excessively defensive when answering questions. Being excessively defensive/apologetic is one of the most common errors that inexperienced speakers make in responding to questions.
posted by Jabberwocky at 3:36 PM on January 16, 2009

Best answer: I don't really have much to add to what's already been said, but here goes anyway, based on half a dozen Eng. Lit. conference presentations over the last few years. Firstly, read your paper aloud a few times. It doesn't matter if your audience is just your flatmate, your partner, or your cat; what this does is get you familiar and comfortable with what you've written. Time yourself; if you go significantly over time, trim. For me, a 20-minute paper is about 2700 words, but ymmv. As you read, you'll probably find yourself stumbling over the odd sentence because it doesn't have the right rhythm or has some awkward word combination. Weed those out and replace them with something you can say more easily. You'll also find the shape of what you're saying this way; you'll know in advance which words to stress, where to pause, where to draw out a sentence, and so on. Remember: vary your delivery; don't deliver it all at one speed or in one tone of voice.

Stick to time limit. I know this might not seem that important, but if there's one surefire way to piss people off, it's going over time. Also, be realistic about how much you can squeeze into one paper. I was at a conference last year with a bunch of neophyte Ph.D. students who insisted that they could do 5000 words in 20 minutes. Of course, they couldn't. The results were rushed, over time, and almost incomprehensible because they were talking so fast. Don't do that. Slow down. That way, you'll sound in control of your material and like it's really coming from you. As you read, keep each sentence in your head, look up, and speak it to your audience; don't keep your eyes on the page the whole time.

Finally, a conference paper is just that: a conference paper. It's just a small taster of your research and should, at best, leave people entertained and wanting more. As mrmojoflying recommends above, don't be too ambitious about how much ground you can cover. All you can really hope to do is present one or two key points, and if you do it in a relaxed, clear fashion and avoid the heavy theoretical artillery, people will be more likely to remember what you say. Have fun!
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:35 AM on January 17, 2009

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