Giving your first conference paper can be a thoroughly unnerving experience. But, if you give it your best shot, it can be a massively rewarding experience that can lead to interest in your work and future collaborations. There are different cultures in different disciplines, so my experiences come mostly from the humanities.
– Address the audience in front of you, not the one you wanted. We are always telling students to answer the essay question yet, often, we don’t tailor our own content to the people sitting in front of us. If you’re anything like me, your work exists at the intersection of different subjects. For me, it is Irish Studies, contemporary literature and literary theory. I want to keep my hand in all these fields and learn from them, so I like to go to different sorts of conferences. This, of course, means that the way I introduce and approach my work has to differ. I don’t need to explain the current political situation in Northern Ireland to an Irish Studies crowd, or I’d get an eye-roll worthy of Bianca Del Rio. But a more general contemporary lit crowd might appreciate a few words on it, so I don’t roll off ‘You know, Decade of Commemorations’ blah-de-blah to people who aren’t as mired in these debates. Tailor your content to your audience and the conference theme.
– To that end…. always always underwrite. Or, at the very least, have information you can ditch if needs be. No one has ever said ‘I wish that 20 minute paper in the four person panel was 27 minutes long!’ Keep to time, seriously, or everyone will resent you for keeping them from the pastries and coffee. They will pretend they are conference tweeting while actually doing a Buzzfeed quiz. If you underwrite (I aim for 15-16 minutes of material), then you get to address things that have been said at the conference, suss out your audience’s familiarity with the material and explain some noodly points as you go. Worst scenario, you finish at 18 or 19 minutes and no one will mind, seriously.
– The tech will fail at least once. Try not to have a presentation which lives and dies with what’s on screen or you will be flustered and/or bad tempered when things go wrong. And they will go wrong, be it projectors, wifi, logins etc. This is particularly acute in panel sessions in University buildings at the weekend. There is no shame in having handouts of your slides in your bag just in case, or offering to send your presentation to the delegates. Maybe even: ‘This is available on my academia.edu page’, which they will then have to check out.
– Know your enemy. You can’t control the questions you receive but you can control your own tendencies when you speak. I’ve never been great at eye contact while speaking (how very shifty!) so I often don’t wear my glasses and print my paper out in a giant font so I can glance at the amorphous mass while I speak. You might speak too fast, or wave your hands about, or adjust your garments. Find a PhD friend (but not that person, you know the one I mean) or your supervisor and ask them ‘Do I do anything distracting when I speak?’ There are so many factors determining how your audience will react to you, so focus on what you can control.
– Dealing with questions. We all need to learn how to differentiate helpful critique from ‘that person’. If a questioner offers your further reading or ideas along with a critique of your methodology, fine, if they are just negative, then write them off as a bad lot. When dealing with questions, be welcoming and positive but hold your nerve. You know this subject area, you read and write about it all day, you are well within your rights to disagree. If it’s a question of terminology, you might want to allude to the fact that your research subject uses it, even if you acknowledge that it can be problematic. I find a simple ‘Oh, that’s so interesting, I must look into that’ while thinking ‘What?’ can help. Often people just want to tell you that they know things, which is unhelpful but not dangerous.
– And… don’t read the whole thing from beginning to end unless your aim in life is to send sailors to their deaths. I know that nerves can get the better of anyone and having a script is a good safety net, especially for your first few papers or if you have health reasons for not being comfortable presenting. Even if it’s just an unscripted introduction or a few planned digressions, let the audience see a bit of who you are.
So, what are your top tips for giving a good paper? Tweet them at me on @drmagennis or tell me what you’d like covered in a future post.