Survive & thrive 3: How to give a conference paper

When I went to my first discipline-based conference, as a grad student, it was not to give a paper.  The event consisted of lectures by tenured senior academics.  Most of the crowd had come simply to listen. But that was changing, and the democratic virus has been spreading ever since.
Now it is common for graduate students, and compulsory for junior academics, to offer conference papers. It's the obvious way to learn this genre; and as those ghastly career workshops explain, it is an easy way to build your c.v.  (‘C.v.’ now means a resumé of your career. The Latin phrase curriculum vitae means the course of your life. Let’s hope we can still detect the difference.)
There are traps in this business.  Here are three bad ways to give a paper: 1. Writing a journal article and trying to read it out in a conference. In a 10 or 15 minute slot you cannot read a journal article aloud. 2. Trying to show off. Often signalled by an over-clever title: ‘Queer(y)ing Hamlet: The Anti-Hero in/beyond the Anthropocene’. (I blush to admit that I called one of my early papers ‘Symbolic logic as an axiomatic-analogue model in the analysis of children's thinking about politics and large-scale social organization’. In six words: ‘Formal models for children’s social thought’.). 3. Speaking to a clique. Some papers are little more than academic faction-fighting in camouflage. You can detect them by the in-house jargon, snide put-downs, and good-guys-vs-bad-guys melodrama.
The well prepared speaker arrives at the session
Avoiding these traps, how can we do the job well? Here is my never-fail recipe, distilled from a thousand cups of evil conference coffee with a few toads and bats stirred in:
            1. Be Well Prepared. This is about 80% of the task. It doesn’t mean you have to agonize over every word, or solve the Problem of the Universe. It does mean you should think, not only about the content of your report, but also about the way you will report.
The key issue is to think about your audience. You are trying to get in direct touch with them, and the formality of the conference format creates distance (see picture below). Remember that the session is actually more about the audience than about you. The size of the crowd doesn’t matter. I have given a paper to an audience totalling seven, including the three other presenters and the chairperson, and we had a good discussion. Respect what the audience know already. (In Sociology conferences, please don’t recite that sentence from The 18th Brumaire, everyone has read it long ago!) Consider what will be new and relevant to them, and focus on that.

2. Think about the genre. This is oral communication. When I am giving a conference paper I speak from a maximum of one page of brief bold notes. They are essentially the headlines. By having no more than this, I can talk with the people in the room and not past them.
If you need to write out a full text, that’s OK: but write it as speech. If you don’t know how to do that, look at a play by Bernard Shaw or Bertolt Brecht, who wrote about ideas as drama.
It’s fine to spice your talk with a few images and a bit of text – once I used overhead projector slides, now I use PowerPoint. But do this very simply, very briefly, so the technology doesn’t mask your message. For Heaven’s sake, don’t turn around and read lumps of text off a PowerPoint slide on the big screen. Apart from the alarming crick in your neck, this completely breaks your connection with the people in the room.
The formality of the format creates distance
            3. Plan sequence & time. You are likely to have 10 minutes in an ordinary conference session. Don’t run over the allocated time: that is unfair to other participants, and people will not respect you for it.
So use your golden minutes well! Cast your survey-of-the-literature into the Everlasting Bonfire, there is no time for that. Go straight to the nub of the problem. A good rule is to state your most important idea within the first four minutes. Don’t leave this to the end, because it is easy to mis-judge the time while speaking, and you may not reach it. Which would be a pity, after coming all this way...
The order of material in a conference paper is different from a journal article or a dissertation – it’s a different situation. Here is a template that will often work (you can check the timing by rehearsing with a friend):
(a) Problem, 2 minutes: Explain very crisply the question you are wrestling with.
(b) Main finding, 1 minute 30 seconds. In a conference presentation, this can legitimately come before method and data.
(c) Reasoning, 30 seconds + 4 minutes 30 seconds. Say ‘How did I come to this conclusion?’ By doing such-and-such (Method, very very very short); and here is what I found (Materials, in a bit more detail).  Give a slice of your raw material, which really helps the audience to understand. It will be a thin slice, but that’s OK, in a conference you are really offering a sample of your work.
(d) Relevance, 2 minutes. Tell the significance of what you have done. If it does suggest something about the literature, say so here at the end: ‘Finally, as you will realize, this finding overthrows both Keynes’ model of effective demand and Einstein’s general theory of relativity’. Whoops, we are 30 seconds over the time limit, will have to trim something.

            4. When you have the floor, use it with confidence. You are, after all, the person in the room (perhaps in the world!) who knows most about this problem. You have some news worth telling. And you have an intelligent audience, proved by the fact that they have shown up at your session. Invite them into the discussion, and you will have done well.
The story goes that an Anglican bishop was asked by a young minister ‘How should I preach?’, to which the bishop replied: ‘Preach about God and preach about 20 minutes.’ In the conference you have just 10 minutes to preach, so belt it out!
In doing that, be of good heart, and show your feelings. This is a communication between people, not between robots. Tears and laughs are allowed in academic conferences. You may not be Charlie Chaplin, but every human touch will help.
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