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Presenting the Perfect Conference Paper

Flashback. I’m reading my first paper at a national theology conference. I’m nervous. At least three people in the room are from schools with open teaching positions that I’ve applied for. Several others probably know more about the subject of my paper than I do. Although I drank at least five glasses of water before stepping to the podium, I already sound like an eight-year-old smacking away at a peanut butter sandwich every time I open my mouth. Good news: I don’t sweat much. Bad news: I already have to go to the bathroom.

Forcing myself to focus on the task at hand, I start plowing through the paper. I even breathe occasionally. I try looking up once, but that just makes me more nervous. What if I lose my place? Better just to keep my head down and get this over with.

There, I’m done. All 5,000 or so words pronounced correctly, no dropped pages, major heresies avoided, paper successfully presented.

Wrong.

What does it mean to present a successful conference paper? And, how exactly does one do that? With AAR just finishing and both ETS and SBL looming, this seems like a good time to reflect on the art of presenting a good conference paper. In The Art of the Conference Paper, Alessandro Angelini offers some good advice for preparing and delivering a conference paper. I would definitely encourage you to check it out. But, here are eight suggestions of my own.

  1. Write your paper. This sounds obvious, but I’ve attended several sessions where the person presented a “paper” that was really just a set of talking point. This can actually be very effective if you’re good at it. If not, it can easily become a rambling mess that goes too long and accomplishes exactly nothing. Until you’ve got a fair amount of experience under your belt, don’t even try.
  2. Write for your listeners. This one is a pet peeve of mine. For some reason, we think it’s important to write with your audience in mind for ever setting except an academic conference. I think it’s important to remember that your audience is hearing your paper, not reading it. Unless they are very talented, they simply won’t be able to follow the complex sentence structures that we think so necessary for academic writing. You’ll have a better discussion at the end of your presentation if they were able to follow the whole argument clearly. (And, by the way, this is true even if you hand out copies of your paper. Your audience still won’t have time to go back and re-read difficult sentences, or they’ll fall behind.)
  3. Minimize quotes and references. I personally find it very distracting when someone has to say “quote” and “end quote” a lot. In some kinds of papers, it’s unavoidable. But, try to keep it to a minimum.
  4. Practice reading your paper. It may sound silly, but reading a paper effectively is more difficult than it looks. You want to be comfortable enough with the paper that you don’t have to stand stiffly at the podium with your eyes glued on the page every second. Practicing your presentation (out loud) will increase your comfort level and lead to a more natural presentation when the time comes.
  5. Identify optional sections. No matter how much you practice reading your paper in advance, you’re like to read it either faster or slower when the time comes. Reading too fast will cause comprehension problems for your audience, but at least you’ll get through it. Reading too slow can be a problem since you don’t want to omit your conclusion. So, identify a couple of sections toward the end of the paper that you could skip if you needed to.
  6. Use PowerPoint carefully. If you’re going to use a PowerPoint presentation to supplement your paper, do a good job. Bad power point slides are horribly distracting and can kill even the best conference paper. If you’re not sure how to creative a good PowerPoint presentation, try Michael Hyatt’s 5 Rules for Better Presentations.
  7. Bring a handout. Unless you’re a bigwig, you’re not going to have so many people attending your paper that you can’t provide at least a simple handout. You wouldn’t present a paper to your students without something to help them follow along, why do it to your fellow conference-goers?
  8. Leave time for discussion. The most valuable part of presenting a paper (other than having something to put on your CV), can be the discussion and feedback that comes at the end. It’s common for beginning paper-presenters to fear this time and avoid it by presenting a paper that is too long and takes up all the discussion time. Don’t.