Rat Race: Preparing a Conference Presentation

It is fantastic to receive that email telling you that your abstract has been accepted for a conference. However, whether presenting with a panel of your peers or on your own, you will inevitably feel nervous about your presentation. In spite of having presented at conferences since the beginning of my MA nearly three years ago, I still worry about not only the content of what I am presenting, but how I should be presenting it.

Having also attended many conferences, I have identified three main methods which presenters use. I have heard good and bad comments about all of them, and have experimented with different styles myself. In this post, I will give each a brief overview, before assessing when each style is useful.

1) Reading verbatim – Reading word for word from an essay-style paper receives quite a lot of criticism from some quarters. However, I think we need to think about what the point is of a conference, before we right off this method. The purpose of presenting at a conference is twofold: to experiment with ideas amongst peers, and to circulate your research and raise your profile. Even if you know your topic inside out, there are many academics who need the comfort of their paper in order to speak as fluently and eloquently as possible, and to consequently communicate their research to the best of their abilities. The key to presenting an essay-style paper well is in the presentation. Make sure you look up as much as possible, add in asides and refer directly to slides where you can, and speak with as much energy and enthusiasm as you can. The problem as I see it, is not with presenters reading their papers, but reading them without expression.

2) Presenting from detailed notes – This method provides a happy medium between the essay-style paper and presenting without notes. The presenter has the comfort of chosen words and phrases to call upon as needed, but the freedom to create a relaxed and conversation style of presentation. One major issue I have found with this is timing. With the first presentation style, it is relatively easy to get your paper to the right length. With this style, you will inevitably add more in or leave out different parts each time you give it, meaning that length is difficult to judge. On the other hand, you are far more flexible, meaning that if you are aware time is running out, you can easily tailor your presentation accordingly, without having to simply cut chunks of text as with the essay-style.

3) Presenting from the slides/without notes – This is the most relaxed presentation style, and probably the most engaging. However, it takes a lot of knowledge, confidence, and experience to do it well. When done well, these presentations are fantastic. I particularly remember a particular awe-inspiring presentation from a very experience academic (which I, unfortunately, had to follow!). However, I have also seen some less-experienced academics flounder when trying this method. Nerves can kick in at any time, and without a safety net, it can be difficult to recover.

In summary, I see the three styles as a structure for progression in conference presentation styles through your career. New presenters should not feel that they cannot read their paper while they get comfortable with how conferences work, as long as they do present the paper, rather than simply read it out. Once this has been mastered, it is worthwhile experimenting with the second method. However, there is no need to feel pressured to try the third until you are completely confident in your abilities. Much better to read from a paper and communicate your point.

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