After attending my first academic conference as a presenter last week, I feel like I have a better understanding of what separates a mediocre conference presentation from a great presentation. This may not necessarily be surprising, but a good conference presentation isn’t the same as writing a good paper. Academic papers need to be translated into conference papers, with attention to how a paper will read and sound. But that isn’t the only thing that needs to be changed.
A conference paper should be conversational, and the argument should be straightforward enough that an audience who doesn’t have the paper directly in front of them can still engage and follow your points. Some papers are too convoluted to be good conference papers. For example, one presenter failed to mention the title of the book she was discussing or the author until midway through her presentation, which made understanding her argument difficult. Another thing that’s important to remember is that while an academic paper can have footnotes, a conference paper consists only of what you directly say.
However, no matter what your conference paper says on the page, what really matters as far as audience engagement goes is your presentation style. Of course, the most important thing is that your voice is clear and loud enough to be heard. The presenter who read before I did had a loud, clear voice, which made understanding her easy. Unfortunately, not all academics are necessarily skilled performers, and her voice had no modulation or expression to make it interesting to listen to her read. Part of presenting at a conference is the performance, which I think many presenters forget because they’re so concerned about presenting their information and just getting through it. It’s also important to make eye contact with your audience, which makes you seem less nervous and more engaged with the people who have taken the time to come listen to you present. What always scares me about looking up from a paper is that I won’t be able to immediately find my place. This is where practicing a conference paper comes in. Find places in your paper where you might feel comfortable looking up–for example, the end of a sentence at the end of a line, or during the first sentence on a page. Spots where you can quickly pick back up in your reading are best, but if you lose your place don’t panic. Take a deep breath, find your spot, and continue. An audience will appreciate your attempt to be more interesting more than they will judge you based on a momentary pause to find your place again.
While writing your conference paper in a conversational style will help you sound more conversational, you also have to pay attention to the way you’re actually saying things. If you have a major point, slow down your speech and make each word deliberate. Pause after you make strong points. Let some of your emotion in writing the paper show through. If a critic has said something you strongly disagree with, let your voice as well as your words communicate the fact. If something in your paper is funny and the audience laughs, pause to let them (and yourself!) enjoy the moment.
The biggest thing about a conference that you can control in advance is the length of your paper. Make sure that your paper is right on your target time. If you have 20 minutes to present, it’s better to have a 17 minute presentation than a 22 minute presentation. Be respectful of the audience’s time and the other members of your panel’s time. Overall, try to have fun with it. After all the isolated stress of writing, I personally enjoy sharing the fruits of my labor with others, so savor your shining moment!