I’m making fitful progress on my paper for a conference later this month. I need to be making less fitful progress, because I need to have the paper pretty well finished by the end of next week. Somewhere between now and then, I also have to do all of my end of semester grading.
I’m past the early I-have-nothing-to-say-how-am-I-going-to-fill-twenty-minutes stage, and have moved on to the holy-crap-how-am-I-going-to-cram-all-my-research-and-notes-into-twenty-minutes stage. In fact, I’m swiftly approaching the I-don’t-care-what-I-say-just-as-long-as-I-get-something-cohesive-written-down stage. This is the point when I start directing my attention to the form of the writing as well as the content, and start reminding myself that I will be reading this paper, out loud, to a group of people who I don’t want to bore to tears, and that I need to compose my words accordingly. In preparation for this stage, I thought I’d compile some of the collected wisdom I’ve picked up about writing conference papers (as well as a few tips on delivering them).
(N.B. My own conference presentation experience is relatively limited, so some of this is as-yet-untried advice that sounded good to me [to clarify: advice other people have given me]. My conference audience experience is more significant, though, and some of these tips are an attempt to remind myself of what I’ve observed from that side of the podium.)
1. Keep it short. This applies both to the paper itself (just because you have twenty minutes doesn’t mean you need to take them all), and to the sentences in the paper. Remember that your audience won’t have the opportunity to go back and re-read the first clause of a complicated sentence.
2. Map out the specific tasks your paper will undertake, and make them clear at the beginning of your talk. I like phrases like “This paper will,” or “In this talk, I will.” This can also be a good place to say what you won’t do: “I don’t have time here to cover all of x, so what I’d like to do today is talk about y and z.” If your paper will have several parts, this is the time to list them so that your audience can follow the organization of your paper as you talk.
3. Use lots of signals. This is really an extension of point two. Incorporate lots of transition phrases—way more than you might use in a written paper (unless you’re like me and already make over-liberal use of transitions). Every so often, recap what you’ve done and where you’re going: “Now that I’ve done x, I want to address y.” You can also get a lot of mileage from “In other words,” particularly following long or complicated sentences.
4. Remind your audience of information in ways that make them feel smart, rather than inadequate. “As you know,” or “As we all know,” can generate a lot of goodwill, if said in a tone that makes you audience think you genuinely think they do know. It can gently correct a questioner who isn’t making much sense or doesn’t actually seem to be asking a relevant question. It can also slap down an asshole questioner, or make you look like the asshole, so be sure to use it with the correct emphasis.
5. Don’t spend too much time on secondary sources. This is not the time for a lit review. The best tasks for conference papers are those that can be accomplished without spending very long on what other critics say about your topic. Sure, you want to look smart and like you know a lot of stuff, but the best way to do that is to make a focused, well-supported argument that reflects your own contributions, rather than to quote lots of other people. Of course, you don’t want to look like you’re not aware of important relevant work, but a brief paraphrase or a passing reference is often enough to show your audience you’re on top of things. Assume that if you’re familiar with a significant critic or argument, many of them will be, too.
6. Make your conclusion short, clear, and to the point. Remind your audience what you’ve done in your paper: “As I hope I’ve shown…” Tell them what the next step is or should be. Is there more research to be done? An obvious question your paper raises? Is this paper part of a larger work you want to put a plug in for?
7. Be funny, if you can. I usually can’t, but I think that may be at least partially because I still get really, really nervous. If you can master the nerves and insert a little levity, your audience is sure to appreciate it, and to remember your paper better because of it.
8. Don’t improvise, but if you must, be sure to allot time for improvisation. Nobody likes to hear someone read the last three pages of their paper a mile a minute to try to make up for a digression. And it’s a shame to have to cut a section you worked hard on to make up for a stuttery tangent. If you’re actually good at speaking on the fly, you probably don’t need any of this advice. But if you’re not a confident and accomplished improviser, stick to what you’ve got on the page.
9. Never underestimate the benefit of a good handout. I’ve also seen people use PowerPoint really effectively to display longer quotations, especially ones they were close reading. One presenter had significant words show up in different colors to emphasize what was important in his reading. I’m thinking about trying that out some time, but until then, I rely on handouts to help my audience follow my argument. Some people use the handout to outline the argument itself, but I find them most helpful for evidentiary purposes. The paper I’m working on now is drawn from fifty some-odd reviews of a novel. I don’t have the time to read all the relevant quotations (and my audience would probably claw their eyes out if I did), so I’m planning on putting together a handout of the most important ones so the audience can have a sense of the evidence that supports the claims I’m making. I’m going to try to keep the handout to a page, front and back, though—a good handout is a short handout.
10. Stand still and stand up straight. I had a mock trial coach in high school who used to make me deliver my arguments from across the very large conference room. He’d stand on the other end and yell down to me, “Louder,” and, “Be a tree.” He yelled, “Be a tree,” over and over again until I stopped slouching, stopped fidgeting, stopped stepping up and down on my toes, stopped leaning to one side or the other. Every time I get up in front of a group of people, I remind myself, “Louder,” and, “Be a tree.”
11. Practice. Duh. But seriously, practice reading the paper as much as you can. It gets a lot harder when you’re standing up in front of a bunch of people.
This is a fairly haphazard compilation, so any other conference paper tips, particularly on writing them with speaking in mind, would be greatly appreciated.