Attending scholarly conferences is pretty much a must in the life of a graduate student. Some grad students attend several conferences each year, while others attend maybe just one. It all depends on your discipline, your supervisor’s expectations, what funding is available for travel, and how much “spare” time you have. As detailed in my post about this topic, attending conferences has many benefits and can greatly enhance your grad student experience. Sooner or later, though, you will realize that merely attending conferences may not be enough to meet your goals. You are going to need to present at conferences too.
There are many different types and formats of conference presentations. Some of the more common formats include paper sessions, panel discussions, poster presentations, roundtable discussions, and workshops. For the purposes of this guide, I am focusing on the task of presenting a paper session. I will write other posts soon that discuss specific aspects of the other various presentation types, and links to those posts will be provided here.
Steps to presenting at a conference
The idea of presenting at an academic conference might seem daunting at first, and to be sure, it can be a challenging task. The details and tips presented below provides you with the insight I have learned along the way, and lays out some simple steps you can take to ensure a successful delivery of a conference presentation.
Step 1: Find a suitable conference
Okay, this may seem obvious, but it’s worth thinking carefully about. If you’re like most grad students, you’ve registered for several e-mail listservs specific to your discipline, subfields, and organizations that you’re interested in. You’ll likely see quite a few “call for presentations” messages from various conferences throughout the year. For each conference that you are interested in, pay attention to the deadline and guidelines for submitting a proposal. Read the conference description closely, taking note of the theme. Your research, as good as it may be, is not going to be a good fit for every conference.
There will likely be two or three premier national conferences that scholars in your discipline consider to be the most prestigious. Some of your professors, for example, may attend and/or present at these conferences regularly. You should definitely take note of these major conferences and plan to attend them if you can. Because they are considered the most prestigious, they will also be the ones with the lowest acceptance rate for proposals submitted. If you have a solid piece of research in the works, you should definitely go ahead and take a shot at presenting at one of these premiere conferences (co-presenting with a professor is a good way to get started). However, if you have never presented at a conference before and the idea of presenting at a major national conference makes you twitch, then I recommend starting with a smaller regional conference. Ask your professors for suggestions on what conferences might be a good fit for you.
Step 2: Write a strong abstract/proposal
Once you’ve picked out an appropriate conference and taken note of the submission guidelines, the next step is to write a compelling abstract or session proposal. Oftentimes, due to the early deadline for submissions, you’ll have to write this summary before you’ve even begun to write the actual paper. That’s why I have this as step two, and writing the paper as step three. writing the proposal before the paper itself can be awkward, but it is quite a common practice. Check the requirements and strictly follow them. The last thing you want to do is disqualify your proposal because you didn’t follow the submission guidelines. You usually have 200-300 words to work with, so you don’t have space to elaborate on sophisticated concepts, nor to tell everything about your project. Use keywords in your proposal that you know will resonate with the reviewers, focusing in as much as possible on the conference’s theme. If your topic doesn’t relate at all to the conference’s stated theme, then maybe choose a different conference. Also, make sure you have a catchy title, something that will grab attention. For more detailed advice on writing and submitting conference proposals, see my post about that topic here.
Step 3: Write the paper
Obviously, you are going to need to write the paper. If you already have a completed project, then congrats, move on to Step 4 – otherwise, get writing. Whether you plan to read the paper at the conference (boring, but can be done) or present in a more audience-engaging way, you will need to actually write a formal paper either way. The conference organizers will often want you to submit the paper for a discussant to read before the conference and prepare comments, so check the guidelines for appropriate details and deadlines. Paper presentations at academic conferences are typically limited to 15 minutes (check your specific time limit), so keep that in mind when writing your paper. Let’s say it takes roughly 2 minutes to read a double-spaced page of text, so keeping your paper to a maximun of 7 or 8 pages is usually a good rule. But, of course, every conference is different, so be sure to find out exactly what time is allotted for your presentation.
Just like in research papers that you might prepare for a course assignment or for publication, be sure to make it clear EARLY in the presentation what your purpose is. It is actually eve more important in a presentation to inform your audience at the beginning what your intentions are. After a few introductory sentences, be intentional about mapping out the argument so your audience can get a sense of what is to come.
Write a data-driven essay. If you are an anthropologist, for example, load it up with ethnographic material. If you are a historian or literature scholar, delve into the primary texts. This will give your discussant a better chance at assessing your analytical points. If your argument in based only in theoretical musings that you don’t command especially well, it will be frustrating for listeners.
Given your time restrictions, you should really be focusing on one or maybe two points. A conference presentation is not the time to discuss every possible conclusion or implication that can follow from your research. No one will remember more than two points, so choose just one or two to develop and keep it tight. It is always more effective to go in depth into one particular aspect of your research than try to sketch together myriad pieces in one whirlwind showcase.
Step 4: Prepare the presentation
You’re going to have to decide if you are going to simply read your paper, or if you are going to prepare some other kind of presentation. If you’re planning on reading your paper, then there are some things you need to keep in mind to make your presentation at least tolerable to your audience. The text you submitted to the discussant and what you read aloud in the presentation do not necessarily need to be identical. I’m of the belief that your first priority should be to keep people’s attention for the time you are talking. If you are going to read your paper, you should go to the trouble of rewriting it a bit for this purpose. You want to make it sound better for your audience’s ears. Edit your text to remove long complicated sentences. Cut down compound and complex sentences into simple declarative ones. There’s no need to read every single citation, so remove all but the most essential references in the spoken version. Make the text more colloquial when you can, by removing the most technical of jargon, for example.
If you are planning on creating a PowerPoint presentation or some other presentation media and presenting like a pro (not simply reading your paper), then good for you! Remember though, that PowerPoint can be used to make some of the best presentations, but if used inappropriately, can make for some of the worst presentations ever. Take note of my PowerPoint tips for grad students to make sure you don’t inflict “death by PowerPoint” on your conference session audience. You should not simply read bullet points and text excerpts off the screen to your audience. Rather, your PPT slides should complement your discourse. Show an image or diagram to illustrate a point you are making, use keywords or key phrases to trigger your thought and to guide the audience in making the connections you’re aiming for. Consider inserting a blank slide for portions of the presentation when you want the audience’s attention on you, not on the screen. More PPT tips here.
Step 5: Practice
You should definitely practice your presentation before the big day. Round up a grad student friend or two and deliver the presentation to them and ask for feedback. Another great idea is to video-record yourself giving the presentation and watch it back with a critical eye. You want to practice reading your paper aloud for flow, emphasis, and timing. Remember, you don’t need to memorize the paper since you can read it, but you’ll want to be familiar enough with the text that you can lift your head from time to time and make eye contact with people while continuing to deliver the presentation.
Step 6: Arrive at the conference
If you are using audio-visual equipment, get to the room that your session is scheduled in as early as possible to test out the projector, software compatibility, etc. Attend someone else’s presentation in the same room, so you become more familiar with the space and the resources that are there (projector, screen, tables, etc.). During your usual networking activities, try to slip in a plug or two for your presentation. You want to drum up as much of an audience as you can.. there’s nothing worse than a mostly empty room when presenting.
Step 7: Your presentation
If your paper is part of a series of presentation in the same session, be sure to listen to your co-presenters’ talks and take notes (assuming you are not first). Show the same undivided attention and respect you would expect from others when you speak. When it is your turn to present, start off by graciously thanking the organizers and/or sponsors before you set off into your paper.
Remember to look up from your paper regularly to make eye contact with the audience (just as you practiced). They will be more drawn to your words if they sense you acknowledge their presence and attention. Toward the end of your presentation, a timekeeper will usually hold up signs signaling your remaining time. Just acknowledge these with a nod and adjust your speech as needed. No need to interrupt your own talk with an exasperated, “Whoa! Only two minutes left?” I’m sure you’ll do great!