Ok, so a couple of months ago you saw that Call for Papers. You liked what you saw. At first you were shy, because you didn’t really have a paper. But then you thought that you could just whip a section from your thesis into shape. No probs, whatsoev. Now it’s the night before your conference and you have no idea what the fuck you were thinking. Apart from cursing your foolish past self, here are some things you can do to make your academic conference paper a success.
1) Do NOT go overtime. If you have 20 minutes, speak for 20 minutes. Or fewer.
Stop mid-sentence if you have to. Whatever you wanted to say after the time limit won’t be heard anyway because people will be busy thinking. The chair will be thinking about whether they should cut you off. Your fellow panelist will be thinking about whether you’re stealing their time. The audience will be thinking about lunch. No paper in the universe is more important than lunch.
2) Know your audience. At my first conference, I presented this elaborate (read pedantic) paper about the manuscripts of the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough. Three seconds in, I realised that my audience could not be less interested in Clough if he were the world’s most mediocre bingo player. There I was blabbering on and on, while I could feel the entire room thinking about the two modernist papers presented before me, and, you know, lunch. Then I went overtime. Apart from a really traumatic experience, I also gained the invaluable knowledge that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure… could have got that from the big book of platitudes but I like to do things the hard way.
So, when you touch up your paper for the conference, have a good look at the program. How different is your topic from everybody else’s? Given what other people are speaking about, what can you expect your audience to know, what do you have to explain? What can you expect your audience to be interested in, what will bore them to death. Can you link what you want to say to what interests your audience ? Can you link your paper to the other panelists’ topics?
The general rule is: the closer your topic is to other people’s topics, the more accurate and elaborate and the less “interesting” you have to be. The more alien your topic is, the more you have to sell why it’s interesting. One easy way to do that is to gesture beyond the scope of your research. For example, knowing that my audience cares about literature but not about Clough, I should have discussed what my research tells us about the way writers write and editors edit.
3) Know your time slot. If you’re on first thing in the morning, when everyone is happy sipping their bad conference coffee, you can pretty much be as academic, complex and theoretical as you like. People are in their “let’s listen to some conference papers and be super academic” mood and you can hit them hard. Now, the closer you come to lunch, the less brain can you expect your audience to devote to you. This means that if you want to get a message across, or if you want people to remember you in a good way, you have to give it your all. If you have to be complex, summarise your argument in a simple, concise manner before and after you make it. Be entertaining. Put very little text and many bright pictures on your slides. Speak slowly, enunciate, emote. People have been listening to other people reading their papers all morning, just speaking in a different and more animated manner will get you an extra few ears.
4) Don’t just read out a passage from your thesis. I know, a lot of people do that and we are trained to think that it works. Well, it doesn’t. Even first thing in the morning, academics tend to overestimate the amount of auricular stimulus their audience can take. Papers that would be fantastic in print are often too complicated for listening comprehension. So even if you will be reading your paper out, write it for listening, not for reading. A good way to do that is to read the finished paper out while recording yourself (this is also a great way to keep an eye on the time). Then, listen to the recordings and note the moments when you hear yourself struggle with a sentence, or when you notice that you are losing interest as a listener. If you have a test audience, ask them to take notes of the moments they were interested and the moments they were bored or thought that something was too complex. Also ask them to sum up what you said so you can see whether you are getting the right message across.
5) Practice. A year ago I spoke at a conference on evil at which Terry Eagleton gave the keynote. Words fail to describe how much and how obviously better he was than me. At first this depressed me but then I realised that it would be significantly more depressing if a man who’s been doing this for almost 40 years longer than I have, were not better than me. Practice might not make perfect but it does make you suck much, much less. Practice with an audio or video recorder on your own, practice with an audience, take classes (most universities offer presentation classes for little money, the ones at Oxford are tremendously helpful). Most importantly attend conferences and view them as training opportunities. Especially graduate conferences (where the risk of embarrassing yourself in front of future employers is low) are a great place to try out new things and improve. I’m speaking at the Oxford graduate conference on “Value” on Friday and since I am on just before lunch and my subject is incredibly far removed from what everybody else is doing, I have decided to use the opportunity to try out how I feel about speaking with pointers but without a script. It might be just right for the time and the audience but even if it’s a disaster, at least I’ll know, without losing more than my dignity in front of my peers.
My final piece of conference advice has nothing to do with the actual paper but is at least as important: Stay for the after show party. Conferences are about presenting your work and presenting yourself and finding out what all the cool kids are doing. This is actually much easier with a meal and some vino. Oh, and last but not least. Do drink but not too much. No matter what they tell you, what happens at the conference does not stay at the conference…
What have I missed? Any advice? Most importantly, any ideas on how to write an abstract that will get me a good time slot and a suitable panel? I always end up at the wrong time in the wrong place…