- Start out with small conferences that have a reputation for being friendly. Seek out graduate student conferences and the gatherings of local or regional chapters in your professional organization. Make an effort to attend the major annual conferences in your field, and, if time and finances allow, meetings in your specialty area. Seek out events at which the major players in your field, or scholars whose work is particularly influential in your own research, will be in attendance.
- If your work is interdisciplinary, or if you can’t quite figure out where you belong, try out a few major conferences for a year or two to determine which is the best fit. Keep in mind that your conference affiliation will likely “brand” you professionally.
- If you’ve got all the major conferences covered, try out some of the interdisciplinary thematic conferences – especially those in Europe. I find these meetings to be among the most illuminating, comfortably scaled, and easily digestible.
- “Make sure your conference choices show some overall focus. An important issue for tenure committees is, ‘Does the candidate show a consistent track record of research?’ Seemingly random and scattershot conference-going is no more helpful than haphazard publishing.” (David D. Perlmutter, “The Art of Good Conferencing” The Chronicle of Higher Education (8 February 2008)).
SUBMITTING A PROPOSAL
- A few conferences require that you submit a complete paper at the proposal stage – but in most cases, you need only submit an abstract. So, you’re free to propose a presentation that draws on in-progress research. In fact, a conference is a great opportunity to present early-stage work and solicit feedback that will inform the development of your project. That said, you should be far enough along in your research to have a concrete, sufficiently delimited topic that lends itself well to oral (see below) presentation in 15 or 20 minutes (or however much time you’re allotted).
- Explain the relevance of your work to the conference theme. Try to slip in a few keywords or phrases drawn from the call for proposals – but don’t force the fit or make your efforts to conform too obvious.
- You’ll almost always have a greater chance of acceptance if you propose a complete panel rather than an individual paper. Composing panels of course requires that you know people in your field – preferably people whose work has some connection to your own, and with whom you could constitute a cohesive panel. If you’re the one coordinating the group proposal, do not underestimate the time required and frustration involved. See the American Studies Association’s tips for writing a successful panel proposal.
- Most sessions follow a standard format: Each panel discussion runs no longer than two hours, during which two, three, or four specialists stand at a lectern and talk. Sometimes they will read a prepared paper; sometimes they will improvise; sometimes the final speaker will be charged with offering a critique of what has been said. At the end, questions from the audience will be invited. The enterprise will have a chair, who will introduce the speakers, call on people from the audience who wish to comment, and, when appropriate, end the session (Linda K. Kerber, “Conference Rules, Part I” The Chronicle of Higher Education (14 March 2008); see also parts 2 and 3). Consider an alternative format; the ASA, for instance, encourages debates, roundtable discussions, workshops, and performances.
PREPARING YOUR PRESENTATION
- If you’re accepted at a conference, you’re obligated to attend. You can’t drop out at the last minute just because you just didn’t have enough time to write the paper, or you weren’t able to secure the necessary funding for travel. Of course there are real emergencies that prevent people from attending. But no-shows without a good excuse are disrespectful – and your fellow panelists, and any attendees who might be anticipating your presentation, are probably less likely to invite you collaborate on anything in the future.
- Some conferences require you to submit your complete paper to a conference organizer or to your panel chair a few weeks in advance of the conference. Honor these deadlines. You may be asked to make revisions. Do so in a timely manner – or, if you choose to disregard your reviewers’ advice, explain why you’ve done so.
- Respect the time limit.It takes at least two minutes to read a 12-point, double-spaced page. Divide your total time allotment by two to determine the maximum page length of your paper. And no, you can’t squeeze that 11th page into a 20-minute presentation! If you’ll be including graphics, video or film clips, etc., you’re likely to ad lib around the presentation of this material. Cut at least one additional page to allow time for extemporizing.
- Use your time wisely: “You will not be able to present everything you know about a subject. Just choose one idea, interpretation, or reading. You do not need to provide all the background tracing how you reached this interpretation…. You do not need to defend the validity of your idea. You also don’t need to give a literature review. You want to make a clear, focused, and interesting argument that is backed up with a few interesting points of evidence, not give the entire content of your dissertation. Many conferences are intended for “works in progress” and expect presenters to bring up engaging questions and offer suggestions for future research, not give the final definitive word on a subject” (Claremont Graduate University, “Presenting Conference Papers in the Humanities”).
_____Cut the literature review. “Devote a sentence or two to explaining — briefly — the research base that sustains your arguments. A reader will see footnotes but listeners cannot. Establish your authority” (Kerber).
_____“Don’t summarize popular ideas–you do not want to insult the intelligence of your audience. On the other hand, don’t assume that a critic familiar to you is familiar to everyone else” (Claremont).
_____Don’t spend more than a third or your presentation time on clips or demonstrations. You don’t want to waste precious minutes fast-forwarding to the appropriate scene or setting up your equipment – so make sure clips are properly excerpted and edited and demonstrations are set-up ahead of time.
- Write for reading.“A paper written for the ears to hear must be substantially different from a paper written for the eyes to read.… [W]rite for the people who will be listening. Go through your final draft, looking for dependent clauses. Turn complex sentences into simple, declarative statements. Although a sentence linked by semicolons, or constructed with one or more dependent clauses, may be perfectly clear on paper, it is very hard to understand when it floats into the air. The listener cannot hang on to the subject until the object heaves into view three clauses later” (Kerber).
_____Use clear transitions. “It is almost impossible to be too obvious in an oral presentation. Obvious oral cues like, ‘I have three points. Number one will cover…’ which sound wooden in writing, are helpful when read aloud” (Claremont).
_____“Find simple ways to discuss complex ideas. Use easily grasped metaphors and analogies” (Claremont). “Listeners have difficulty absorbing abstraction after abstraction; they need to be grounded in lived experience. (Kerber). I find it helpful to limit the abstract theoretical discussion and focus on the concrete; I use a case study, or one or two carefully chosen examples, to allow me to progress from the concrete to the abstract, and thereby couch a “lived experience” within my theoretical framework.
_____Use quotations judiciously. If it’s necessary to use lengthy quotations, present the quoted passage on a handout or a PowerPoint slide so the audience can follow along.
_____Don’t use acronyms, abbreviations, or jargon. Particularly for interdisciplinary conferences, it’s important to define all specialized terms and strive to use language that bridges the disciplines.
There’s no need to offer full citations in your presentation script – but you should bring along a copy of your bibliography for reference during the question-and-answer period of the panel.
- Verbatim or improv?“It didn’t take me long to figure out that in simply reading my paper aloud, I’m apt to lose a few people immediately. Even worse is when the turgid prose and high theory sets in, when I lose the humor, bury my head, and forget the presence of others” (William Major, “The Conference Paper, Reconsidered” The Chronicle of Higher Education (31 March 2006)).
_____Identify sections that are best read verbatim, and those that can be “talked through” or “talked around.” Yet you should be wary of improvising too much: “The more you improvise during a formal paper, the greater the dangers of rambling. Save your improvisational skill for the question period, when you will need it” (Kerber).
- Rehearse! Mark “stage directions.” Indicate where you need to push “play” on the DVD or CD player or change slides, and make your notes descriptive so you can ensure that your audiovisual presentation is properly synched with your talk – e.g., [SLIDE 3: VILLA SAVOYE]
_____Number your pages, and print your paper in large type for easy legibility. Read your paper out loud, and note where you run out of breath. If, by the end of a sentence, you’re running out of air, dissect the sentence. Insert breath marks in your paper.
_____Practice your talk with all the supports and technologies you’ll be using in the formal presentation. Store your presentation on at least two storage devices, and test your presentation on multiple machines, if possible, to ensure that all file formats are universally usable. Bring your laptop – and adapter! – in case the venue’s computer won’t cooperate, and, in case all else fails, print handouts of your slides.
BEFORE THE PRESENTATION
- You might want to skip the panel immediately before your presentation. Use that time to collect your thoughts. Don’t squeeze in a last-minute edit of your paper. Don’t do a final run-through in the bathroom. Go get some coffee instead.
- Check out the room in advance. Is there a podium? Do you need one? Is all necessary equipment available? Do you know how to operate it? Can you raise and lower the movie screen? Do you know where the light switches are? How can you control the speaker volume? Do you have all necessary cords and adapters for your laptop? Is there water? If not, go buy a bottle.
- Introduce yourself to your fellow presenters and especially your session chair, moderator, and/or discussant.
- No disclaimers. No apologies.“Presentation Folly No. 1: If you don’t believe in your work, neither will the audience. Some presenters reflexively apologize for their presentations. That lack of confidence sends a message to the audience to stop listening. The speaker might say, ‘The experiment didn’t work, but here are the results” or “While it’s not the most exciting idea out there, here is my opinion.’ If you don’t like your work, why waste my time by presenting it? There is a difference between humility and self-doubt. Humility is greeted with respect. Self-doubt spawns a lack of interest” (Tory Defoe, “The Truth Is, You Gave a Lousy Talk” The Chronicle of Higher Education (21 December 2007)).
- Acknowledge and, if necessary, explain all audiovisual aids. Don’t force them to stand on their own. Explain their relevance in the context of your talk. “If you take the time to show something during your presentation, have the decency to explain it” (Defoe).
_____On many an occasion I’ve found myself looking at an on-screen image — or, even worse, a super-complicated info graphic — wondering, why am I looking at this? What does it have to do with what I’m hearing right now?
- Stick to your time limit. Going over means less time for your fellow presenters. Ask your moderator for a “five minute warning” and a “two minute warning.” “At the two-minute warning, cut to your topic sentences and then to your well-crafted conclusion. Then stop” (Kerber).
- Expect questions. There’s no need to be defensive. At most conferences, questions are offered in a constructive, supportive spirit.* If you don’t know how to respond, say so – or offer to speak to the questioner individually after the panel. Jot down questions and suggestions that you’d like to remember in revising or developing your project.
GENERAL CONFERENCE-GOING ADVICE
- Network. Review the proceedings before the conference starts and identify the sessions that contain work similar or relevant to yours. Attend those sessions, and introduce yourself to presenters after their panels. Pass out business cards. Go to the after-hours parties, but keep your wits about you. Don’t do anything you’ll regret tomorrow.
- Visit the book fair (if they’ve got one). They’ve got great discounts!
- Should you stay at the conference hotel (if there’s a conference hotel)? On the one hand, it’ll offer lots of opportunities for chance encounters and networking, but on the other, it’s likely much more expensive than other hotels right down the block.
- Take some time to explore the city.
- If you’re invited to submit your paper for publication in the proceedings, consider whether you might want to hold out for potential publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Conference proceedings typically carry less weight than a respected journal.
- “…a ratio of more than three-to-one conference papers to publications would be a source of concern to many promotion committees. // Keep in mind that the goal of conferencing is not simply to add a line to your CV. You hope to enrich your understanding of your field and make important contacts with people who may one day sit in judgment of your work” (Perlmutter).
* Depending on the conventions of your field or the climate of a particular conference, you might someday face aggressively critical feedback and audience grandstanding. Prepare yourself to respond appropriately in such cases.