Perfecting Your Presentation

Time Limits

Keeping to the time limit is the most important thing about academic conferences. Having too little to say is MUCH BETTER than having too little, and it is far more likely that your audience will forgive a paper they thought wasn’t that convincing far quicker than they will one that went over time.

Typically, each presenter is given 30 minutes of the audience’s time. That will mean you have about 20 minutes for your presentation with around 10 minutes for questions. Twenty minutes is not a long time, although it might seem like it if this is your first presentation. It will work out to about 2500-2700 words to be read to the audience if you are doing the common route of reading a formal paper. Since people read at different speeds, however, you will need to practice your presentation. Read it out to your cat or your roommate. They probably both owe you rent, so ignore their complaints.

Writing for a Listening Audience

You must assist your audience in not only understanding the substance of your paper but also paying attention. Your paper should be serious in tone, but not monotonous or overly dense. A reader can go back to re-read or slow down if the going is tough. A listening audience, however, is at the mercy of the presenter. In editing a term paper for the conference, you will have to make some changes. Long sentences will probably have to be shortened or cut into two to make them easier to grasp when there is no chance of the audience back tracking.  Edit it so it can be read in a lively, engaging tone. This gives you more time to look up at the audience and treat them like you appreciate them being there.

As far as writing style, whatever works for your term papers is a good basis for conferences with a little adjustment here and there. Even if you have considerable experience in public speaking, your presentation should stick relatively closely to a script. In most cases, presenters will be reading from an edited term paper. This helps maintain an ordered, logical presentation that keeps within the time limits without anything being forgotten. The danger is that you might withdraw into yourself and read the paper without acknowledging the needs of your audience. A certain level of ad-lib presentation is advisable but work at least from notes, so you don’t get lost or muddled.

State your thesis plainly and often.   Repeat a few key points here and there to reinforce your audience’s memory. Your audience may not be experts in the field and so you may want to add a few explanatory comments on some technical terms, or dates of people, texts and so forth. Your audience doesn’t have time to reach for a dictionary or encyclopedia. Do not ‘dumb’ down your paper but avoid using lots of jargon, as much as is possible or practical. This will help your audience stay with the argument you are making.

Practice your presentation out loud. The more you do this, the better you know your paper, and the more engaging your presentation can be and you can make better eye contact.

Ever notice how students—not you, of course—sometimes fall asleep in class? A few strategically placed clean jokes will keep them awake. And do try to look up and make a few asides in the course of your presentation.

Regarding sources, you do not have to read your footnotes or provide parenthetical comments for your audience about your reference material. If you are relying on some key theorist or researcher, however, make sure to identify the person in the general flow of your text. Be very clear about who is saying what especially if there is some kind of disagreement among scholars. If you used parenthetical, in-text citations in your original assignment, you might want to get rid of them for your presentation script. Simply throw them down into footnotes or endnotes, to get them out of the way in order to avoid reading them out to your audience. Of course, you do not need to format them properly as you will not be handing this version of your paper in for a grade or publication.

The Hard Copy

Bring a few copies of your paper. You might make a mess of one copy in last minute editing, or someone might ask you for a copy. Be sure to include all your contact info if you give someone a copy.

Because you do not have to hand in conference papers for grades, you can format the hardcopy in any way you want to help you with your oral presentation. Some academics use a 13 or 14-point type and double spaces (single sided). This makes for a lot of pages, but the result is that the text is easy to read and easier to find your place if you lose it. Wide spaces also give you lots of room to scribble in last minute edits. And some of us have to make a lot of those.

If you are not the sort of person who staples things together, don’t forget the page numbers! Things get dropped at the most inopportune times!

The Oral Presentation

Look alive: Don’t forget to show you are aware of the audience in a positive way, (e.g., by not hiding behind a desk).  Thank them for coming to hear your paper. Break the ice with a joke or a cheery anecdote about the class the paper was written for, or something. If you have a soft voice, read a few sentences then ask if the audience can hear you. This is far better than having someone interrupt you.

It’s OK to admit to being nervous: If you really are quaking in fear, remember, most of the people in the room will also be presenters, too, and they are nervous about this. And: THEY ARE ON YOUR SIDE!

It’s OK to admit your paper is a work in progress. Whose research in this field isn’t? Any scholar who says they have written the final word on a subject is lying to themselves. And they’re wrong, too.

Look up at the audience, and make eye contact, especially when there are points that need to be emphasized.

Above all, however, think of how best to treat yourself, your research, and your audience with respect.

How can I avoid losing my place when I’m reading? Don’t feel silly about guiding your reading with your finger, at least marking the line you are reading, if not following along word for word. Dr. Jim does it. You are used to holding reading material at a particular distance from your eye. Standing in front of an audience will probably put your text farther away than you are used to and this can be disorientating. When you stop to look up at the audience, be sure to mark your spot on the page with your finger.

What if I have problem pronouncing foreign words? Practice and cheat! Since no one else will read your paper you can spell difficult words phonetically or any which way you want that will help you pronounce them correctly (but make sure you also have the real spelling there, too). In some cases, a handout might help with your audience’s comprehension.

Aids for the Audience

Does your presentation depend on images or sound? Audio-visual aids are important for some topics but distracting for others. If your paper is on art or some particular places, then some photos and so forth are certainly appropriate. Simple charts showing the results of sociological research are also worthwhile putting on screen. That being said, it is pretty easy to overdo it. Putting up a lot of text in PowerPoint slides is ill advised. You do not need bullet points to punctuate every paragraph of your presentation and if your paper is well written, your audience will be able to follow along rather nicely without PowerPoint. If there is text you need to display (a passage from a poem, for instance), it may work better to also have a handout, especially if it is more than a few lines. Complex charts are also better in handouts, but don’t waste time detailing every aspect of them. Call the audience’s attention to the key points and leave it at that.

A picture is worth 1000 words but discussing these 1000 words can take 7-8 minutes. If you are using any kind of audio-visual materials, count on running out of time if your text is 2500 words and you stop for a lot of ad lib comments on the pictures. If you go over the limit, do expect to be cut off!

If you use visual aids, have what you want to say about each one written into your paper and don’t digress.

Each of the rooms we will be using has a PC with PowerPoint and data projector installed. Be sure your files are on a USB memory device. DON’T DEPEND ON THE INTERNET! It can take much longer to find a Google document than it takes to plug in a thumbdrive.

If you are a Mac person, bring your own laptop or convert your Keynote file to a Powerpoint format and our PCs can play that. If you do bring a Mac, be sure it can connect to HDMI. Each generation of Mac laptops have their own flavor of external monitor ports (micro-DVI, mini-DVI, Mini Displayport etc.), and so don’t count on a proper adaptor being in the classroom. 

Depending on your paper topic, it might be useful to bring a handout Consider a short (1-2 page) handout to provide 1) complex charts; 2) foreign names or terms best spelled out properly; 3) lengthy scriptural passages or series of shorter passages; 4) the titles of books you have been discussing if they are not familiar to most people; 5) the bibliographical information of academic work, if your paper concerns specific scholars’ research. Keep the handouts as brief and as clear as possible, include your name and title of your paper. If you can get your handout to us via email a few days before the conference, we will make copies for you for free. Don’t leave it until the day to make copies, since the organizers are nervous wrecks when the show is on. If you make your own, run off about 15 or so. If you are presenting on the first session of Saturday morning or the last session on Sunday, you will need ca. 40 copies.

The Questionable Question Time

Having to answer questions about your presentation can be really nerve-wracking and intimidating. But in our years of organizing a variety of student conferences, much of this terror is misplaced.

99% of all the comments made are constructive, and even some of the few that appear to be harsh are also constructive. Most of the questions and comments will truly be helpful. Someone may suggest some further reading; another might relate your work to their own interests. Many will simply be asking for clarification on a point or two.

Answer questions to the best of your best ability, but do not make things up to cover your lack of omniscience. If you are corrected on some point, be gracious. If you think the objection is unfounded, say so, but remain civil. Your objector should remain so, too, and not push the point.

It is OK to say, “I don’t know” or, “I will look into it”. There are times when it can be appropriate to redirect a question to someone else on the panel or in the audience. Sometimes there are few or no questions. Don’t panic. Wait a while, even if the silence is a bit uncomfortable, as people might need time to formulate their question. If none arise, the presider should make some kind of comment to get a little conversation going.

Do not offer to answer questions while your presentation is going on. I’m serious. Bad Idea. Someone will invariable take you up on the offer and it will probably be the one person who has the least to offer. This can lead to various tangents and a break in your rhythm that may make keeping on time difficult while also making your fellow panelists and presider nervous. There will be time for questions at the end.  Until then, it is easiest to keep to the script.

If a question is really off topic, inappropriate, or leading to unpleasantness, the presider should step in. There have been very few instances in the past 10 years of this conference in which a line of questioning was mean-spirited or reflected an attempt to hijack the discussion for some other agenda. It is fine to tell someone that you can’t see the relevance of a question (and one presenter did this, once, to everyone else’s enjoyment).

A Student Conference for the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Related Disciplines