How to stop being boring in conference papers

I’ve not been going to conferences all that long: I’m only a first-year PhD student. However, in the short time I have been attending and speaking at conferences, I’ve already become a pretty vehement opponent of a certain way of presenting. You probably know what I’m talking about – the kind of conference paper where someone reads out an extract from an essay or article in a monotone, barely lifting their eyes from the page.

Now, when I’ve talked about this to people, they sometimes draw a dichotomy between reading a paper like this, and presenting in an improvisational, ad hoc style – the idea being perhaps that they have to read their papers, because they’re not able to present just from notes or slides. This is a false dichotomy! And I think it’s quite a damaging one, because it means people fall back on the monotone paper-reading because they don’t feel able to improvise. There’s absolutely a middle ground, though. I’d love to be able to present my work just from notes, but right now I don’t have either the confidence in my material or the skills at timing to do it. So I do use a script for my papers. But I don’t just cut an extract from previous work and read it out; instead, I edit it to make it more conversational in tone, and I try to present in an engaging way. In this post, I want to offer a quick guide to presenting a paper with a script, but without being…well, boring and difficult to follow.

First, I just want to go over why I think this is important, because I quite often come across people talking about reading v. presenting as if they’re just different, equally good, styles of presenting your work. I disagree with this to an extent that verges on the obsessive. (I have quite a lot of intense opinions about conferences, actually – just ask me, and I can talk your ear off about it.) This is partly because of my way of taking information in. If someone reads out a paper that hasn’t been adapted for presentation in any way (especially if there’s no accompanying Powerpoint or handout!) my brain simply will not take it in. Especially if it’s the last paper before the lunch break. By the end of the paper, you’ll be lucky if I’ve even grasped the main gist of what’s happening, even if it’s amazingly well researched and argued. By contrast, put me in front of a paper that might be worse in terms of content and argument, but is presented in a lively and engaging way, and my attention might actually stand a chance of being kept until the end. This probably isn’t the case for all listeners! But I’d be willing to bet that I’m not the only one.

So, I’ve got one big reason why you shouldn’t just read out an extract from an article, essay, or chapter, although I think there are lots more.

You’re not doing justice to your own work! By failing to engage your audience (who might have been sitting listening to presentations for several hours by the time you come along), you’re lessening the opportunity to get good feedback and questions. This is a very unscientific observation, obviously, but I do think that I’ve noticed a pattern at conferences where the more engaging, lively presentations get more audience questions than the read-out, monotone papers. One of the whole purposes of conferences is to get feedback on your work-in-progress – don’t waste that chance by turning off your audience. Also, although it does take extra work to adapt your written work into something more engaging, it’s work that’s well worth doing: while rewriting and restructuring my work for conferences, I invariably have a tonne more thoughts and ideas about what I’m working on, and develop my ideas considerably at the same time.

So, how do you use a script to present, but still make your paper engaging and compelling? I’ve got four major pieces of advice.

1. Okay, so you’re probably adapting something you’ve already written – an article or a chapter, or something that’s going to become an article or a chapter one day. If your academic writing style is anything like mine (hopefully it’s better!) that means it’s probably rather dense, syntactically complex, drawing on other academics a lot, and using a lot of technical or subject-specific language. Your sentences might incline to the lengthy. To turn it into a conference script – rewrite! Take the content, but make your sentences shorter and simpler. Make the tone less formal. Think about using more active/direct verbs. And definitely, definitely, cut down the number of sentences with sub-clauses or semi-colons. Even if you’re using visual aids, your material is largely being absorbed by ear: make it easy for people to listen to. This is something where reading your script aloud from the very beginning really helps. And as you’re doing that, ask yourself: how would I explain this concept in a conversation with a fellow academic? However big your audience at a conference is, you’re basically aiming to have some kind of conversation with them – not just lecture them. So write as if you’re having a conversation! When I’m writing my scripts, I’ll even include those conversational filler words like “so” and “right, then” – for me, that really helps my delivery flow.

2. This next tip is about delivery. You’ve adapted your material and rewritten it. Now, read it aloud some more – and this time, focus on modulating and varying your voice. Think about what words could do with being emphasised. When you’re talking to a friend in your field about your project, you don’t say things in a flat, neutral tone, right? You also probably don’t say everything at the same speed or volume. So mix things up a bit! I’d actually recommend doing this to the extent that you feel as if you’re overemphasising your words. Ditto with enunciation. The other thing that will really make your delivery more engaging here is if you sound excited about your work – if you’re clearly interested in what you’re talking about, your audience will be too. If you don’t find listening to your own voice too excruciating, it might be worthwhile recording yourself speaking and trying out different ways of delivering your material. It might also be useful marking your script at points where you want to pause, emphasise certain words, slow down, speed up, get louder, softer, etc – in case nervousness overcomes you on the day and you start defaulting to the soporific monotone.

3. This is also a point about delivery, although it’s not so easy to practice in advance. When you’re reading your script out, with your variations in speed, tone, volume, talk to your audience. Look particular people in the eye while you’re talking: again, maybe imagine that you’re trying to explain your work to that person in particular in conversation. If that’s a bit too daunting (and it can be, especially when some people’s default listening-face is an intense frown), do still move your gaze around the room. Look at different chairs. Don’t talk to your script, but instead look up. Again, this becomes easier if you’ve practised reading it out beforehand. If you know your material well, it’s a lot easier to get the nerve to tear your gaze away from the page – because you know roughly what’s coming up next.

4. Please stick to the time limit. Again, this can be ensured by practising and timing yourself. Aim for one minute under the given time, then if you deliver more slowly on the day, you’re giving yourself time. No one ever minds if a presenter comes in under the time limit: if you’re the fourth presenter in a row who’s gone four or five minutes over, they will.

As I said, doing these things does take a bit of extra preparation. But it’s so worth it – for the confidence it gives you before you deliver your talk, for the extra feedback and engagement you’re going to get, and for the amount of time you’re spending reflecting and reworking your own ideas. You’re going to realise the bits that don’t make sense, or the explanations that you’ve glossed over a bit. And I can promise that your audience will appreciate it!

(Note: I’m not meaning to put myself forward as any great orator here – there’s a lot in my own presenting that I want to work on and improve! Also, I’d be very interested to hear in the comments from any advocates of the reading-your-paper-out style of delivery – I’m willing to hear any points in its favour! Would be great too to get more tips and tricks for conference paper delivery in the comments.)





One thought on “How to stop being boring in conference papers

  1. I love this post! I’m prepping a conference paper now and wondering how to liven it up – partly because the conference is virtual and zoom allows such things, but also because I just find the usual way so dull. This is super helpful – thanks!


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