Catherine S. Cox, PhD
Professor of English
Undergraduate Academic Conference Presentations:
A "How-To" Guide and Some Advice
For any kind of public academic presentation--in the classroom, or at a student activity/event, a campus-wide or regional forum--you'll need to consider basic components of planning, preparing, and rehearsing. As well, specific types of events, and the disciplines represented within them, might require some tailoring of the material and/or the mode of presentation and the degree of engagement with regard to the subsequent discussion, so you'll need to plan ahead with regard to both general academic and discipline-specific considerations. Your careful attention to these preliminary matters can greatly enhance the overall effectiveness and enjoyment of your performance.
Audience: who will be listening to your presentation? faculty? students? do they have the same familiarity with the topic, from a course for instance? Are there any overt biases or agendas, e.g., a political topic? You need to assess the probable level of interest, familiarity, and shared assumptions in planning your presentation so as to engage without pandering or condescending, to stimulate and challenge without offense.
Purpose: why will the audience be listening and why will you be speaking? The audience may be there to learn about a new topic/research area, to be challenged by opposing viewpoints, to be edified by your knowledge and expertise, to seek shared perspectives and opinions; likewise, you might wish to edify, instruct, challenge, or affirm the audience's own expectations or desires, depending on the rhetorical mode of your presentation, expository or persuasive. (You might additionally wish to impress peers and colleagues, to gain extra credit for a course, to acquire practical experience for graduate school or professional work, but your focus in planning should be on the audience/speaker relationship and expectations rather than personal goals.)
Core content: the minimum content area that the presentation will convey: the results of an experiment, the materials you've gathered related to a topic, a particular opinion bolstered by rhetorical argument, etc. In order to focus your material and delivery, you need a clear sense of what the core content (or "message") should be, to govern the shape and form of the presentation and to provide your audience with a clear sense of your purpose.
Parameters: the set constraints that must be taken into account: amount of time for delivery, amount of time for discussion, whether a/v equipment is available and/or appropriate, the scheduled start time for your panel or session, number of panelists, level of formality, size of audience, type of room, food and/or beverages present, etc.
There are three standard formats for academic presentations: a paper reading followed by a discussion period; a timed talk followed by discussion; a poster session. While the same original research project or paper could serve as the basis for any one of these types of delivery, you'll need to shape and prepare your presentation somewhat differently depending on which format you choose.
A paper reading followed by discussion:
This is the most common format in the Humanities, and is frequently used by other disciplines as well. It's just as described above: you read a prepared paper text to your audience for a preset amount of time, and the paper reading part of the session is followed by an open discussion with your audience. The benefits are that the text, having been prepared in advance, is usually more articulate and complex than a talk, and more rhetorically and aesthetically accomplished than a poster. A good paper presentation requires a careful, measured mode of delivery on the part of the speaker, and careful preparation of text to ensure that an aural audience can follow the general rhetorical line as well as the particular points of analysis, exemplification, and commentary.
When you're editing a paper for oral delivery, consider how it might sound to a live audience: tweak the syntax if necessary, to make sentences easier to follow (even if you're the best writer in the world, your efforts will be wasted if you're reading for yourself rather than your audience's plausible comprehension); break out parenthetical asides, and keep dashes to a minimum. If you use an unfamiliar term, add in a brief description/definition in context; be sure that transitions are plentiful and logical. For oral delivery, it's better to over-map than to risk your audience getting lost--it's usually helpful to add an overview up front, e.g., "After I discuss the background of this situation, I will provide a survey of criticism, followed by my own interpretation"; you'd then signal each part in sequence, e.g., "Having considered the situation, I will now move on to the criticism." These are typically added to the written paper to facilitate oral delivery.
The general rule for planning (the audience won't know or care) is that a standard typed page of text, about 270 words or so, will net approximately 2 minutes of reading time; the standard academic conference paper is 20 minutes, and thus 10 pages of text. So if you're scheduled for, say, a 10-minute reading--which is typical for undergraduate readings--then you should prepare 5 pages of text, or, if you're going for the full standard, then 10 for 20. Note: poetry and creative prose pieces will not typically adhere to these projections--you'll need to read your selections and time yourself to determine how many pages of material you'll actually want to use.
It's a good idea to mark your reading copy carefully: no one but you will see these signals and pointers, and they can be really helpful, especially if you're doing this for the first time. You can mark, for instance, a few places to pause (to catch your breath or just slow down the pace); you can fill in diacritical and pronunciation marks, especially if you have any unusual or foreign-language words or quotations. It's a good idea too to mark a few sentences or paragraphs to omit if time runs short or if you sense that the audience isn't quite with you.
If you use extensive quotations, especially if in another language or highly stylized verse or antiquated prose, you might wish to provide your audience with a printed handout of them to look at as you read them (you'll call this to their attention of course when you get to that point in your text). Limit these passages to no more than 3--you don't want to overwhelm the audience with material, and you don't want to have to compete with yourself for their attention as you read the rest of the paper. Likewise, if you're discussing a film, you could use a reproduced still or two; a work of art, a reproduction of the whole and/or a detail or two. For visual sequences or music, you should arrange for an audio/visual accompaniment if possible; otherwise, be sure to include a pithy description of the work you're discussing.
And, as is the case for any serious academic activity, practice your presentation in advance.
As for the discussion, it's a good idea to think carefully about the kinds of questions you might be asked, and to have some answers in mind to provide. Most questions are friendly, genuine expressions of interest in your topic and a sincere desire to learn more; some will be for show, where a questioner really just wants to show off his/her own expertise; occasionally--rarely, but it does happen--a questioner will be outright hostile, in which case you can simply take the high road: "Thank you for calling this to my attention, and I'll probably think more about it at some point." Think of the discussion as an opportunity to talk about your work with interested peers and colleagues, who wish to learn from you and from whom you might also learn. (And don't take it personally if there are no questions at all--some audiences are bashful, and sometimes the mood and/or situation just doesn't trigger conversation.)
A timed talk followed by discussion:
For this mode of presentation, you give a talk for a set period of time, followed by audience discussion. The talk typically follows a prepared outline (which you may or may not wish to share, in handout form, with your audience), but it is delivered without a prepared script. Although for the audience this seems like a more relaxed and informal mode of presentation, it requires as much planning and preparation as a prepared text, emphasizing different components. 10-15 minutes is the undergrad norm.
Keep your outline simple; have the main ideas clearly set apart, and include only those points within each section that you'll be elaborating upon, rather than the details themselves. For example, if you have 3 main sections with 2 points within each, for a total of 6 main subject points, then you could plan on speaking up to 2 minutes each for a total of about 10-12 minutes.
Keep your notecards simple, if you choose to use them. You don't want to try to create what amounts to a text spread across cards--use them as visual cues as need be, and don't be surprised if you actually never look at them while performing.
Have a few concrete examples ready, regardless of your topic: if you lose your place or become nervous (it can happen), you'll be able to focus your attention on specific, concrete things, thus getting back on track and gaining a sense of control over the moment.
Be sure to time your talk ahead of time, and have a bit of extra material prepared--most people tend to speed up in real time, so don't get caught short.
And, of course, practice your talk, ideally both alone and with a classmate or two or a professor.
As for the discussion that follows the talk, see the last paragraph above (and note that talks tend to elicit questions that ask for development, clarification, and exemplification, more so than the discussion that follows a paper, which is typically more methodological and theoretical in its focus).
A poster session:
Posters are a staple of the Social Sciences and Natural Sciences disciplines, but they are relatively rare in the Humanities, since the kinds of activities undertaken in the Humanities disciplines are more conducive to the paper and talk formats. Nonetheless, a poster session is an excellent means of communicating your Humanities research and analytical work. (For full poster details in the Natural Sciences, see the guidelines prepared by Dr. Jack Beuthin.) Here are some other pointers:
Your poster should include the following items:
a long panel at center-top with the title and author
individual panels placed on the left, middle, and right side, stacked with arrow markers
blocks of text used effectively and sparingly within panels (introduction panel, body panels, conclusion panel)
appropriate visuals (graphs, charts, diagrams, etc.; avoid decorations)
You should have a brief oral summary of your poster prepared ahead of time, to give poster viewers/visitors a quick overview of your work as displayed; be likewise prepared for questions, as per the discussion pointers above.