On Research Presentations at Conferences

(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)

When it comes to academic conferences, it seems most of us belong to one of two groups. The first is the research poster group, which has conversations with other scholars with the help of a visual aid. The second is the panel of papers group, where each panelist prepares a 20- to 25-minute presentation and then a discussant or moderator takes questions from the audience.

My research and my field generally belong to the latter group. Until very recently, I have ascribed to the common practice of writing an eight-page paper and simply reading it for the attendees. But that all changed a couple of months ago.

I gave my first conference presentation my beginning year as a graduate student. A group of friends was organizing a graduate student conference, and there was a gap on one of the panels, so they asked me to fill it in.

At the time, I had no idea what an academic conference was. I remember talking to one of the organizers and hearing her explain, “Find your favorite eight pages from a seminar paper you wrote last semester and reframe them so they stand alone. Then you’ll just read that for whoever is in the room.” Although the point of doing that completely escaped me, my impostor syndrome was intense enough not to ask any follow-up questions, and I simply did as told. To my delight, I found that the other panelists at the conference had prepared in exactly the same way.

I spent the rest of my graduate school days well aware that reading something aloud in this fashion is far from the best or most compelling presentation strategy. Yet at conference after conference, I continued the practice of showing up with my eight-page paper, slightly reframed, and reading it for the group. I attended the presentations of peers and listened to them do the same thing. I meditated on the fact that most of us don’t write in the way we would speak — and that it’s actually quite challenging to keep track of a 50-plus-word sentence when it’s read aloud to you. But still I didn’t change my tactics. That is, until I was forced to.

The Conference That Changed It All

In November, I attended a local area-studies conference. Think something along the lines of University of California, Riverside’s Asian American Studies Conference. (To my knowledge, that university does not actually host a conference like this, but you get what I mean.) The conference organizers chose to arrange events in a way that was different to anything I had previously experienced. While I can’t be sure, I believe they were looking to create a more dialogue-oriented experience.

Because of their strategies, the months leading up to the conference were also radically different from what I had previously experienced. There was no conference registration fee. The organizers wanted presenters to confirm the title of their presentation three months ahead of time. We were introduced to the other members of our panel six weeks in advance. We were asked to submit 20-page papers for a “workshop” one month out. Three weeks out, I received the papers of my co-presenters and was asked to read them. I read each one carefully, took notes in the margins, made a list of recommended reading sources for each paper and also wrote down the questions I had for each one. I thought I was prepared.

When I arrived at the conference registration table, my 20-page paper in hand and my carefully annotated copies of the other papers in tow, I got my badge and was told what time I would be presenting. It turned out that my panel was scheduled first, about 15 minutes from that moment. I met the moderator of the panel, who intended to have us read according to the alphabetical order of our last names. That meant that, within the panel, I was also first. I began to feel a bit of pressure as I realized that I would essentially be kicking off this small conference. (As a side note, the conference did not have simultaneous sessions, which meant all of the attendees would be at each session and I was the first paper for everyone.)

Then, the moderator said, “I’m going to ask each of you to keep your presentation to about 20 to 25 minutes; does that sound like it will work for you?” I’m confident I started sweating immediately. I hadn’t brought anything other than the original 20-page paper I circulated. I had imagined that I’d just be meeting with the other panelists for the workshop and wouldn’t present anything for everyone else. (In hindsight, why I had believed that is unclear to me.) How was I going to get that cut down to a 20-minute presentation? I excused myself.

I pulled out my paper and started frantically looking for the “eight favorite pages” that my grad school colleague had referenced nearly a decade before. Then I had an idea. What if instead of reading the paper, I just told everyone about it? I didn’t really have time to second-guess myself, so I went with that concept.

I took my pen out and drew vicious lines through everything that was fluff or context. I thought, “I’m going to be talking to a room full of area-studies scholars, so I don’t need this paragraph, or this paragraph or this one.” In other words, I was able to presume a high level of area knowledge. Then I drew a huge circle around the paragraph where I broke down my argument clearly and found the topic sentences, or most important pieces of that argument, as they were sprinkled throughout the rest of the paper, and circled those, too. I put stars next to important quotes by other people that I wanted to make sure to read. And that was about all I had time for.

Game Time

After the moderator introduced me, I told the audience I would be doing something different (at least for me) and that I planned to tell everyone about my 20-page paper. I said something like, “I will slowly and carefully read for you the paragraph where I make my claim, so that it’s clear for everyone and I don’t accidently misrepresent the point I’m trying to make. Then I’ll move through each of the three sections of the paper and tell you how each is related to the larger claim. I have quotes I’d like to read that belong in each section. My hope is that, as I describe each of the three sections, you’ll see how they are related to this first paragraph I’m about to read for you.” Then I just did it.

It felt like quite the adrenaline rush. It struck me that improvising a 25-minute presentation isn’t a common activity after years behind the safety of those eight pages, and it was certainly a first for me. I’m confident I fumbled occasionally and that if I could play that presentation back for myself, I would hear an uncomfortable number of vocalized pauses. It was not rehearsed, and it probably came across that way.

But it was also miraculous. And here’s why:

  • I made eye contact with everyone almost the entire duration of the 20 to 25 minutes. I could see whose eyes were lighting up at which moment and who was completely uninterested.
  • Instead of reading, I genuinely felt I was sharing my ideas. You could say my teacher instincts kicked in — that feeling that says, “You should have prepared a bit more, but also you know this stuff.”
  • I got confirmation during the Q&A that this kind of presentation style was more engaging. First, I got more questions than the other panelists (who each opted to read eight pages). I do not believe I got more questions because my research was better or more interesting; I think my ideas were simply communicated more effectively. Second, several people said they had never seen a paper delivered in this ad hoc fashion but were now considering trying it themselves.
  • I got to talk about an article-length essay instead of eight random pages. The feedback I got was about my entire idea, not just a small part of it. Have you ever had to answer a question as follows? “Yeah, actually, that’s a great point. I talk about that in the second part of the paper, but I didn’t get to it due to time.” I didn’t have to answer any questions that way. The whole room was in on the whole paper.

Potential Downsides

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this presentation style is anxiety producing. I’m generally an introvert who avoids any kind of limelight and, had I had the time to do so, I would likely have talked myself out of this idea.

This strategy also means that you can’t only write eight pages. If you present orally, the way I’m suggesting, you can actually cover a lot more material than eight pages would allow. I now find that to fill 20 to 25 minutes of time, I need to have a larger, more fully developed idea. I know that for many of us — myself included, at times — the task of producing a longer paper while balancing other professional tasks might seem arduous.

But this will be my modus operandi from now on. Now that I’ve tested the waters, managed to not drown and walked away with a far more intellectually stimulating experience, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back to the safety of the eight pages. Not to mention that I got feedback on something publication length! In prior conference experiences, I would only get feedback on a portion of an idea, so this new format may prove fruitful for the publication portion of my academic dossier, as well.

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