Classically Inclined

April 21, 2011

Tips For Conferences, or “Don’t Wear Pearls”

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:06 am
Tags: , , ,

Wednesday’s #phdchat covered the topic of attending and presenting your research at academic conferences. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some notes I wrote for my own reference and then publicised on the Life Course Project on how to approach writing a conference paper and what to do at a conference. These notes are the result of my five years of conference attending and observation, not to mention other people’s wise suggestions. What you’ll find behind the jump:

  • Things to think about when writing your paper
  • Things to think about concerning handouts
  • Things to think about concerning technology
  • How to prepare beforehand
  • What to do at the conference
  • Tips and tricks for presenting – general
  • Tips and tricks for presenting – speech
  • Tips and tricks for presenting – body language
  • Tips and tricks for presenting – answering questions

This post does not address the question of how to write a good conference abstract, but perhaps I will go into that in another post!


Things to think about when writing your paper

  • Always remember that you are writing a piece for oral presentation, so try not to focus too much on what is written on paper.
  • Adapt your style to use shorter sentences and to clearly state your main point more frequently than you usually would in your writing – this will make it easier for your listeners to follow your argument.
  • Try to make your paper ‘speakable’; think about how easy (or otherwise) each sentence will be to pronounce.
  • Your paper should not exceed the stated time limit. Don’t worry about running a little short; nobody is going to complain if you end a minute or two early.
  • A good guideline to bear in mind is that one side of double-spaced 12pt text takes about two to three minutes to read; a fifteen minute talk should be about six to eight pages long, depending on how fast you speak.
  • Make sure your paper has an argument, and that argument is clear. What are you saying that is new, exciting and that the room should be paying attention to?
  • Ensure that your paper is logical, and that you clearly present the progress of your argument with plenty of useful signpost sentences.
  • You will not be able to get all of your research into a twenty-minute presentation slot. Be selective about what important points you really want to make; if people are interested in further details, they will ask you about them. You will only be able to go into detail about one or two really well-supported points; this is preferable to a scatter-gun approach of trying to include as much information as possible.
  • Your paper needs an introduction. Provide a couple of sentences to contextualise your work and explain what you are about to say.
  • Your conclusion should sound like a conclusion. Write something that sums up what you have said and will clearly let your audience know you are coming to a close.
  • Remember your audience, who will not know the material as well as you do. Provide plenty of glosses to explain the content of the work you are discussing, the material culture you are analysing, and the technical terms you are using.
  • Try to avoid quoting untranslated Greek or Latin – it’s difficult to follow. Use a handout instead.
  • Remove all references to ‘as I said above’ – this is an oral presentation. Use ‘as I said earlier’ instead.
  • Consider using some humour in your presentation, but do so judiciously.


Things to think about concerning handouts

  • A handout is a very useful thing. Consider using one. It will give your audience a potted reminder of what your paper was about, and something to scribble their thoughts and ideas on.
  • If you do use a handout, make sure you include both the original Latin or Greek passage and an English translation. Think about whether you might use bold or italic text to make the features of the passage you are referring to immediately clear.
  • Don’t make the text too small to read; going below 10pt is normally a bad idea.
  • Four sides is normally a good maximum size for a handout, although a shorter one is absolutely fine too.
  • Leave some white space for people to annotate your handout.
  • If you put the original language and the translation in two columns in one part of handout, do it throughout the handout.
  • Number the passages on your handout.
  • Make sure that your talk clearly directs your audience around the handout; useful phrases include ‘as you can see from handout seven’ and ‘handout four shows…’
  • Arrange your passages on the handout in the order in which you refer to them in your talk.
  • Make sure your handout is impeccable; ask someone to proof-read it if necessary. Greek accents need particular attention, as a typo inevitably creeps in.
  • Take special care that any bibliography is formatted according to the same rules – for instance, whether you are capitalising the titles of all books, using Roman or Arabic numerals for journal titles and so on.
  • Head your bibliography ‘Selected Bibliography’, so your audience does not expect every single work ever on your topic to appear there.
  • Make sure that your handout contains your name, e-mail address, university, title of your talk, and name and date of the conference at which you are presenting.


Things to think about concerning technology

  • If you want to use PowerPoint or need other audio-visual equipment, make sure you specified this in your original abstract submission.
  • If you are going to use PowerPoint, be careful to use images appropriate to your text. PowerPoint is best used when you have lots of images, graphs or tables to display; otherwise, think about just using a handout.
  • If you are using PowerPoint, do not put your talk on the slides – they are there to illustrate points, not to give your presentation for you.
  • Check with your panel chair in advance what the technical arrangements will be.
  • Have a Plan B for what you will do if the projector explodes.


How to prepare beforehand

  • Make sure you practice reading your paper aloud several times so you are familiar with it.
  • When you read your paper out loud, listen for phrases that sound difficult to say, or don’t quite make sense when you hear them, and edit accordingly.
  • When you run through the paper, make sure you are keeping to the time limit; if not, shorten your paper. Try to organise at least one dry-run of the talk in front of friendly faces from your department. They will ask you far harder questions than you would get at any conference. This is also a good opportunity to ask for feedback your body language and speech as well as the content of your paper.
  • Even if you can’t get a dry-run in your department, make sure you have read your paper to an audience at least once. Even someone who knows nothing about your subject will be able to tell you if you were speaking clearly enough to be heard.
  • It is possible to over-prepare. Try not to get stale.
  • If the conference you are attending is an annual affair, like the Classical Association meeting or the APA, try to find someone who has attended before. Ask them to describe the general atmosphere, so you know what to expect.
  • If the conference you are attending is a one-off, see if you can find anyone you know who is going, or who knows someone who is going. This will make going somewhere unknown on your own a lot less intimidating. 
  • Check out the area you are going to be in, and know a sensible-looking restaurant to go to if you are required to cater for yourself.
  • If you are going on an aeroplane, keep your paper in your hand luggage. This will save you unnecessary panic at the baggage carousel.
  • Make sure you have a copy of your paper, handout and/or PowerPoint e-mailed to yourself, just in case. Use Dropbox as an online back up. 

What to do at the conference

  • Remember that conferences are supposed to be fun, and try to enjoy yourself.
  • Stay calm, and do whatever you need to in order to achieve that. It’s absolutely fine to skip a session so you can go back to your room and run through your presentation one more time.
  • Find out where you can get water, both when you are presenting and in general; make sure you do not get dehydrated.
  • Don’t forget to eat.
  • Abstain from alcohol the night before and the day of presenting.
  • If you can, attend a session taking place in the room you will be presenting in before you are scheduled to speak. Note the layout and any features of the room that cause problems for other speakers. What is the acoustic like – does it echo or is it flat? Is there a podium? How are the speakers sitting? Is a microphone provided?
  • Take notes of what works and what doesn’t in other people’s presentations. Who are the people who are endlessly interesting, and what do they do? Can you hear everyone? How fast is too fast?
  • Even if papers don’t seem immediately relevant to your own research, sit in on them anyway. You can hear the most unexpectedly interesting information by attending conference papers on topics you know nothing about.
  • Take an interest in other people’s work; if you have a question for a speaker, even if you don’t feel comfortable asking it during the official discussion period, take time to ask them about it later.
  • NEVER ask a question that is designed to show off how much more you know about a particular topic. This will either backfire or make you look obnoxious. If you believe the speaker has made a significant error that urgently needs to be corrected, speak to them about it after the paper.
  • Try to talk to people in the breaks between papers, but don’t feel guilty if it doesn’t happen. People will talk to you when they have heard you present and know who you are.
  • You are never short of a topic of conversation – discussing the previous presentation and what you made of it will help fix it in your head.
  • If you are attending the conference with others from the same university, do not walk about in a pack. Arrange times to meet up to compare notes, and take the opportunity to meet new and interesting people from other universities.
  • If you are issued a lanyard-style nametag, write your name on the reverse side, so that it can still be seen if the nametag flips over.


Tips and tricks for presenting – general

  • Wear comfortable clothing that looks professional. The more comfortable you feel, the more confident you will seen.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. Do not wear high heels if you never wear them in day-to-day life.
  • Print your paper in an easy-to-read font, at least 14 point size, so you can see easily what you have on the page.
  • Smile. Remember that nobody in front of you would be there if they didn’t want to listen to what you have to say.
  • Try to sound as if you are enjoying giving your own paper – this will make the audience believe that they are allowed to enjoy listening to it.
  • Think about investing in a digital voice recorder, so you can record your own talk. There are two advantages to this. Firstly, you can listen to the talk later, and see if you can spot any ways to improve next time you give a presentation. Secondly, the recorder will capture all the questions that are asked and your answers, so you can concentrate on answering questions rather than scribbling down suggestions that are made to you.
  • Arrive at your session early enough to meet the other speakers; nothing helps control nerves like sharing them.
  • Make sure you introduce yourself to your panel presider, and provide biographical information if necessary so they can introduce you.
  • Sit near the front of the room in which you are presenting.
  • If you are using PowerPoint, arrive early enough to set up your technology in advance.
  • Find out the logistics for distributing handouts. Will the chair of the panel or the other speakers do it? Are there conference assistants to help? Will you need to do it yourself? Think of a way to fill in the awkward silence while the handout goes around.
  • If you are sitting on a panel in front of the audience, turn to face the speaker rather than the audience.
  • Never leave the panel you are presenting in until it has finished.


Tips and tricks for presenting – speech

  • Remember that you are giving a performance; always be aware of the theatricality of your speech.
  • Think about the cadence of each sentence you are reading. Where is its emphasis? What direction is it heading in? What are the important words you want your audience to pick up on? Make sure that you know the shape of each sentence you are going to read.
  • Make sure you are speaking loudly enough to be heard.
  • Make sure you are speaking slowly enough to be heard.
  • Sound confident about what you are saying – after all, you know more about the specific point you are making than anyone else in the room.
  • Sound enthusiastic about what you are saying, or else nobody else in the room will be enthused.
  • Make sure that you don’t swallow the ends of sentences; leave a gap between each full stop and the beginning of the next sentences.
  • Pencil in marks in your paper where you want to make sure you pause for breath.
  • Don’t try to compensate for a talk that is too long by talking too fast – start with a talk of the right length to begin with.
  • Have a glass of water to hand; stopping to sip from it at strategic intervals will give your audience time to catch up with your argument in their own heads.
  • You will need to break the silence; beginning with ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ is sometimes more effective than diving right into your presentation.
  • At the conclusion of your paper, sound firm and convinced of your conclusion – let your audience know that you are coming to a close.


Tips and tricks for presenting – body language

  • Remember that you are giving a performance; always be aware of the theatricality of your actions.
  • If you have the choice between sitting and standing when presenting a paper, always stand. You will feel more confident, and your voice will carry better.
  • Try to establish as much eye contact with your audience as possible – don’t keep your eyes glued to your paper, or stare aimlessly at the ceiling. It is very hard to keep your attention on a speaker who is not trying to engage with the audience.
  • Control your posture – don’t hunch over; keep your shoulders back and spine straight. You will feel more confident if you stand in a confident pose.
  • Be aware of your body – try not to sway from side to side, or hop from one foot to the other.
  • Think about what your hands are doing. Are you using them to mark emphatic points? Are they nervously twitching? Try to control movements that don’t help you strengthen your argument.
  • Know that some physical gestures simply do not look dignified. Making bunny ears with your fingers to mark quotations is one of them.


Tips and tricks for presenting – answering questions

  • Be prepared to get no questions. This doesn’t mean your paper was a failure – it means that you thoroughly convinced your audience of your point.
  • Make sure that you listen to any questions that are asked, and that you answer them to the best of your ability.
  • Consider making a ‘cheat sheet’ of things you really want to say but don’t have time to mention in your talk. Work these into your answers if possible.
  • Don’t be tempted to make something up. You will be found out.
  • If someone asks a particularly puzzling or interesting question, follow it up with them at the next break.
  • Some useful responses to difficult or unexpected questions:
    • “That’s a very interesting point; I hadn’t thought about that before. Thank you.”
    • “I haven’t had a chance to look at [subject], but I will definitely follow that up.”
    • “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the information in front of me to answer that question; if you give me your e-mail address, I’ll get back to you.”
    • “Thank you, that’s very interesting point – could you perhaps expand on what you mean?”


How to follow up a conference

  • Keep a running record of all the people who you offer information to, and who offer to send you information. Make sure you chase up all of these new contacts.
  • When you get home, make a list of the people whose papers you enjoyed, with whom you had interesting conversations, and any interesting ideas you jotted down during the conference.
  • If you made a recording of your presentation, listen to it and think about ways to improve next time.


  1. Thanks so much for this, Liz. It’s particularly timely as many of our graduate students prepare to present at our national conference. I’ve passed along the link to this entry to them, with attribution and gratitude.

    Comment by Debra — April 26, 2011 @ 7:50 pm | Reply

    • You are most welcome – feel free to share the link when it becomes relevant again!

      Comment by lizgloyn — April 26, 2011 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  2. One suggestion I got that was very helpful for people who gesture grandly with their hands when talking: try gripping in a pen in your dominant hand. In this case “gripping” means “holding in a loose fist”. (Make sure it’s not a clicky pen! I did this one and then clicked the pen for a few minutes before I noticed and stopped.)

    Comment by Joanna — June 1, 2011 @ 11:17 am | Reply

  3. […] Cluster. My normal rule is “don’t stick to your fellow graduates/departmental colleagues like glue – go […]

    Pingback by Thoughts on how to get the best out of a megaconference « Classically Inclined — July 7, 2011 @ 5:16 am | Reply

  4. I can only say thank you for this pointers! I’ve got a presentation tomorrow, and I am sure they are goin to help me!

    Comment by unoscoiattoloindispensa — February 15, 2012 @ 9:45 pm | Reply

    • You are very welcome indeed – I hope the presentation went well!

      Comment by lizgloyn — February 16, 2012 @ 10:58 am | Reply

  5. Abstain from alcohol the night before… hmm, not too many people doing that usually! Though I only had one glass of wine the night before this year’s CA paper – but that was because only one glass was free… 😉

    Comment by Juliette — April 14, 2012 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

    • Well, I’ll agree that it’s not a hard and fast rule… but as a rule of thumb, it’s hard to go wrong with it!

      Comment by lizgloyn — April 14, 2012 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

  6. Reblogged this on Futurus Essay.

    Comment by Julian Barr — October 16, 2012 @ 2:15 am | Reply

  7. Thanks, Liz. I have just reblogged this. Great tips!

    Comment by Julian Barr — October 16, 2012 @ 2:16 am | Reply

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