Tony Gurr

Some THUNKS on Giving a Conference Paper (from GUEST BLOGGER Laurence Raw)

In Adult Educators, Conferences, Guest BLOGGERS, Research on 23/10/2014 at 5:33 pm

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One of the essential aspects of any academic (or educator’s) existence is the need to give papers at conferences.  This not only demonstrates a commitment to research, but provides an opportunity to share one’s insights with others in the field.

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Unfortunately things seldom work out like that.  I have been to many events where academics and graduate students simply come in, deliver their papers as fast as possible, answer a few questions and then leave.  One more notch on the résumé; another step accomplished in the search for a better job.

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Best way to be BORING (Voltaire quote)

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Even if delegates do stay, their style of presentation often prevents listeners from understanding precisely what they want to say.  Even in these days of unlimited technical innovation, the majority of presenters still choose to read aloud from printed sheets of paper and/or the iPad without actually looking at their audiences.  They also fail to grasp the fact that a paper written for academic readers is fundamentally different from a conference paper; in a conference the watchword is simplicity of style, enabling the interlocutors to understand precisely what the presenter is saying.  While reading a paper aloud is quite permissible – especially for those who are unconfident about speaking in public – but it should be read in such a way that listeners can understand what the writer is trying to say.  Gabbling one’s words just induces boredom.

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For the last few years or so, the popular vogue amongst presenters has been to summarize their arguments on PowerPoint presentationsFair enough; but care needs to be taken as to how they are constructed.  Each slide should have as few words on it as possible, and such words should be printed in a font that enables everyone to understand them.  Images should be simple yet powerful, and support what the presenter is saying; it’s no use simply summarizing the content of one’s presentation on slides, and expecting audiences to understand it.

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I could go on at length about the so-called ‘guidelines’ for conference presentation, but I’d rather prefer to turn the argument round and look at the issues facing anyone confronted with the need to present their work in public.

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Yesterday I had to give a piece to an audience of learners and senior faculty members.  My voice is not really powerful enough at present to project to the back of an oblong-shaped hall, so I used my microphone – or enhancer – as an aid; I feel rather like one of those presenters on a television quiz show, with the microphone hanging over my ears and the speaker close to my mouth.  Entering the hall at eleven o’clock gave me a few butterflies; I had to entertain an audience of fifty-plus people with an age-range from the late teens to retirement-age, all looking at me (or not looking at me) in expectation.  The only means I had to sustain my attention were my voice and a few images (if I wanted to use them).

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I experienced the feelings shared by every conference presenter at every event: how can I cope with the forthcoming ordeal?  The only way I could deal with this was to imagine myself like a high diver jumping off the board into a swimming-pool (or creek) several feet below me; I had to jump and subsequently trust in my own abilities to land safely.  If I failed, I would hurt myself (mentally, at least).  This was precisely what I did: armed only with a small notebook with a few ideas scribbled down, I began to talk.  To try and maintain audience interest, I kept looking at them; my head moved from side to side, then to the front and back of the hall.  If I saw someone’s eyes moving away from me, I made my best efforts to rescue their interest by glancing briefly at them.  Sometimes the technique worked; on other occasions I knew the task was beyond me.  Or maybe I was wrong: someone once told me that people’s listening strategies are often very different: when they seem outwardly uninterested, they are in fact taking note of what is being said and trying to make sense of it.

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Twilight Zone 01b (TG edit).jpg

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As I warmed to my argument, so my confidence grew.  I departed a little from my prepared script and illustrated my speech with anecdotes.  Some of them worked (in the sense of drawing a reaction from the audience); others fell flat as a pancake.  Nonetheless, I kept going; whatever my audience thought of my presentation, I was enjoying myself.  I had dived into the pool and was now swimming happily.

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The presentation ended, and the audience applauded.  There had been a few laughs; indeed, some of the audience had exchanged banter with me, which proved most satisfying.  At least I had appealed to their sense of fun.  I was sweating with excitement – I felt beads of perspiration on my brow – but at least I had done what I was expected to do.

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What did this experience tell me about delivering papers? 

I think I realized once more that audiences react in unpredictable ways: when they appear not to be listening, they might be interested; when they look at me, they might be thinking of something completely different.  To deliver a presentation not only involved speaking abilities but body language too: looking at your audience is of paramount importance.  Hence I’ve avoided reading papers verbatim for several years now.  If you, as the speaker, feel you’ve done your very best to communicate your enthusiasm for the topic under discussion, then your paper has been a success.

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REFLECTION 06 (Socrates quote)

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Enthusiasm” is an important term here:

…just doing a conference paper for the sake of it is a waste of time!

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And, above all, if you can try to deal with your inevitable nerves and realize that conference papers should be FUN, for yourself and for your listeners, then you’re well on the way to becoming a good speaker.  At least, I hope so anyway.

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Laurence Raw (aka @laurenceraw on Twitter)

Baskent University – Ankara, Turkey
Editor: Journal of American Studies of Turkey
http://baskent.academia.edu/LaurenceRaw
http://www.radiodramareviews.com
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