Conference Paper? Or Conference Presentation?

Another Hook and Eye quick-pick

by Aimée Morrison

I laughed my ass off when I read this in the Chronicle. Professor Cebula’s inner monologue so neatly matches my own experience at conferences: early hope and enthusiasm turning to bored dread culminating in surreptitious smartphone tomfoolery and aimless stream of consciousness daydreaming … ending with published rants about crappy conference talks. I have zero tolerance for conference presentations that fail to meet a minimum standard of listenability.
However, where the Cebula and I part company is right here: he hates when people read papers from a prepared script. He prefers a more extemporaneous, a more spontaneous, a more conversational delivery, and like many people offering comments on the article, seems to think a prepared script and an engaging delivery are mutually exclusive.
Many, many, many commenters in fact make this distinction pretty clear, writing versions of this idea: “Stop reading your paper! You should do a presentation instead!”
This is silly. Knock it off.
What is the appropriate or normative format for the delivery of research at a conference varies by discipline. In English, my discipline, the done thing is to write out the whole text and to read it–arguably (that is, I am arguing) that in this field, our main evidence is the very sentences we construct to frame our interpretations of this, that, or the other. In other fields, it is normal to have one Powerpoint slide for every minute of presentation, with bullet pointed text on it. In other fields, the presentation consists of a couple of graphs or tables on Powerpoints, which are described in a more off-the-cuff manner. Other presentation formats include the round-table, or the panel discussion, or a Q and A.
Whether you read from a paper, describe one graph, or elaborate on bullet points on a series of slides is, mostly, a matter of what discipline you work in. It’s not really helpful to say that reading a paper is bad and showing lots of slides and talking from index cards is better. We’ve all seen brilliant presentations where the speaker is obviously working from a prepared text. And we’ve all seen really awful presentations with slides and no script. It’s not the format. It’s the skill.
So this is a defence of the conference paper. Yeah, a 3000 word essay, 10 pages of script that I’m going to print out and then hold somewhere in front of me while I talk to you, all six of you or sixty of you, out there in an audience. I read my papers. And I’m an awesome presenter. Ain’t nothing in the paper format that makes it inherently deadly. I mean, actors work from scripts on stage and on film, and they don’t crush us with boredom, right?
The main problem with papers I believe I have identified in an earlier post. It’s too much content crammed into too little time, which forces rushing or complaining or confusion or running too long.
If you want to craft an effective presentation from a “paper” you need to address three things:

  1. the text needs to be written for a listening rather than reading audience
  2. you will need to perform the written text, using your voice and body to add in the structure and emphasis and pacing marked visually by paragraph markers, bolding, sections, or bullets
  3. you need to practice. In advance. More than once.

A good text should: feature a variety of sentence lengths, employ conversational language, signpost what’s coming, and reiterate what’s passed. Repetition and simplicity is key. Here’s the opening paragraph of a conference paper I gave at Theorizing the Web last year in Maryland:

In asking every user, as it does, “What’s on your mind?” Facebook’s status update feature elicits personal disclosure, short bursts of self-narration that add up to a kind of autobiography. But how, exactly? The ways that compliant subjects answer the question demonstrate how their practices are shaped by the coaxing technologies, both discursive and material, afforded by the moment of interaction between status update interface and human user. Much of the scholarly investigation into “social network sites” focuses on the social and the network aspects: that is, why people interact with one another in these spaces and with what effect. But interpersonal relationships on Facebook are a second order interaction: fundamentally, the user at the computer is interacting with Facebook, first and foremost. This interaction remains to be explored. Employing the theory of “affordance” drawn from visual perception studies, as well as that of “coaxing,” drawn from auto/biography studies this paper offers a modest proposal for how to understand the relationship between social software and human user.

Delivery is key. A good text will get you nowhere unless you can deliver it. Good delivery involves: using gesture to demonstrate structure. Employing vocal tone and volume to indicate emphasis. Slowing down for the important bits. Paying attention to audience reaction, and leaving yourself enough room to work with that, even if just a “I know, right?” or “Wait, I’ll get to where I think you’re getting anxious about, you in the corner!”
Here’s me reading that same paragraph, like I would at the conference, except in my pyjamas in my dining room. Listen for how I perform the structure and emphasis in the text of my script (it’s a little weird to do it for a camera in close up …):


(You also can’t see that I’ve got slides to emphasize key words. That’ll be another post …)
You have to practice to do this well: know the text enough to be able to look up, and importantly, not to read your own sentences incorrectly because you don’t quite know where they’re headed. If you don’t practice–you can screw up the delivery of even a good text, thus:


Omigod, right? And I don’t mean “Omigod, right? I totally shaved 12 seconds off the delivery time, so I can keep those extra 300 words at the end!”
Anyhow. The moral of the story is this: it is possible to craft an effective reserach presentation from a written script, delivered text in hand, by reading. It is. Don’t write off the paper. It’s a matter of skill in authorship, skill in presentation, and the discipline to finish the script in a timely enough manner to allow you to rehearse it.
Thoughts? Gripes? Rebuttals?

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