The Conference Paper: Writing Meets Performing

The 2015 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association held its annual meeting last week in Puerto Rico. Although I didn’t go, several friends of mine presented their research. I started thinking about conference paper writing and why so many writers struggle with it.

Academic conference presentations include individual papers, round-tables, poster presentations, and workshops. The panel, made up of three or four individual papers, is still the most common format. At humanities conferences, panelists usually read their papers to the audience. Many people find conference presentations challenging because they are oral and visual performances of written research findings.  The presenter must connect the audience with his or her ideas.

Several major conferences now ask presenters to avoid reading their papers to the audience in order to make panels livelier. Being read to bores the audience. A conference presentation should be a talk with the audience, not a monologue. 

Even if unread, writing the paper is worthwhile because it gets the major ideas in order. Conference papers also sometimes find second lives as chapters in edited volumes of conference proceedings. Plenty of scholars recycle old conference papers into other projects.

Great conference papers require preparation. Many people write their papers on the plane en route to the conference. Some famous scholars routinely show up to conferences with jumbled ideas and formless papers ("So…I don’t really have a paper. These are just some ideas I’m playing around with…"), counting on their prestige to attract audiences. Most of us cannot pull off this kind of trick. Poor planning makes for confusing papers and boring presentations, no matter how impressive someone's credentials. Good writing takes time and work. The conference paper format is not an excuse for poor writing.

Gauge the length of the presentation. Most panels allow each speaker 15 to 20 minutes. Talking beyond the time limit annoys panelists, commentators, and the audience. One double-spaced page of text takes between two to two and a half minutes to read at a reasonable pace. A 15 to 20 minutes paper is eight to ten double spaced pages. Use this formula to figure out the length of your paper.

Novice conference paper writers often cram their entire research projects into ten pages, overwhelming the audience with a tsunami of information. Pick one idea and some interesting data that can be explained in fifteen minutes. This data should speak to a major debate in the field, rather than a specialized niche. Present a basic overview of the idea and its significance.

Most academic presentations (at least in the social sciences) follow a standard formula.  The blog Grad Hacker recommends the following in a great post on this:

  • A hook: a bit of narrative to get the ball rolling
  • The research question
  • Gap in the literature/how the paper fills this gap
  • Methodology
  • Discussion of findings/primary sources/data
  • Analysis
  • Conclusion

Audiences want to hear about your findings and analysis. The literature and methodology sections should be brief to allow more time for the good stuff. For example, in the field of history, we want to hear about the fascinating things you’ve found in the archive and what they mean.

Write a long first draft. You want to engage the audience, so consider addressing the audience directly and using the second person you. Revise and rewrite it. Cut as much as possible without changing the main idea or losing your voice. Trim the academic “fat”: get rid of jargon, adverbs, and unnecessary phrases. Don’t tell the audience what is interesting about your research (”It is interesting that…”); let listeners decide what is interesting. Remove unimportant details. Replace wordy sentences with short ones.

Find a trusted person (an editor, perhaps?) to review the paper. A good editor not only fixes grammar and syntax, but also judges the clarity of your ideas. If your editor doesn’t understand what you mean, your audience won’t either. Read your paper aloud. You will speak to an audience, so your writing should please the ear. Does it sound as melodious as an aria or does it make strange clunking noises like a jalopy? Revise the paper until it sings.

Practice the presentation until it sounds natural. Learn the proper pronunciation of difficult or foreign words. Vary your tone of voice, as a droning monotone lulls the audience to sleep. However, the conference presentation is not a performance art piece. I once saw a presentation in which the speaker used a different voice to represent each person in the text. The effect was jarring. Speak at a slow pace, as nervousness causes people to rush. You want to sound like a professional, confident version of YOU, not a stiff, starched you.

Some presenters choose to not to read their papers and to speak in a more casual and personal way. Presenting to an audience in without reading takes even greater practice. Prepare as you would for any public speaking event. Present to yourself in the mirror. Use index cards with your major points to stay on track. Practice the presentation many times.

Everyone likes seeing images. Using images with a presentation takes practice, as the images should correspond to the presentation’s major points and change every few minutes to hold the audience’s interest. Images without text are often the most effective. If you must use text, use at least 24 point font. Explain the text rather than reading it. Use bullet points rather than full sentences.

Conference paper writing, because of its oral and visual format, is a difficult genre to master. Most academic writing is designed to be read, rather than heard. Solid writing makes for effective content, while practice ensures great delivery. You're not just presenting your ideas--you're ultimately presenting YOU.