Advice to Graduate Students Preparing for their First Conference Presentation
By J. Emmett Winn
After having presented many conference papers, I feel that I can give some helpful advice to graduate students concerning conference presentations. Of course, the best advice is to always check with the chair and respondents of any panels well in advance of the conference so that you can prepare according to their suggestions.
With that said, I believe that some general advice and guidelines concerning conference presentations are possible. Therefore, I will address several issues concerning the general function of conference presentations, preparing for and delivering the presentation, and responding to audience questions and comments.
The Functions of Conference Presentations
I suppose the main function of most conference panels is to present original research, scholarly ideas, practical applications, or provide a forum for spirited debate among qualified participants. However, for the purpose of this column, I will stick to the presentation of the original research paper as my focus. The bringing together of the members of a field of study for the purpose of sharing original research and, in turn, receiving valuable feedback has a long and noble history. The conference environment is uniquely suited to providing a forum in which both the best and the brightest newcomers and the established experts in a field can come together and share ideas in a face-to-face manner. Graduate students presenting their research should expect to gain some valuable feedback from both the official respondent and from the knowledgeable participants in the audience. As graduate students progress through their programs they may also find that they will make valuable connections at conferences as they meet other participants with similar research interests.
Preparing for and Delivering the Conference Presentation
I must stress the importance of preparing for conference presentations. There are few things more boring than a poorly delivered conference presentation. I believe this is particularly important to graduate students in the Communication field, after all, we are supposed to be good at presentations. Many people will suggest that the presenter should not read her presentation at all. Others will suggest that the researchers read their presentations completely. I have found that a combination is probably best. Most research presentations can be successfully accomplished in 10-15 minutes. I personally plan my presentations for 10 minutes because I know that I will inevitably go 2-3 minutes longer than I have planned. The presenter should start with the research paper. Cut out the bulk of the introductory material and all of the literature review. The methodology section should be cut to a sentence or two. Then the main points and findings of the paper should be presented explicitly. The bulk of the presentation should be elucidating the most interesting aspects of the study for the audience. The presentation should end with a brief summary of the findings and suggestions for future research. I believe this style of presentation is best accomplished through the use of a detailed outline that the presenter can follow easily and refer to for specific language when necessary. Completing this outline at least two weeks before the conference allows the presenter to practice and refine the presentation in front of colleagues and peers before the conference. Further, practicing it once a day will help the presenter to be confident and at ease while making the presentation at the conference. Waiting until the night before to prepare a conference presentation is possible, but it may lead to a boring time for the audience and an embarrassing moment for the presenter.
Presenters should always send copies of their papers their panel respondents. This provides the respondents with what they need to give the graduate student valuable feedback. In turn, respondents should always provide presenters with written feedback as well as their presentation response. Papers should only be sent to the chairs of panels if the conference planners require this. I personally do not take copies of my papers to conferences anymore. Instead I print up a few strips of paper that have the title of my paper and my contact information. I give these to anyone who is interested. The note instructs them to contact me after the conference and tells them that I will be glad to send them a copy of the paper. This allows me to save paper and lets me keep a record of who receives a copy of my paper.
Most presenters should dress comfortably but conservatively for their presentations. There is no need for the presenter to wear uncomfortable clothes that they are not accustomed to wearing. For example, wearing a shirt and tie that are too tight will hamper the presenter. Likewise, graduate students often have to walk a long way to reach their panel locations. In this case, wearing comfortable shoes and clothing makes more sense than arriving at your presentation in pain.
Responding to Audience Questions and Comments
Responding to audience questions and comments is often the most anxiety-producing aspect of the presentation. I believe that it is common, especially for first time presenters, to be anxious about what an audience member might say. It seems there are many "urban legends" that circulate among graduate students about heinous audience members who verbally attack graduate student presenters. I must say that I have never witnessed this in almost 15 years of regular conference attendance [ed.'s note from Sterne: in 10 years of conference attendence, I have witnessed this on one or two occasions, but it is very rare and most people realize that it reflects most poorly on the attacker, rather than the presenter.]. In fact, I've witnessed the opposite many times. It has been my experience that audience members want to support the graduate student presenters and often ask helpful questions and make positive remarks. However, in keeping with the theme of this column let me say that preparing for possible questions is a good idea. One of the best ways to prepare for questions is to set up a mock presentation several days before you leave for the conference. Ask as many fellow graduate students and the faculty to attend as possible. Instruct them that you want them to both critique your presentation and to ask you difficult questions afterwards. Ask one of your peers to videotape the presentation and the Q & A session. Then ask your mock audience to analyze your answers and make suggestions for improvement. Even if you don't answer a question well, you will know to brush up on that material before leaving for the conference. This practice should help you anticipate any problem questions that you may encounter.
So what do you do if someone asks you a question after your conference presentation and you are uncertain of the answer? I believe there are some good strategies for this situation. First, ask the questioner to restate the question in a different way. This will give you a few more moments to think and the questioner may make the question clearer in his or her restatement. Secondly, ask the questioner if they can give you an example that illustrates what they are asking. Most of the time questions are thought of "on the spot" and the asker hasn't had time to formulate a clear statement of her or his question. By giving you an example, the questioner might give you a clearer indication of what he or she is "getting at." Thirdly, politely tell the questioner that you are uncertain and say something akin to, "perhaps another panel member or someone in the audience may have a good answer to that question?" Hopefully someone will jump in and offer a response. If all this fails, the chair of the panel should interrupt the process in order to keep the Q & A session moving along.
I do not believe that presenters are obliged to follow up on comments, criticisms, or suggestions made by formal respondents. However, the presenters should acknowledge remarks made by the respondent and thank them for their time and effort. A good respondent gives the most valuable feedback at the panel. The presenter should take those comments and look over them seriously to see if the presenter can accommodate those suggestions in future versions of the research paper.
In closing, if I were limited to one piece of advice for graduate students planning a conference presentation, it would be: keep it relatively short and practice it several times before you leave for the conference. The successful conference presentation is the one that briefly and clearly explains the goals and achievements of the research. A broadly diverse audience should be able to get the basic point of the research from the presentation so that they can follow up with the presenter if they wish.
©2003 J. Emmett Winn