Preparing for Conference Presentations: advice
from Fernando Delgado, 2003 program planner for NCA's Critical
and Cultural Studies Division.
by Kristen Hoerl
Attitudes about Conference Presentation
--What is the function of a conference presentation?
point for students is to introduce themselves to the academic community
that is NCA, to test out ideas and perspectives to an audience with
intellectual bearings that can be different than the presenter, and
to socialize students into the norms and processes of the academic
community. So often students (and their mentors) share a similar and
necessarily narrow frame of reference. Conferences bring together a
broader spectrum of scholars whose takes on topics, theories, and methods
differ. The presentation is therefore an invitation to an intellectual
--What should graduate students expect to accomplish
by presenting their papers at national conferences? Are expectations
different at more regional or specialized conferences?
expectations at a national conference should be to present the best
possible work of scholarship and/or research, hopefully on its way
to publication, and to get fair but strong critiques (during or after
the presentation), by colleagues and respondents. For those students
on the job market or looking to move from an MA to PhD program, they
perhaps could think of the presentation as a sort of audition. We learn
much about quality/clarity of thought, professionalism, poise, etc.
by observing students during conferences.
There is not much difference at the regional
conferences. Rather, the size, scope and intensity of the national
conference is simply greater than that of a regional conference.
--How do these expectations change as graduate students
progress through their programs?
some point we all get to the realization that presentation and
publication is about constructing a body of work that represents
us to colleagues
and students across space and time. In effect, presentations and
publications are our calling cards. As all students go through process
and writing does get sharper. More profound, however, is the realization
that conventions can be something more than social time and that
the presentations does have something at stake—people are watching,
and so are also evaluating.
It is easy to get blasé about the whole
process (and become jaded). But the point is also that it becomes
easier as your comfort within yourself as a scholar and your
role at NCA increases. Students may observe their professional
identities (and preferences) crystallizing over time.
Preparing for a Conference Presentation
--What is the best way to prepare for a presentation?
Would you recommend that graduate students write everything in advance?
What are some useful strategies for practicing presentations?
the paper well ahead of time, send a complete copy of the paper to
the chair and the respondent (if there is one). Make 10-15 copies to
bring AND a note pad so that people might offer their email addresses
so that you can send them copies electronically.
NOT ATTEMPT TO READ a 25-30 page paper. I do one of two things: 1)
A cutting of it, a 10 page version that summarizes the project, theories,
methods, and conclusions. 2) An extemporaneous presentation that
relies somewhat on the introduction but is largely a 12 minute summary
of the paper. I prefer the latter conversational tone.
When practicing the goals are: Clarity
in surveying the project and time -- never go over time. This
latter rule is crucial. Going over time, and not having prepared
the time allotted, is disrespectful to fellow panelists, chairs,
and the audience (who may not then have time for questions).
The result is that you can appear under-prepared, rude, unprofessional
and, to some, supremely egotistical. At NCA it is easy to know
time parameters and the number of presenters for each panel.
With 3 presenters and a respondent, 15 minutes should be the maximum.
More presenters equals less time. When I prep I always shoot
12 minutes. I also carry a watch, if I am going slow in the beginning
I can then make adjustments. Making adjustments is the point.
You wrote the paper so you know what is central and collateral
--What should speakers wear to present their papers?
a graduate student you can make choices. But always be cognizant that
getting dressed is a conscious act and will be judged accordingly.
If you are dressing to make a political point, that is fine. If you
are dressing for comfort, great. But please be aware that others may
be judging you. At the beginning it is always best to dress in professional
or, if you will, business-casual attire. I have friends who wear shorts
and Hawaiian shirts or t shirts and combat boots. But these are seasoned
scholars whose attire is part of their persona. I guess the questions
would be, do you have a persona where that works? Is this the persona
you are trying to cultivate?
--Should presenters send copies of their papers to
panel chairs and respondents even if conference planners don't specify
that they do so?
Always send your papers, invariably chairs
and respondents are faculty (or notable faculty) and the point of
the presentation is to have an impact.
--Should presenters provide copies of their papers
for audience members? Is it preferable for presenters to bring multiple
hard copies with them to the presentation or to offer to send electronic
copies to individuals after the conference? Is it ever advisable
to not provide copies of presentation papers to interested audience
believe I answered this above -- best to bring some copies and
have a mechanism to send copies to others. Email has really helped
if you promise to send copies, do so!
Delivering a Conference Presentation
--Is it preferable to read from a manuscript or speak
extemporaneously about the research on which the manuscript is based?
come from a rhetorical background and so I value an extemporaneous
presentation. But play to your strengths. There are times when the
material is complicated and detailed (and your are nervous) and a written
manuscript could help. But as we all know, a well-presented extemporaneous
presentation is always much more appealing.
--What aspects of an accepted submission should the
presenter emphasize? How much time should a presentation give:
to previous literature? to the description of particular texts? to
the analysis and theory generated from those texts?
is a complicated question. Conferences have such tight time constraints
that usually guide what you can do. However, in that you want to
demonstrate dexterity of theories and provide ample conceptual, historical,
context for the presentation. I tend to focus on these elements.
Previous literature can sometimes be woven into the other pieces
and I would,
by no means, be a slave to it. If someone questions your grounding,
your lit review, you have the hard copy to demonstrate you’ve done
the excavation work.
--Should the presentation be geared toward an audience
familiar with the theoretical frameworks that underlie the project
or toward a more general audience?
would aim to a slightly more general audience. You do not know if people
are attracted to the paper because of the topic, method, or theory.
Moreover, the presentation should be heuristic and an invitation to
Responding to Audience Questions and Comments
--The prospect of being asked to respond to questions
from the audience after a presentation is sometimes the most anxiety-producing
aspect of a presentation. With that in mind:
--What types of questions should presenters expect
to receive from audience members?
and A produces anxiety because you can never anticipate the questions.
I chaired a recent panel on visual communication that deteriorated
when a particular audience member criticize the fundamental project
of the presenters. That was inappropriate after the first question.
While I wish some of the presenters had more poise, the point was that
people at NCA often times do not ask questions, rather they make statements
or advance counter-arguments and then they ask for a response. The
bottom line: Know what your paper says, do not over state the case
of claim too much, and when you cannot answer the question, let it
--What are some useful strategies for responding to
questions: when the presenter is uncertain of his or her answer?
when the paper is co-written by several authors?
--How should presenters acknowledge and respond to
formal panel respondents?
--Are presenters expected to follow up with a respondent?
Might it be a good idea to do so?
there are co-authors, choreograph the presentation and agree upon
the roles of the presenters. When you are uncertain, state that.
question is unclear, and they often are, ask for a restatement.
Remember, the audience is full of "performers" as well—some of whom
may be looking to upstage you.
Responding to the responders is tricky.
Sometimes they are supportive, sometimes not, sometimes meaningless.
Write down comments that are meaningful, nod, look out at the audience
and/or the respondent. If you have a beef, follow up (privately).
--How would you describe a successful conference presentation?
--What other advice would you give to graduate students
presenting their research for the first time?
--If you had only one piece of advice to give to graduate
students before they presented a conference paper, what would it
successful presentation is one that has been well-presented and received
in the spirit of academic dialogue and debate. It always feels good,
as well, when the audience is drawn to your topic and presentation
and the questions go your way.
final piece of advice: Be prepared. thoroughly, completed, professionally
prepared to perform.