Preparing for Conference Presentations: advice from Fernando Delgado, 2003 program planner for NCA's Critical and Cultural Studies Division.

Interview by Kristen Hoerl

Attitudes about Conference Presentation

--What is the function of a conference presentation?

The 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 conversation.

--What should graduate students expect to accomplish by presenting their papers at national conferences? Are expectations different at more regional or specialized conferences?

The 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?

At 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 their scholarship 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 and intellectual 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?

1)    Write 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.

2)    DO 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 for the time allotted, is disrespectful to fellow panelists, chairs, respondents, 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 the 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 for 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 to present.

--What should speakers wear to present their papers?

As 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 members?

I believe I answered this above -- best to bring some copies and have a mechanism to send copies to others. Email has really helped this. However, 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?

I 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?

This 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, intellectual 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?

I 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 more conversation.

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?

Q 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 be.

--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?

When there are co-authors, choreograph the presentation and agree upon the roles of the presenters. When you are uncertain, state that. If the 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).

Closing questions:

--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 be?

A 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.

One final piece of advice: Be prepared. thoroughly, completed, professionally prepared to perform.

©2003 Fernando Delgado

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