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  • How To Be Cool at an Academic Conference January 30, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback


    It should be a recipe for joy and for the diffusion of knowledge. Twenty, two hundred or perhaps even two thousand intelligent men and women, with a shared interest, who find themselves closed into a ‘venue’ for two, three or five days with nothing to do except talk shop. Yet how many academic conferences really live up to their promise? The problems are legion: with intelligence comes ego; with academics comes turf fights; and conference organisers choose appearance over substance, why, for example, sit in an adequate modern room when you could sit in an impressive baroque hall with no acoustics? However, if you cannot control the unpromising setting you can do something about your own small contribution. There follows Strange History’s six rules for giving an impressive presentation at an academic conference. Any other rules (or counter points) gratefully received: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    1) Most presentations at your conference will be bad, rather bad or abysmal: and if they fall into any of these three categories then their content is irrelevant. Before you even get up and head for the stage, teeth gritted, splincter gripped, remember the competition is not exactly black belt. Do twenty percent better than everyone else – which in a normal context would be ‘average’ – and you will make an impression.  Do fifty percent better and the jocks will want to hang out with you.

    2) Most people assume that what they are studying is interesting.  Most at the conference, trapped in their own specialities, will not agree. Ask yourself while preparing any talk what specialist insights you have that the bulk of your audience care about. For instance, the erotics of medieval backgammon becomes a much more interesting topic for fifty punch-drunk medievalists, who have already listened to twelve papers, if you can bring lessons learnt or sources discovered to bear on other more general matters: e.g. backgammon erotics and what it tells us about medieval marriage customs.

    3) Always begin your presentation with a conversational aside to the audience. It doesn’t have to be profound, it doesn’t have to be funny. Maybe it is just you saying that you are particularly glad to be speaking in this city because of x or that you first came to this subject because of y. Look around and get a sense of the audience while you do so: recognise the faces that you are going to be concentrating on. Don’t worry if the panic is not subsiding: it will soon. Probably…

    4) Spoken presentations work much better than read presentations. You have to have a very clear and impressive reading voice and to be saying something profoundly interesting to keep the attention of an audience while you are looking down at a page.  However, writing your paper still makes sense. First, you will want to sooner or later publish so why not write it now? Second, it clears your thinking. And, third, you will find ready made phrases coming out while you are speaking to your public.

    5) Powerpoints employed properly can enhance a speech. Use no more than a title on a slide: unless there is a specific quotation (which can probably be best shown scanned in from a book as an image). An average of one to two minutes per slide. Rely, instead, on the images, which become your cues to talk about the next part of your argument. Complicated moving graphics or music are definitely to be avoided. Prezi might work for architects or even lessons, but does not offer the simple linear progression you want in a talk to peers, who will not be asking questions in media res.

    6) You will probably have twenty minutes to do your talk. A good technique is to design your argument to end with a trailing conclusion, a number of reflections rather than a concatenation argument leading to a CONCLUSION. This will give more concentrated punch. But it will also give you flexibility. If you arrive at the end with a couple of minutes to spare you can luxuriate over the last slide, perhaps even becoming conversational again. If you have spent more time on the presentation you can just finish on your second to last or third to last slide and avoid that embarassing sense of rush.

    31 Jan 2014: Tacitus from Detritus adds some tips of his own: 1. do not hide behind the podium.  It is best in an era of cordless microphones to stalk unpredictably about the front of the hall.  Conference attendees are often timid forest creatures…be a leopard. 2. work without notes.  It takes some practice but darn it all, if you do not know your subject matter forwards and back then you are not presenter but a pretender.  3. Powerpoint is the new opiate of the masses.  Minimize it.  If during your talk you notice that the forest creatures are gazing at the distant horizon instead of warily eyeing the leopard then reduce the Powerpoint presence still further. Thanks, Invisible!!

    31 Jan 2014: Then Invisible has a cracking suggestion: Another thought: If you’re presenting right after lunch in the deadly “Nodding” slot, consider slides of naked people to wake up your audience. A young woman I know was presenting on 18th-century undergarments to a conference on 18th-century military history and material culture. Nearly all the attendees/presenters were male. She was scheduled for 1 p.m. She got the audience’s attention immediately with a power point presentation of racy prints of semi-nude prostitutes, remarking in her introduction that, since so few actual shirts and shifts survive, popular prints are the best historical source for the details of such intimate clothing. I am told that nobody nodded off. Thanks to Tacitus!