Tips for Successful Academic Paper Presentations

Suggestions for effective presentations at academic conferences.

November 08, 2013

Graduate Dean Tyrus Miller
You have identified a great conference to attend, sent in an abstract of your paper, and voilà! received notice that it has been accepted.  Now what?  It’s time to think about how to prepare and deliver a successful paper that will communicate your work effectively, leave a good impression on your listeners, and spark further conversations that can help you network and learn.
Each discipline can have somewhat different expectations of what constitutes a good conference paper.  You should discuss conference presentations with experienced presenters in your field (e.g. your advisor or other faculty), as well as observe a variety of talks in your field to figure out what worked and what was less successful in a given talk.  Chances are, if you consciously and consistently try to imitate the good features you’ve observed and avoid the bad ones, you will be well on your way to becoming an effective presenter.
So the first tip for successful academic paper presentation is:
  • Inquire about, observe, and seek to imitate the best practices and models of paper presentation in your discipline.
Some additional tips that follow may seem obvious or elementary, but you can be surprised at how many speakers fail to observe them.  Unfortunately, one hears way too many poorly presented, ineffectual academic paper hampered by their author’s failure to follow a few basic guidelines and principles.
Listening to an oral presentation is cognitively different than reading a paper on a page.  In general, listeners, in comparison to readers, require more road-mapping of where an argument has been and where it is going, more redundancy and reiteration of key points, and more variety to hold their attention through the twenty, thirty, or fifty minute duration of a typical academic talk.  Some of the things that you can do to help your listeners are:
  • State the structure and main points of your argument explicitly and clearly at the outset and again in summary.
  • Don’t be afraid to restate or reiterate in paraphrase, especially where a point is complicated.  A good conference presentation will typically have several pivotal moments in which the presenter says: “In other words. . .”; “To put it more simply. . .”; “Just to sum up that point. . . “; and other such constructions that allow your listener to pause on an important argument and get another chance to take it in.
  • Visual props and key word slides are helpful for offering variety and illustration of your arguments.  However, reading your talk from PowerPoint slide is deadly.  You will likely bore and irritate your audience, who after all could read your slides perfectly well—if you would just shut up and stop reading for them.  This is not the state of mind you want to put your listener in.
  • It may require more time for an audience to take in spoken or printed discourse than the time in which you deliver it.  You already know your argument.  They don’t.  Slow down and give them enough time to absorb, look at your slides, read your quotes, and jot down notes.  Don’t try to jam in too much material to your allotted time by reading really fast—you are wasting your time and irritating your audience. Never, ever flash a slide with a quote or complex diagram up on the screen and then not let people have sufficient time to take it in.  Either don’t show it at all, or give enough time for it to be read and be explained if necessary.  The burden is on you to select and scale your talk and its supporting materials appropriately for your available presentation time.
A few other tips, and you will be on your way:
  • Rehearse your presentation out loud several times, if possible in front of a listener who can give you feedback on both form and content.  Ask your listener if there was anything they had a hard time taking in or following, and if so, clarify and simplify to make it clear.  Anything that you were stumbling over in presenting, you should clarify and practice till you can present it well.
  • If you will be showing slides or media along with a text, mark in your text where each slide or clip will occur.  Rehearse going through your media along with the text.
  • Speak up and don’t drop your voice.  You will need to speak at a volume that will seem to you to be excessively loud in order to be well heard in a room.  Remember that you are hearing your voice transmitted, in part, through your own body, which is a more proximate and compact carrier of sound than the air between you and your listeners.  It’s a useful trick to write reminders to yourself in your margins from time to time—“Speak up.” “Don’t drop volume”
  • Time your talk and adjust it to fit your allotted time.  Don’t indulge in wishful thinking that you can “fit it in.”  Know how much time you have and don’t kid yourself: make your presentation fit it.  No one has ever said at a conference, “I was so glad they went on an extra twenty minutes instead of reading only fifteen minutes of this fascinating work.”  But at almost every conference, sadly, lots of people leave sessions saying, “That jerk.  He went on fifteen minutes too long, ignored the chair’s signals, and there was no time for discussion.”  People remember abusive presenters, and avoid inviting them to participate on future panels they are organizing.
  • If there are things about your topic you want to get help finding out, or if you want to steer the discussion to a particular issue, end your talk with a query or question.  Point out an area of continuing controversy, uncertainty, or interpretative debate and invite your audience to weigh in.  With a slightly open-ended presentation, leaving room for and inviting further discussion, you are more likely to draw questions towards your paper, receive comments, and get useful references and contacts from the occasion.
Lastly, if you prepare and present academic papers aware that reading a paper is an important professional performance, you will learn and improve with accumulated experience.  No one can be a master without a lot of practice; however, no one becomes a master without practicing not just a lot, but also well.  Treating each conference paper as a serious public profiling of your work and an occasion to consciously develop your professional communication skills will ensure that you gain the maximum benefit of your efforts.