Speak up, don't squeak and remember to smile

November 21, 2003

By following a few basic rules, anyone can deliver a decent conference paper. Susan Bassnett offers some useful tips.

What makes a successful conference? Cynics would say that as long as there is one decent paper and the coffee arrives on time, the event won't have been a total waste of effort. What is troubling, though, is the inability of so many academics to deliver a decent conference paper, even after years of practice. In my experience, postgraduates often give much better papers than seasoned academics, not least because they take the effort to prepare carefully and, most crucially, stay within their allotted time.

Anyone can give a respectable conference paper provided they follow a few basic rules. The first and most important is to keep to time. It is not only boring for an audience to have to listen to someone waffle on, it is also inconsiderate to other colleagues, particularly if you are part of a panel. Avoid over-running by timing yourself reading aloud beforehand to calculate how long it takes to read a page. It takes me about three minutes to read a page of one-and-a-half spaced A4; so if I have ten pages, I am going to run for about 30 minutes. However, because I like to improvise, which takes time, I either reduce that text to eight pages or annotate in advance passages to cut if time runs short. Experiment and work out your own time.

If you use slides, calculate the time taken to switch on the machine and advance the slides. If you use PowerPoint or video, make certain that the technology works before you start and that you have timed your extracts. If you have handouts, remember that it takes time to distribute them. And if you give them out too soon, people will read them and ignore you, but wait too late and they will be of little use. Best to station someone in the front rows who will distribute them at a given signal while you carry on talking.

It is essential to look at your audience while talking to them. If you look down, your voice won't carry, and if you don't give the impression of trying to communicate, you will lose contact. Practise reading while looking up and outwards. It is not difficult, particularly if you know your material well, and you will give the impression of speaking without reading at all. To combat nerves, have water on hand and throat lozenges.

Pitch your voice low in the body when you start. If you begin too high, your voice will start to squeak and you are more likely to cough. When speaking a foreign language, you are likely to pitch even higher because the more familiar the language, the lower it resonates in the body column.

A well-rooted voice carries better and creates greater confidence.

How do you know if you are holding an audience? They will look at you, for a start, but above all they will be quiet. Use the stillness. Pause, don't rush, ensure that the feeling of holding their attention stays with you once you have identified it. Remember that, contrary to common misconception, audiences want you to succeed. They want to be stimulated to listen to you, they want you to do well. If you feel you are running out of time, don't gabble or become desperate. Stop, tell the audience you need another five minutes and ask the chair or the audience if you can have the extra time. Just being asked makes a world of difference: it reassures other speakers waiting to follow on and is a courtesy to all concerned.

Finally, remember that if you give out any material, put your name and email address on it so that people can contact you later. We all have piles of unattributed papers handed out somewhere or other by people we've forgotten, even if they were brilliant. Having a name and contact address creates the possibility of follow-up - and if you've kept to time, made eye contact, breathed deeply, smiled and had something interesting to say, why not tell people who you are?

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Warwick.

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