How to give a good academic conference paper

Published: 06 Apr 2017 By Jack Grove

Man holding book and singing

A lively lecture full of insight, wit and passion for a subject can linger long in the memory. So, too, can a truly awful presentation.

Having watched her fair share of terrible academic talks, as well as excellent ones, Farah Mendlesohn, professor of literary history at Anglia Ruskin University, thought she would draw together some tips for those about to hit the conference circuit.

Her guide, put together with her husband Edward James, emeritus professor of medieval history at University College Dublin, has proved immensely popular, downloaded more than 5,000 times.

Taken as read

“The initial impetus for it came from an appalling talk I attended in 2005,” recalls Mendlesohn. “The speaker took his paper out, put his head down and tried to break the world speed reading record.”

Mendlesohn, an expert on fantasy literature, admits that she discreetly took out a novel after 10 minutes as the paper was more or less unintelligible.

“He had zero interest in the audience – he was there to read his paper and that was it,” she explains.

“People forget they might be able to read 3,000 words in 20 minutes, but there is no way that I can hear them in that short space of time,” she adds.

Mendlesohn has since seen dozens of presentations of academic papers, as well as jointly organising 17 events herself, including last year’s World Science Fiction Conference, which saw 10,000 people converge on London’s ExCel centre.

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At the heart of any good academic paper is a lot of preparation, and particularly for those that appear unscripted or spontaneous, advises Mendlesohn.

“Anything that looks like improvisation on the day almost certainly has an awful lot of preparation behind it,” explains her guide.

This will generally mean writing out the paper in full before breaking it down into shorter, punchier sentences more suited to the seemingly “improvised” delivery.

“There are some people who can improvise without writing a paper, but when you dig deeper it turns out to be because they have already written the book,” it adds.

However, not all academics will feel comfortable presenting in this manner, and the more conversational style might not be possible if there are complex ideas to communicate.

Speakers can read out papers, but they must be less dense, less formal and have more signposts for the listeners than journal papers, the guide adds. Begin by outlining your thesis at the very start so that the audience has some idea of where you are going, it adds.

“You need to think what your key idea is, but also what do I want people to walk away with and why exactly is my talk interesting,” Mendlesohn says.

Rough with the smooth

But Mendlesohn also advises against making your talk too polished. In fact, inserting a few rough edges into the paper is actually a good way to encourage a first question from the audience – avoiding that excruciating silence as the chair desperately scans the room looking for some kind of response.

“A lot of young academics do not get questions because they are too good – their talks are too finessed and smooth,” says Mendlesohn.

“There is always an anomaly in your findings, so if you acknowledge it yourself, people will trust you more and it leaves room for an obvious question,” she adds.

Soliciting questions that stimulate new avenues of thought should actually be one of the major objectives of any conference talk – a fact overlooked by some who are more focused on the “ritual” of giving a paper, Mendlesohn believes.

“People forget why they are giving a paper, which is to engage with colleagues and get feedback.”

Originally published on Times Higher Education, October 15, 2015

Pic source: Rex

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