Friday, April 13, 2012

Getting the Most Out of Regional Conferences

One of the points raised in today’s excellent Brown Bag conversation about preparing for the job market was what we can do early in our program to prepare us – professionally and mentally – for a career in scholarship.

Of course, the first resource I want to share is The Professor Is In, a superlative blog about how to be sane and successful in the academic world, and which includes this especially helpful post: What To Do Now in Grad School.

The piece of advice I want to share is how valuable it is to attend small conferences and parlay these baby steps into giant professional steps. During back-to-back weekends, I attended Junto, the Midwest regional meeting of the History of Science Society, and the Upper Midwest regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Both were very welcoming to newcomers and were intentional about not intimidating those of us who were new to giving conference presentations. In fact, I urge you to get next year’s Junto on your calendar right now, and start saving those pennies to get yourself there:

Junto 2013: April 5-7 in Notre Dame, Indiana

(Incidentally, Wisconsin hosted the first Junto back in 1964, and it’s been several years since it met here, so I believe that it’s time we offered Madison hospitality for the 2014 Junto – who’s with me?)

Both Junto and the regional meeting of the AAR are intended to be low-key opportunities especially for newbies, so definitely take advantage of these conferences. They will make it much easier to imagine yourself presenting at the History of Science Society or even the American Historical Association, and then in your first job talks and teaching demonstrations. Take a stack of business cards to hand out -- after all, these are your future colleagues you're rubbing elbows with.

However, I would also like to offer some advice to inexperienced speakers about presenting effectively and making the most of these smaller, less-intimidating conferences.

1. Write in your speaking voice. Most importantly, remember that you are presenting to be understood. That sounds deceptively obvious, but quite a few of the presenters at both conferences did not do a good job of making themselves understood. First of all, recognize that there is a difference between your writing voice and your speaking voice – your audience is not going to have a copy of your text in front of them, and so they’re depending on you to be clear and easy to follow. Write a brilliant paper, by all means, but then go back through and rewrite it into your speaking voice. Cut down on the long-winded and complex-compound sentences, eliminate jargon and abbreviations, signpost your important points scrupulously, be lively and expressive, and use pauses to make yourself more understandable. I cannot emphasize this last point enough; I am convinced that the good response I got from the audience last week was primarily because they could actually understand what I was saying. In our nervousness, we might produce something like this information overload:


which, to the audience, feels a bit like the famous scene from I Love Lucy:

Audience members need a moment to digest each chunk of information before the next one comes along, and if you don’t give it to them, they’re not following you. Better would be something like this:

This morning I’m examining (tiny pause) the provocation of a range of American responses (tiny pause) to the 1829 textbook (tiny pause) Introduction to Geology (tiny pause) by Benjamin Silliman Sr. (bigger pause)

Rehearse your talk several times, if possible, before the conference itself, and get some practice at using these pauses. If necessary, put a slash / at each place in your text / that you want to pause. Having sat through an entire day of twenty-minute presentations during which I believe no one actually paused to take a breath, I guarantee that your audience will thank you.

2. Respect the time limit. Seriously – no exceptions. One of the reasons you must rehearse your talk in advance is to make sure that you finish within the time limit with time to spare. DO NOT TRY TO FIT A 20-MINUTE TALK INTO 15 MINUTES – the only thing you will accomplish is to guarantee that your audience cannot follow you. Giving just the core points of your research and finishing with time for questions demonstrates not only that you respect your audience and the organizers, but also that you know your topic well enough to articulate what the very essence of it is. Being an experienced public speaker, I know that I can speak at 150 words per minute, but that 110 words per minute is much easier to understand. When the time limit is 20 minutes, I strive to write 17 minutes of speech, and then very deliberately make sure that I’m adding pauses for emphasis and clarity. Again, give yourself lots of chances to rehearse beforehand to be sure.

3. PowerPoint is a privilege, not a right. We’ve all seen examples of PowerPoint used badly, right? Cluttered slides, eye-searing neon text and ornate fonts, cutesy special effects – there are so many ways in which this can go wrong, but it also means that PowerPoint done well will stand out. First of all, recognize that every new slide distracts the audience from following what you’re saying, so don’t overwhelm them with unnecessary clip art or entertaining effects, and pause while they digest it and return their attention to you. I was so frustrated by a presenter last week, who apparently was trying to win a bet that he could use every single special effect offered by PowerPoint, that I could scarcely follow what he was saying. And don’t put any more text up there than absolutely necessary, but just the basic messages that you want to make sure the audience is getting – again, this is an exercise in demonstrating that you can articulate what the core of your research is. Lastly, remember that this visual medium is most effective when it’s contributing visual content – faces, maps, and landscapes -- that help to balance out all of the words the audience is already digesting.

4. Speak clearly, or speak not. Yes, public speaking is an anxious experience for us all. I preach almost weekly, and I still get nervous when I present at conferences. Everyone is sympathetic with you about how stressful this is, but that’s no excuse to become inaudible. Pitch your voice to the very back row, breathe so that you can project, enunciate clearly and speak expressively, and you will have already distinguished yourself from 80% of the other presenters. If you will be using a microphone, ask to test it during the break, and make sure that you can be heard. This is not Hogwarts, where the Sonorus spell will make sure that you’re audible – you have to actually speak into the microphone for it to work. And don’t bury your head in your manuscript text; look at your audience. I’m astounded at how many academics, who make a living by speaking to rooms full of people, are unable to speak to a room full of people. Make sure that you can be heard, or all your hard work will go unappreciated.

5. Your enthusiasm is contagious.  Yeah, this sounds like new-age thinking, I know, but seriously – if you convey your excitement for your topic and are explicit about why it should also be interesting to your audience, they’ll pick up on your enthusiasm. One of the most memorable talks I heard last week was about a history-of-technology analysis of the steampunk genre – maybe not the most serious topic, but it was fun and cheeky, and the presenter’s playfulness made it enjoyable for the audience as well. Sadly, the converse is also true – if you seem bored, frustrated, or confused by your topic, the audience will be too. Your posture, eye contact, changing pitch and cadence of your voice, and gestures all help to animate your talk, so get some practice at using them – alone at home, in front of a mirror, before a small group of trusted colleagues – and you’ll feel more natural using them at the conference.

Okay, these are just a few of the basic tips that came to mind during these two great conferences.  What suggestions can you add to this list?


  1. This is fantastic, Scott. So correct, and so well-written. My advice: emulate this blog post when putting together your presentations! Clear, organized, sign-posted, just a little humorous, and passionate!

  2. I agree. Great job Scott! I've presented at many national conferences, but I was recently reminded how helpful a small, regional conference can be when I returned to the Columbia History of Science Group (CHSG). (It's the northwest regional conference, but draws visitors from, let's say, a very broadly interpreted version of the Columbia watershed.) You can get a lot better feedback and build lasting connections more easily in the intimate setting of a regional conference, where everyone hears the same papers. And the CHSG in particular is much more dynamic because read papers are forbidden.

    The only addition I'd make to your speaking advice is to check out Paul Edwards' guide on "How to Give and Academic Talk."

  3. Love this post, Scott. Just as Anna said, these are excellent rules for any presentation.