Converting your class paper into a conference presentation

Congratulations on getting your paper accepted to a conference! If you’re working from a revision of a previously written course paper, here’s some advice on how to adapt it to a conference presentation.

(If you are looking for advice on conference proposals, I highly recommend the format suggested here by Dr. Karen Kelsky. You can scan some of my conference presentation titles here, and I’m happy to send you my own examples as well – just ask!)

How most of your conferences will work in literary studies:

  • The typical format of most literary studies conferences is that you read – dynamically and with good cheer – from a paper.
  • Every conference is a little different in terms of the scope, level of formality, etc., but you usually read this paper as part of a panel, often of 3-4 presenters each with their own related conference presentation.
  • Panels are typically concurrent, meaning that other people in other nearby rooms may be presenting at the same time as you, and your audience will thus likely be there because they are interested in your work and those of your fellow presenters!
  • Typically you will get somewhere around 10-20 minutes to present your work, with time allotted at the end of the panel for questions and discussion. A panel chair is usually present for introductions and keeping time.
  • Some presenters will pass out handouts or other information related to their presentation, though this is optional.
  • Bigger conferences will have a discussant or someone set to respond to the panel presentations as a whole and to ask additional questions.

First: What NOT to do:

  • Do not assume everyone has read your primary text. At the same time, spend no more than few sentences summarizing. Get to your argument quickly and start proving it. Show your work.
  • Do not just pick an 8-10 page chunk of a paper and read it. If you are adapting a shorter talk from a longer paper, you can refer to it during Q&A (“In my longer project, I actually address your question…”) and/or – if necessary – in your brief introduction (“This presentation is part of a longer article that I am working on. I’d appreciate any feedback you can offer.”)
  • Do not say “quote unquote” to set off your quotes. That can get annoying. Use inflection, pausing, and good writing to make the line between your words and everyone else’s words clear.
  • Do not go over your time! Estimate about 2 minutes of reading per double-spaced 12-pt Times New Roman page. Check with the panel chair/moderator to see how long you have, and then practice. You don’t want to be the jerk who takes away from everyone else’s time because you spoke too long! 🙂

Now, things to do!

  • Keep your sentences short and simple. Unlike regular papers, complex and complicated sentences will not do. People are listening to you read, which takes concentration. Make it as easy for them as possible.
  • Speaking of which, give cue words & signposts. Say, “In this paper, I will argue that…” etc. Remind your audience occasionally of what you are arguing and why it is important. Because this is oral, you will want to signpost these reminders more than you do in your written essay.
  • Choose the strongest points. Especially when adapting a longer paper, you will want to pick the best parts. If you have a short amount of time, focus on only one text.
  • If necessary, adapt your revision to the conference theme or the panel theme. I hope that you did this when you proposed your presentation in the first place, but audiences can tell if you are trying to shoehorn an unrelated topic into a panel. It may only take a tiny bit of extra work to adapt your paper to the panel/conference theme, and you’ll find many happy accidents that will further connect presentations together if you do so.
  • Especially if you are not presenting an extemporaneous speech or PowerPoint, etc., it is important to keep your audience engaged. Do not just read mechanically, without looking at the audience. Make eye contact, read their body language, adapt if they look bored. Stay excited about what you are reading. It’s okay to interrupt yourself to further explain something if it seems necessary. Have fun!
  • Have a clear introduction and a strong and memorable conclusion. End with a “thank you.” Smile.
  • Conferences are for networking! If possible, arrange ahead of time for your fellow presenters and/or the panel chair to celebrate afterward with coffee or dinner. Attend other panels and ask questions during Q&A, and/or in a follow-up e-mail. Thank the presenter after the talk for answering and exchange info. Talk to people from other schools. Who knows? You may make a new friend, meet a future colleague, or discover a new opportunity. 🙂

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