Helpful Hints for Conferences

1. Just because you have written a paper, does not mean that you have a presentation. Papers are meant to be read silently to yourself, and when you do so, you can go at your own pace, and reread sections that you might not have gotten the first time around. For a live performance, however, you need to overcome the fact that people can’t do this, so don’t just read your prose word for word quickly, in a monotone, and without ever looking up. (As someone said once: “We know you can read. So can we.”) At the same time, don’t simply give a “report” on what you are working on (“now, in this section I explore some of the implications…”). I am amazed at how many academics continue to do either of these things. No, if you give even a little effort, you can craft a genuine presentation, in which you actually engage the audience with your message, which should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. I am only too aware of the criticisms of PowerPoint, but it can be used effectively, and frankly it’s pretty much standard these days – why not show key points and a gratuitous illustration or two on principle? (Although there is a problem with this that I have not seen addressed elsewhere. If you are going to use PowerPoint, just make sure that when you insert your thumb drive, and open it, that you do not display to the entire room all your personal files. Empty the drive of anything but your talk, or make sure that the projection screen is off when you download it. This goes double if you’ve emailed the paper to yourself and you are at risk of showing everyone in the room the contents of your inbox. If the chair is on the ball this should not be a problem – see below.)

2. If you are the session chair, here are a few things you can do to make things run properly:

  • Before the session begins, move one of the tables to the front, and get the speakers to sit behind it facing the audience, in preparation for any questions the audience might want to ask
  • Also before the session begins, make sure the computer and the projector are working properly, download any of the presenters’ PowerPoint files onto the desktop, and have them ready to go
  • State your name and affiliation clearly, and welcome the audience graciously
  • Clearly explain the theme of the panel and why it has a claim on people’s attention
  • Clearly introduce the panelists
  • Tell everyone to silence their cell phones 
  • Keep everyone within their allotted time, perhaps with signs saying “five minutes left,” “two minutes left,” etc.
  • After the talks, mention how you enjoyed the papers, and if at all possible point out some commonalities (don’t just pop up and say “any questions?”)
  • Manage the questions gracefully

It helps if you have gotten all the papers beforehand, and read them, but this is not always possible.

3. If you are organizing a conference, why not consider reviving the medieval custom of the academic debate? Think of Johann Eck vs. Martin Luther in 1520, or Peter Abelard vs. William of Champeaux in the twelfth century. The fall of this form, I assume, has to do with the denigration of scholasticism and the dialectic mode of enquiry that it promoted; lately, we’ve all become “professional” as well – we’d never publicly contradict a colleague! But I think it could be a lot of fun if you actually got two people, each representing a different side of an issue, and let them go at it. It might even lead to greater clarity of thought.