What this handout is about
This handout outlines strategies for writing and presenting papers for academic conferences.
What’s special about conference papers?
Conference papers can be an effective way to try out new ideas, introduce your work to colleagues, and hone your research questions. Presenting at a conference is a great opportunity for gaining valuable feedback from a community of scholars and for increasing your professional stature in your field.
A conference paper is often both a written document and an oral presentation. You may be asked to submit a copy of your paper to a commentator before you present at the conference. Thus, your paper should follow the conventions for academic papers and oral presentations.
Preparing to write your conference paper
There are several factors to consider as you get started on your conference paper.
Determine the structure and style
How will you structure your presentation? This is an important question, because your presentation format will shape your written document. Some possibilities for your session include:
- A visual presentation, including software such as PowerPoint or Prezi
- A paper that you read aloud
- A roundtable discussion
Presentations can be a combination of these styles. For example, you might read a paper aloud while displaying images. Following your paper, you might participate in an informal conversation with your fellow presenters.
You will also need to know how long your paper should be. Presentations are usually 15-20 minutes. A general rule of thumb is that one double-spaced page takes 2-2.5 minutes to read out loud. Thus an 8-10 page, double-spaced paper is often a good fit for a 15-20 minute presentation. Adhere to the time limit. Make sure that your written paper conforms to the presentation constraints.
Consider the conventions of the conference and the structure of your session
It is important to meet the expectations of your conference audience. Have you been to an academic conference previously? How were presentations structured? What kinds of presentations did you find most effective? What do you know about the particular conference you are planning to attend? Some professional organizations have their own rules and suggestions for writing and presenting for their conferences. Make sure to find out what they are and stick to them.
If you proposed a panel with other scholars, then you should already have a good idea of your panel’s expectations. However, if you submitted your paper individually and the conference organizers placed it on a panel with other papers, you will need additional information.
Will there be a commentator? Commentators, also called respondents or discussants, can be great additions to panels, since their job is to pull the papers together and pose questions. If there will be a commentator, be sure to know when he or she would like to have a copy of your paper. Observe this deadline.
You may also want to find out what your fellow presenters will be talking about. Will you circulate your papers among the other panelists prior to the conference? Will your papers address common themes? Will you discuss intersections with each other’s work after your individual presentations? How collaborative do you want your panel to be?
Analyze your audience
Knowing your audience is critical for any writing assignment, but conference papers are special because you will be physically interacting with them. Take a look at our handout on audience. Anticipating the needs of your listeners will help you write a conference paper that connects your specific research to their broader concerns in a compelling way.
What are the concerns of the conference?
You can identify these by revisiting the call for proposals and reviewing the mission statement or theme of the conference. What key words or concepts are repeated? How does your work relate to these larger research questions? If you choose to orient your paper toward one of these themes, make sure there is a genuine relationship. Superficial use of key terms can weaken your paper.
What are the primary concerns of the field?
How do you bridge the gap between your research and your field’s broader concerns? Finding these linkages is part of the brainstorming process. See our handout on brainstorming. If you are presenting at a conference that is within your primary field, you should be familiar with leading concerns and questions. If you will be attending an interdisciplinary conference or a conference outside of your field, or if you simply need to refresh your knowledge of what’s current in your discipline, you can:
- Read recently published journals and books, including recent publications by the conference’s featured speakers
- Talk to people who have been to the conference
- Pay attention to questions about theory and method. What questions come up in the literature? What foundational texts should you be familiar with?
- Review the initial research questions that inspired your project. Think about the big questions in the secondary literature of your field.
- Try a free-writing exercise. Imagine that you are explaining your project to someone who is in your department, but is unfamiliar with your specific topic. What can you assume he or she already knows? Where will you need to start in your explanation? How will you establish common ground?
Contextualizing your narrow research question within larger trends in the field will help you connect with your audience. You might be really excited about a previously unknown nineteenth-century poet. But will your topic engage others? You don’t want people to leave your presentation, thinking, “What was the point of that?” By carefully analyzing your audience and considering the concerns of the conference and the field, you can present a paper that will have your listeners thinking, “Wow! Why haven’t I heard about that obscure poet before? She is really important for understanding developments in Romantic poetry in the 1800s!”
Writing your conference paper
I have a really great research paper/manuscript/dissertation chapter on this same topic. Should I cut and paste?
Be careful here. Time constraints and the needs of your audience may require a tightly focused and limited message. To create a paper tailored to the conference, you might want to set everything aside and create a brand new document. Don’t worry—you will still have that paper, manuscript, or chapter if you need it. But you will also benefit from taking a fresh look at your research.
Since your conference paper will be part of an oral presentation, there are special considerations for citations. You should observe the conventions of your discipline with regard to including citations in your written paper. However, you will also need to incorporate verbal cues to set your evidence and quotations off from your text when presenting. For example, you can say: “As Nietzsche said, quote, ‘And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you,’ end quote.” If you use multiple quotations in your paper, think about omitting the terms “quote” and “end quote,” as these can become repetitive. Instead, signal quotations through the inflection of your voice or with strategic pauses.
Organizing the paper
There are numerous ways to effectively organize your conference paper, but remember to have a focused message that fits the time constraints and meets the needs of your audience. You can begin by connecting your research to the audience’s concerns, then share a few examples/case studies from your research, and then, in conclusion, broaden the discussion back out to general issues in the field.
Don’t overwhelm or confuse your audience
You should limit the information that you present. Don’t attempt to summarize your entire dissertation in 10 pages. Instead, try selecting main points and provide examples to support those points. Alternatively, you might focus on one main idea or case study and use 2-4 examples to explain it.
Check for clarity in the text
One way to anticipate how your ideas will sound is to read your paper out loud. Reading out loud is an excellent proofreading technique and is a great way to check the clarity of your ideas; you are likely to hear problems that you didn’t notice in just scanning your draft. Help listeners understand your ideas by making sure that subjects and verbs are clear and by avoiding unnecessarily complex sentences.
Include verbal cues in the text
Make liberal use of transitional phrases like however, therefore, and thus, as well as signpost words like first, next, etc.
If you have 5 main points, say so at the beginning and list those 5 ideas. Refer back to this structure frequently as you transition between sections (“Now, I will discuss my fourth point, the importance of plasma”).
Use a phrase like “I argue” to announce your thesis statement. Be sure that there is only one of these phrases—otherwise your audience will be confused about your central message.
Refer back to the structure, and signal moments where you are transitioning to a new topic: “I just talked about x, now I’m going to talk about y.”
I’ve written my conference paper, now what?
Now that you’ve drafted your conference paper, it’s time for the most important part—delivering it before an audience of scholars in your field! Remember that writing the paper is only one half of what a conference paper entails. It is both a written text and a presentation.
With preparation, your presentation will be a success. Here are a few tips for an effective presentation. You can also see our handout on speeches.
Cues to yourself
Include helpful hints in your personal copy of the paper. You can remind yourself to pause, look up and make eye contact with your audience, or employ body language to enhance your message. If you are using a slideshow, you can indicate when to change slides. Increasing the font size to 14-16 pt. can make your paper easier to read.
Practice, practice, practice
When you practice, time yourself. Are you reading too fast? Are you enunciating clearly? Do you know how to pronounce all of the words in your paper? Record your talk and critically listen to yourself. Practice in front of friends and colleagues.
If you are using technology, familiarize yourself with it. Check and double-check your images. Remember, they are part of your presentation and should be proofread just like your paper. Print a backup copy of your images and paper, and bring copies of your materials in multiple formats, just in case. Be sure to check with the conference organizers about available technology.
The written text is only one aspect of the overall conference paper. The other is your presentation. This means that your audience will evaluate both your work and you! So remember to convey the appropriate level of professionalism.
There are many guides to preparing for conferences, some of which are discipline-specific. Check to see if the organization sponsoring your conference provides any special rules or tips for writing and presenting papers.
Here are some places to start:
Adler, Abby. “Talking the Talk: Tips on Giving a Successful Conference Presentation.” Psychological Science Agenda 24.4 (April 2010). American Psychological Association. <http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2010/04/presentation.aspx>.
Kerber, Linda K. “Conference Rules, Part 2.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 21, 2008.<http://chronicle.com/article/Conference-Rules-Part-2/45734>.
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