Conferences

Presenting a Conference Paper

Writing research presentations can be painstaking. Presenting a conference paper to talk about your research in English can be scary.

Trying to fit your full paper into a 20-minute session? You might run overtime, which is trying on your audience.

Are your listeners are of mixed-language background? They may not be familiar with your English accent. So speak clearly without rushing it.

Being nervous while presenting your research presentations? This might make you smile more than you care for. But that’s all right: smiling will give your voice more intonation and make you sound more enthusiastic.

And besides, doesn’t your audience deserve a more animated presentation? They are on your side and might have traveled long and far to be there. So you really don’t want to end up talking to a whatsapping audience.

CONFERENCE RESEARCH PRESENTATIONS: THEN AND NOW

Some three decades ago, an academic advisor gave me this piece of advice: “Print out your paper, put it on the conference desk and read it in an energetic way”. I decided not to follow his advice, fortunately for me and my audience.

Research articles might not have changed much over time, but research presentations have. A paper written for publication purposes is not suitable to be read aloud. Academic conferences did change, and rightly so. Today, old-style research presentations would not be able to sustain the audience’s attention for more than a few minutes. Some more discerning audience members might even walk out.

So don’t read your paper from your iPad trying to looking cool. Talk in a conversational manner. Making lots of eye-contact. Only use a limited number of PowerPoint slides as visual support (no more than a dozen). If you really have to read from a paper at your conference, write one that’s less formal with shorter sentences.

Start research presentations with your thesis and make sure your audience understands the nature of your research.

Then proceed  in a conversational way to a discussion of your research. Talk in a humble yet confident manner. You want to leave what you say open to argument. Doing so is a good trick to invite your audience to give some feedback in the 10 minutes of Q&A-time! Alternatively, you can also leave some things open by saying “I haven’t yet fully evaluated…” or “I plan to still…”. This should encourage your listeners to ask questions or give remarks after your presentation – the main reason you attend the conference. If you were to present a perfect paper, all the audience would say is wow, that was good! – without adding much else.

Once I discovered that it’s my preparation and not the rehearsal that counts, my presentations became more spontaneous.

I also felt more prepared for involving my audience in what I was saying. I understood that too much rehearsal made me sound boring. Much like ‘Johan the undergraduate doing an assignment’.

So practice your presentation, but not only what you wrote down: read background information and literature from your full research article or from other online sources. You will gain much more confidence to engage with your audience. Refrain, however, from talking about new information not available in your research paper.
Keep in mind that some members of your audience might have trouble keeping up. A lack of concentration, an empty stomach, or unfamiliarity with your topic might make them lose track of your research presentation. Should this happen, focus on those listeners that seem interested. Don’t get disappointed when you find some people consulting their iPhones instead of your handout.

THE MAKE-OR-BREAK SESSION

Much of what happens at your conference is carefully scripted and timed. We meticulously prepared our 20-minutes’ research presentation. But it’s surprising how little we prepare for the 10 minutes’ of interaction (Q&A) with the audience.

You’ve just finished an awesome and animated talk on your research topic. But then you find that, for some unknown reason, your audience has lost any incentive to respond or ask about anything you’ve said. All that follows is silence. Relax, this shouldn’t last long: there’s always someone in the room willing to break the silence with a general question on methodology. In the worst case this might be the moderator trying to get the discussion moving.

Another ‘worst-case’ scenario is when one audience member starts a question with “I know it’s not directly related to your research, but I would like to know your opinion on…”. Although you might prefer to ignore this kind of question, you will need to link any answer to your own work.

Then there’s the audience member starting a question with “I wrote an article in 2014 that claimed…”. This gentle but rather desperate soul is trying to move into a one-one-one Q&A session with you. When answering such questions, try linking your answer to your own work. Once you finish answering the question, you might want to briefly remind the audience of your original research topic to help your audience refocus.

Yet, what I used to fear the most were the showoff remarks. After a short flicker of relevant commentary by an audience member, the question quickly moves into a display of frustration: frustration with (1) your presentation’s content with which the listener does not agree, (2) the speaker, i.e. you.

This kind of audience member wants to remind other researchers that s/he knows more about the research topic then they do. Your methodology (obviously) falls short of standard quality research! S/he has to show that you should have conducted your study in a much more rigorous way. If this should happen to you, rest assured that other audience members recognize this as a ‘questioner-centric’ technique.

Fortunately, such annoying behavior has become quite atypical at conferences nowadays. Yes, there will always be someone attending conferences and asking annoying questions just for the heck of it. And for drawing attention to themselves. But a majority of such questions will simply miss their mark.

Big conferences in particular attract competitive behavior. If you’re a young aspiring researcher, don’t let this keep you from attending such conferences. But keep the above advice in mind and be well prepared. Learning how to handle questions – especially difficult ones – is an essential part of your professional training.

This is not to say that easy-to-answer questions are any better. You might feel more reassured responding to questions that allow you to display your scientific brilliance. But your answer might kill any useful follow-up discussion. What might follow is a rather boring and unsatisfactory end to your conference presentation.

I have had aggressive, deferential, idiotic and incomprehensible questions, all of which I tried to counter with patience and a tat of self-deprecating humor. If I really cannot understand what’s being asked, I answer something like “If I understand you correctly, I think you are saying…” and then I just say something related to what I’ve said before, which usually seems to satisfy the questioner.

Practice your research presentation until it sounds natural. Practice in front of a friend and vary your tone of voice to avoid lulling him or her to sleep. Resist your nervousness and speak at a slow pace. You want to sound like a professional, confident, yet humble researcher – your audience will appreciate it!