This week I was invited to speak alongside my medievalist colleague Dr James Sargan at one of the English Faculty’s careers lunches for graduate students on the topic of ‘how to give a good conference paper’. Thank you to Ellen Brewster (English Faculty Grad Teaching and Careers Officer) for the invitation, my fellow speaker James, and all the graduates who came along and asked questions.
I thought I would write up the top tips that I shared and some of the issues that came up in the questions. I’ve been attending conferences and giving papers for almost 15 years now so I have a fair amount of experience but it’s always great to share tips and learn new ideas, so if you have any additional suggestions or tips that have worked for you, please do comment below or tweet me!
The main piece of advice that James and I started with was the importance of making the conference work for you. There are many reasons why you might attend a conference: to get your work out there, to network with peers and senior academics, to learn more about your field or a related field. But it’s also important to think about what you are hoping to get out of the conference for your own research and for your current situation. As a graduate student, it is important to give papers at conferences of course, but it’s also important to get the thesis done! So don’t overstretch yourself and sign up to too many conferences, try to choose them carefully and think about what each one might add to your CV.
I tend to work to the one month rule when I’m thinking about applying for a conference. (And if you’d like to read my post on writing conference abstracts, you’ll find it here). I tend to think that a conference takes me around one month of full work, so if I’m considering whether or not to apply, I think about whether I realistically have that time (and by ‘full work’ I’m thinking in terms of Mon-Fri 9-5, but this can be spread out of course). This is working on the basis that it will take me: one week to do the abstract, two weeks to write the paper, and one week to go to the conference (plus getting organised beforehand, travel, and resting afterwards!). Obviously this varies, depending on whether I’m presenting new research or whether it’s something that I’ve already got. As I have a very busy teaching job and a range of other commitments, do I have a month that I want to dedicate in the next year, for example, to this conference?
When James and I talked about making the conference work for you, one thing we were thinking about was using the conference as a place to test out work in progress. I think that graduate students often assume that a conference paper has to be perfect, finished work. I don’t think this is always the case and personally I find a conference a great place to test ideas and get feedback. (This is especially the case once you’ve finished graduate study and no longer have a supervisor as a first port of call for feedback!) For the most part- and I’ll talk about audience more below- conference attendees are happy to help with suggestions and it’s a great way to test your work in front of an audience of experts who might come up with all sorts of ideas and references that you hadn’t come across before.
A related point is what the conference might lead to– are you proposing to give a paper on a new section of the thesis that you need to get done? If you’re post-PhD, do you want to work up some material that you’d like to publish as an article and you want to get some feedback on it? It’s also worth thinking about whether the conference is already advertising future opportunities. I went to a conference in 2017 for which the organisers had already secured a special issue of a journal, so I knew that- depending on the quality of my own paper!- there might be a publishing opportunity afterwards. Don’t necessarily think about the conference as an end in itself. How will the conference help your written work and your CV? (You can also get advice from your supervisor on this sort of thing and it’s always worth doing this, your supervisor will have plenty of experience on the conference circuit and will know which conferences might be the most productive and useful).
When you’re writing your paper, I think the best strategy is to start by setting up the paper in its context. Is this new research, a work in progress, are you hoping to get some feedback on certain issues or questions? Is this part of your thesis that speaks to the wider argument you are making? Are you trying out a new theory on your material or are you building on something that you’ve explored elsewhere? Starting with some context about you and your work always helps to orient the audience and to get them on side! And it’s a nice easy way into the talk too, so can help with the nerves!
The audience you are speaking to could be quite broad or very specialised, depending on the conference itself and the theme. Take this into account when you are planning your paper and thinking about the level of detail to include. If it’s a broad conference, don’t assume that everyone will be coming into the room with the same level of expertise! I always find it useful to define key terms, theories, and texts anyway, regardless of audience, as it helps me to make sure that I am being precise about these issues for my own benefit. What are the key pieces of information that the audience needs to know in order to follow your paper effectively?
You also need to think carefully about the scope of the paper. For the most part, the 20 minute paper is the most common format (although many conferences also include roundtables and shorter, ‘lightning’, talks these days too). The key thing is not to cram too much in! You can’t give your entire thesis in a paper! It may be that the paper exemplifies your overall argument in the thesis- and certainly you can make that point- but in my experience you can really only discuss 3 things in detail in a paper. That might be 3 examples from the text that you are close reading; 3 stages of argument which might start with a theory, apply it to a text, and then discuss what this means for the critical field… etc etc. There are all sorts of permutations but I find it useful to have this in mind as a structure.
If I’m using powerpoint, I might have a slide which states the structure of the talk, so: the key question I am asking or exploring, the key examples, the key text and theorists. It’s always helpful when you’re listening to a talk if the speaker signposts where they are going and repeats those stages of argument throughout so that you know where you are in the talk. (The title of each powerpoint slide can also signal that).
In terms of powerpoint and whether to have a script to speak to notes, this is a very personal issue and depends on you. I always use a script. This is because I can control the timing more easily and it enables me to be precise about what I want to say (I tend to waffle if I go off script!). It also means that I feel slightly less nervous because I know that I just have to deliver what I have in front of me! I always practice my paper a number of times though so that the delivery isn’t boring and also so that I am absolutely sure I have the timing right. Powerpoint is helpful for delineating structure, as I said above, but it can also be great if you need to show images or key passages of text that you are close reading.
Sticking to time is such a crucial part of giving a paper! For one thing, it’s basic good manners to the chair, your fellow panelists, audience, and conference organisers. Please do stick to time, there’s nothing worse than having to cut some off when you are chairing, or indeed to have your paper cut off before you’ve made your key arguments! For a 20 minute paper, I tend to plan to speak for 17-18 minutes because then that gives me time in case I do any ad-libbing or in case the session starts slightly later, it just gives me a bit of wriggle room!
When I write the paper, I write it in my speaking voice. (And yes, I also script in the jokes!) You will have to speak the paper aloud and you need to be able to explain things in a clear and straightforward way for your audience. (Personally, I’m a fan of reading aloud for any kind of writing and this is why my tutorials in Oxford still involve the students reading passages of their essays aloud- it really helps you to edit/critique your own work and makes you ‘own’ your own statements. There’s no where to hide when you have to say things aloud!) I would say that my speaking voice for conference papers is slightly less formal than my academic writing (but without losing the precision of argument of course).
One of the things that James and I were asked in the questions was how to be a good audience member and how to deal with audience questions. These two issues go hand in hand I think. It can be terrifying getting up in front of a room of experts to give your first paper but don’t forget that you are an expert in your own research so have confidence in the work you have done. I have to say that I tend to scan the audience and if I see someone smiling and nodding, I may direct a significant portion of the paper at them! So be a friendly audience member and support your fellow speakers!
On the subject of asking questions, this is a tricky one. It can be very difficult to come up with a question, particularly when you are new to conferences, and for a very long time I never used to ask questions (partly also because I was scared to draw attention to myself!) But as a speaker, there’s nothing worse than no one wanting to ask you a question or even offer a comment, that can feel very dispiriting. Damian Fleming was having a discussion on twitter this very weekend about the ‘it’s more a comment than a question’ response, and actually, if it’s genuine, this can be very helpful. If you can think of a relevant article or have another example that might be useful to the speaker, do offer that up, either in the questions or perhaps afterwards in private conversation or by email. I have often found it helpful if someone says, ‘I came across something similar here’ or ‘I found xyz’s work on this topic helpful’. That sort of genuine feedback and assistance can be very valuable. Just don’t do the ‘asking a question and making it all about your own research’ thing! That’s bad manners and isn’t helpful to the speaker!
Genuine questions that will help the research are also always welcome, as long as they’re not combative! Obviously we all aspire to academic rigour and that’s an important part of the conference, but there are constructive ways of asking such a question. (‘I was really interested in what you said about xyz, could you explain that further or how does that argument account for xyz?’) It can be helpful- for audience members too!- if you signal places in the paper where there might be questions you would like to be asked. So, ‘I haven’t got time to discuss xyz here, but I’d be happy to talk more about it in the questions’. If a speaker does that, it’s nice if someone follows it up! As an audience member, it can be nice to ask a general question based on the panel’s shared theme. Perhaps you noticed some interesting connections between the papers, you could ask the speakers to say something about that.
In terms of answering questions, I think that the best advice is to be honest! I have definitely been asked questions where I just have no idea whatsoever about the context or text, it might be something on the edges of my research, or I haven’t yet had chance to explore that angle. Just say so! And thank the attendee for the question and say that you will certainly explore that further. Sometimes, if appropriate, I have said that I don’t know but I wondered if anyone else on my panel or the room did. (As more experienced conference goers, it can be helpful if we look out for these sorts of situations and help people out if we can!) Give it your best shot to think about and answer the question on the spot, but don’t worry too much if you can’t come up with something stellar there and then- it might be that at the coffee break you might have a chat with the questioner and more ideas might emerge. It’s really difficult to go straight into questions after you’ve just delivered your paper!
If anyone has any further tips or suggestions for asking or answering conference questions, please do let me know. Or indeed on this topic in general. Thanks again to Ellen Brewster for inviting me to speak on this topic and to my colleague James Sargan for his excellent talk and all the discussion in the questions. And good luck if you are giving your first paper in the near future!
This is great, Laura – so helpful! Just wanted to add that my advisor gave me an incredibly valuable piece of advice for my first conference paper. It was one of the huge meetings — American Historical Association, I think — and she told me not to take it personally if people walked out during the paper — there’s a lot of moving around during those events, and it can be very disheartening to a speaker!