Spring has sprung, the clocks have changed, all around is a sense of newness, and PhD students across the land lift their bleary eyes from computers everywhere and realise that, to invert the words of House Stark, ‘Winter has gone’. The prospect of better weather brings the promise of many things including not having to wear a coat to the office, getting to arrive and leave the office in daylight and, sadly, having to look longingly at the sun splitting the sky while you work on your next chapter.
For many disciplines, Spring is also when academic conference season begins. Attending conferences is something that is expected of most PhD students. While for some this can mean jetting off to foreign lands, for many other students it can mean grappling with the vagaries of the British domestic transport system. In addition to attending a conference there is an expectation that PhD students present their work. Many conferences organise dedicated postgraduate conferences that run before the main event. Yet, while these can be more accommodating environments it is often felt that students are better served, especially when it comes to making connections that might actually lead to some form of post-doctoral employment, by presenting at the main conference.
Just attending academic conferences can be a nerve-wracking experience. But what if you are actually presenting? Well, we here at Pubs and Pubs thought it might be a good idea to share some of our experiences and tips on presenting at academic conferences in the hope that it might help settle the nerves that you might be experiencing as your first conference presentation looms. As always, we’d love to hear from any of our readers so if you have any tips you’d like to share please add them as a comment below.
Start confidently (but simply)
There are only a small number of people who don’t find themselves even a little apprehensive at the prospect of speaking in front of people. Once you’re actually standing in front of people, any niggling anxieties can escalate. What you don’t want to find yourself doing is muddling over the beginning of your presentation – a task that can be harder when you are feeling nervous – as openings are important. Much like the introduction to an academic paper, you want to capture your audience’s attention quickly. So, rather than launching into a complex opening (‘Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony …’), why not start simply by stating who you are, where you come from, and what you are going to be talking about:
e.g. ‘Good morning everyone, my name is …, from The University of …, and today I am going to be talking to you about…’ such a tactic gives you a basic platform to get going with your presentation that you are unlikely to get in a muddle over.
Plant a questioner
Now, before you think I am being overly Machiavellian, hear me out. While finishing your presentation can bring an enormous sense of relief, you will likely have to face some scrutiny from the people who have politely sat and listened to you tell them all about metaphoric traditions in renaissance poetry. You might find that most of the questions are fairly benign. However, you might find yourself on the unfortunate end of a grilling (perhaps from someone who’s research you’ve had the temerity to challenge). If you are nervous about facing questions, here is something that might help: if you are attending with someone that you know (and trust) then you could ask them to ask you a question. Some people even like to agree in advance what it will be.
Practice in a place you are not comfortable in. Someone told me this before my first conference and it was the best advice I have ever received. If you practice in your bedroom, or your office you are in a comfortable environment, which is the opposite of what it will be like actually presenting your paper. Find a space you don’t normally spend time in – an empty classroom works perfectly. Force yourself to stand up, and give the paper there. This is the closest you can get to the conference setting, without actually being at the conference. By doing this, you will get a more accurate sense of how long your paper will be. The speed at which you speak is directly related to your comfort, so sitting on your bed and timing yourself isn’t necessarily the best way to gauge time.
A quick point following along from Krysten’s advice – one of the reasons it is so important to practice your paper out loud is that it makes you aware of the words you aren’t sure how to say. For the really stubborn ones I like to write them out phonetically. For example, when I’m speaking about Ceres, Fife, it will inevitably say ‘series’ in my notes.
In addition, I have recently been converted to giving conference papers from notes rather than a script. I was absolutely terrified the first time I did this, but I think it may have been the best conference paper I have done. I felt like I was so much more engaged with the audience, and it actually made me feel a lot more confident about my knowledge of my topic. Some advice I got was to colour-code my notes. I put things I absolutely had to say in one colour, direct quotes in another, and then indications of when to change the slides in a third. This allowed me to quickly glance at my notes and recognise immediately where I was and where it was going. The key to this strategy is also to practice!
While it is normal to worry about presenting in front a potentially large group of other people that you don’t necessarily know too well, keep in mind that you are the specialist of your own research. You probably know more about it than anyone else in the room and the people attending your panel are interested in your work – which is great!
And even if your paper does not go as well as you had hoped for, keep in mind that you are probably your own worst critic and that the others don’t necessarily view the presentation as critically as you do. Also, there are usually so many presentations going on around you that no one will keep track of all the tiny errors and mistakes that occur throughout a conference. Just practice some self-reflection, think about what you liked and didn’t like and why, and learn from it.
But most of all, don’t forget to enjoy the conference. Conferences can be an extremely motivating experience during which you can learn a lot, from presenting as well as from listening to other papers or even asking critical questions while being part of the audience.
You can find out more about Ian, Krysten, Laura and Vanessa on our Who We Are page.
Main image from Pexels
Image 1 by elPadawan CC-BY-SA, Flickr
Image 2 by Rosa Say CC-BY-NC-SA, Flickr
Image 3 by TEDx Parque Das Nações Women [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 4 by Alonso Inostrosa Psijas CC-BY, Flickr