By James Cleverley |

Presenting at conferences can be a nerve-wracking experience. Exposing your research before a group of strangers can feel vulnerable, and conveying the results of hours spent toiling away alone within the limited amount of time available can be a challenge. I am somewhat of an anxious person generally; for me, as for many (if not most) people, public speaking will always be a situation that requires preparation and strategic management. With good planning, I can always hope to minimise unwarranted stress, while maximising clarity in my presentation, as well as my capacity to actually enjoy the experience.

Bearing this in mind, I recently decided to reflect specifically on the process of writing a conference paper as I went along. I hoped that by identifying the successes and failures throughout the process, I would improve the overall quality of the paper and also my confidence in my presentation. At the same time, I sought to find ways to help streamline the process in the future; I’ll share some of the lessons that I learned below.

 Initial stages

Amongst all different styles of presentation, I found one immediate choice to be made, i.e. whether to present the paper from a ‘script’, or to speak more freely from notes. There are pros and cons associated with each of these options; I find that speakers who talk from notes can often be more engaging, as the type of language used tends to be more appropriate for oral communication. However, there can be a heightened sense of nerves when relying on memory to translate notes into a talk while on the spot, and the fear of losing your way or forgetting an important point to mention can become an issue. While I personally am yet to decide which method generally works best for me, in this instance I chose to write out the paper largely in full. I decided this primarily because I was worried about fitting all the points I had indicated in my abstract within the allotted time.

I began working by writing a plan for the two weeks’ time I had for the writing. I allocated time for planning and outlining, drafting, and putting together powerpoint slides. I determined roughly how many words I had to write, and calculated a daily amount I would need to write. I used this website – – a tool I’ve found handy for automatically drawing up writing targets according to parameters that you can alter.

Framing questions

 As I started drafting, I also formulated the following aims and questions, around which I would try to frame my paper:

  • Who am I, and what is my research?
  • Why is my research of interest to others – especially to those attending this particular conference?
  • What is my main hypothesis/research question?
  • What approach/method have I taken? What issues have I encountered and what findings can I share?
  • What are the implications from this sample of my work?

I also kept the overarching question in mind: what is the story of my presentation?

Whenever I became stuck, often through being overwhelmed by all the detail and nuance from the chapters of my thesis that I am forced to leave out, I returned to these points to regain focus.

Keeping an eye on my mental approach

 I have noticed that I have a habit of drawing on anxiety in order to motivate me to keep working to reach a deadline in time. While this can be effective in some respects, it can be quite an emotionally exhausting way to go about writing, especially over a longer period of time. This time, I was determined to allow myself pause after making incremental, daily progress, and to relax when not actively working on the paper. I concentrated on reaching smaller targets to give me the confidence that I would finish the whole piece in time. This way, I managed to take a lot of the usual stress out of the process.

Overcoming frustrations

 When I encountered some frustration during writing, particularly when struggling to pick out the best examples that told the story of my presentation without becoming bogged down with too much detail or theory, I found that talking through the issues with others proved immensely helpful. Reading aloud to a willing audience, (in this case I’m fortunate to have an enthusiastic mother), helped to conjure a simulation of the actual presentation experience. Hearing another’s perspective cut through the fog in my mind, helping remember the crux of my paper by having pointed questions asked, when I was being unclear.

Finally, I found that the reflective process itself proved helpful by shifting the registers of my cognitive attention. I would spend time absorbed within the issues of my research, then alter my thinking and critically engage with emotional blockages to my writing. I found this practice freed up energies that often become exhausted by worries held in the back of the mind. Preparing and planning is important, but writing is always a fluid process. Despite my best intentions to feel super prepared in advance, I found that I only reached a full sense of clarity about the paper the day before I was to present. However, having an awareness of how my work was tracking across the whole process brought me confidence that I would be ready when the time came, despite the obstacles that inevitably crop up on the way.


James Cleverley is a PhD candidate in the German Department at the University of Melbourne. He is researching recent filmic narratives of East Germany, looking at questions of cultural memory and national identity through an embodied framework.You can find him on twitter.

Image: CC0 Public Domain