How To… Present a Conference Paper

Submissions for this year’s Australian Historical Association conference, hosted in Toowoomba by the University of Southern Queensland, are due this Thursday, 28 February 2019 (new date: Tuesday 12 March 2019). For many postgraduates and early career researchers, presenting a paper can be a daunting experience. The good news: it need not be! In this entry, Lyndon Megarrity offers his tips for how to present effectively.

Megarrity LTM B&W

Lyndon Megarrity, adjunct lecturer at James Cook University, member of the AHA executive committee.

Does the thought of 400–500 historians creating a cacophony of noise in a conference venue fill you with anxiety and dread? Does the idea of getting up and presenting a paper seem like a fate worse than death? These are natural feelings: most of us suffer from nerves and anxiety as we try to make a good public impression.  However, good preparation and a thoughtful, positive attitude can help conference-goers transcend all those internal fears and doubts when they get up to deliver a paper.

Thoughts and Advice on Giving a Paper

  1. You can’t do everything in 20 minutes. In preparing your speech, either try to write a broad overview, or tell a story which sheds light on a wider theme.
  2. Stick to time. Generally speaking, AHA conferences give you 20 minutes for the formal presentation and 10 minutes question time. It is unfair on your fellow presenters and the audience to go overtime. Time yourself beforehand so that you know that you are under the time limit, thus avoiding a) having your presentation cut off abruptly by the chairperson before your conclusion; b) having limited time for questions if the chair lets you go overtime; or c) having people look at their watches and disengage.
  3. Include visuals (e.g. PowerPoint Slides). We live in a visual age, and sometimes a visual element to a presentation helps us to engage with a speaker and sit up and take notice. You may believe that you can get by on the strength of your powerful and expressive voice alone, but remember that there may be many people in the audience who are not immediately enthralled by your topic: you need to get them to pay attention and engage, and well-thought out visuals can do this.
  4. Vary your tone, and remember that while your topic may be old to you, it is new to others. Too many presentations are spoiled by the speaker speaking in a monotone and not making the most of that powerful instrument, the voice. In some ways, the conference presenter must be an actor, highlighting the most interesting parts of the story or theme so that the full significance of your research becomes clear to the audience.
  5. Remember your audience. You need to think how you would like to be addressed as an audience member hearing your speech. In writing your paper, try to avoid jargon and terms which might be unfamiliar to those outside your field. Further, a relaxed but engaged tone, and a willingness to gaze at different sections of the room at various times, will help you win the audience.
  6. Prepare but do not over-prepare. Ideally, you need to be familiar with the contents of your paper so that you can retain a reasonable amount of eye contact with the audience so that you are not just ‘reading’ the paper with your head down. Practise the paper several times but not so much that it seems stale (if it seems stale to you, it will sound stale to others). It is a good idea to rehearse the night before, but it is equally a good idea to give the paper a rest on the day of the presentation so when the times comes, you will approach it with some degree of freshness.
  7. Accept that mistakes happen to the best of us. You may mispronounce the surname of a famous historian, nerves might make you trip over a phrase, the PowerPoint slides may be placed in the wrong order, a question from the audience might stump you … these things happen. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Usually, it is best to try and move on with the presentation rather than drawing further attention to the ‘faux-pas’. Make a mental note for next time if it is something you can fix at the next conference with more preparation.
  8. Question time comes to us all. Question time is difficult and sometimes awkward, because you are being impromptu, without the help of a text. Your personal knowledge and background re: the topic and its context should help guide you through most questions. Give yourself some breathing space before answering a tough question. Be prepared to ask someone to repeat a question if you do not fully understand it. Be prepared (very occasionally) to admit that you can’t fully answer a question and perhaps throw the question to a relevant expert in the room. In addition, be on the lookout for the notorious ‘look at me’ questioner who is essentially advertising their own position on the topic rather than genuinely seeking information. In such situations, all you can do is be as graceful as possible and do your best to make the questioner feel that their contribution has been acknowledged.
  9. Reflect on the presentation. You’ve got through it! Well done! Think about the positives and how you can enhance them in future. Think about what was not so effective and how you might improve it for next time.

All information about this year’s Australian Historical Association conference, including how to submit a paper proposal, can be found on the conference website. There are a number of bursaries and prizes available, too.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: New AHA ECR Blog: ‘How to Present a Conference Paper’ – The Australian Historical Association
  2. Pingback: AHA casualisation survey and other items of interest | Australian Historical Association

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