ECH – Preparing and presenting a conference paper

7 October 2014

Conference papers are shorter than seminar papers—commonly twenty minutes—and run more tightly to time. You will present as part of a panel, and you should determine the kind of audience you are speaking to—whether specialist or general, historical or interdisciplinary—and be clear as to how long you have to speak.

There are limits to what you can do effectively in twenty minutes.You will need to ensure your paper is accessible to non-specialists without boring the specialists or using all your time on background. It is a good idea to speak more slowly than you think you need to; rushing through material is difficult for an audience, particularly a multilingual one.  More than ten pages of double-spaced typescript will be difficult to deliver properly in twenty minutes. It is also hard to convey more than three to four substantive points in this time.

If you are using PowerPoint slides or other visual aids, be clear about what you want them to do. They are a supporting act; what you say is the main attraction. You should use slides selectively and not include too many, particularly in a short paper. There is no need to provide a summary of your text on the slides: a paper is not an undergraduate lecture. In contrast, providing maps, tables or other complex data in visual form can add to the paper and save you time. If you are using pictures, ask yourself what they add. Does the image contribute to the analysis or simply illustrate the subject?  If you are presenting a quote, remember to give people time to read it.

The main pitfall in using a PowerPoint presentation is privileging format over content. It is surprising how often slides work against what’s being said during a presentation by, for example, presenting too much tangential material. Allowing the PowerPoint to drive the paper can also be difficult if you have to adjust timings. If an earlier speaker has run over, you may be given less time than you were expecting. Plan how to shorten the paper if you need to. What are the key points you want to convey?

If you are giving a paper abroad, familiarize yourself as much as possible with the academic culture. Twenty-minute papers are standard in the UK but may be shorter elsewhere. How large are the panels? This is likely to have a direct bearing on how long you have to speak and how intently the audience is listening. If you are taking part in a workshop rather than a panel conference, papers will probably have been circulated in advance. In this case, you will need to make the spoken paper distinctive; reading out a paper the audience has already read is pointless.  Ask advice from friends and colleagues who know the country and approach the conveners as to what you should expect. Try not to be put off if you are interrupted by the chair; they will simply be trying to manage the time.

Conference participation and particularly responding to questions is a key part of Intervening in academic discussion. The RHS encourages Early Career Historians by supporting conference travel in the UK and abroad.

Return to main ECH Presenting Work page.