I both love and hate conferences.
I love them because of the free-flowing ideas and high energy. I love them because of the networking opportunities. I love them because they force me to finish critical pieces of my own research projects. Conferences are exciting, intellectually stimulating, and productive. They can also be advantageous for budding careers in academia. Like twitter, you never know who is listening at a conference; you never know who you might run into at a book table.
But just as conferences have the potential to be helpful, they also have the potential to be harmful–which is why I also hate conferences. I hate them because I have watched so many folk crash and burn while presenting at conferences. What makes this especially sad is that it is so preventable.
So, before you head off to the American Historical Association, the American Society of Church History, or just a local Bible conference, here is my top ten list (David Letterman style) of what NOT to do.
10. DON’T BE LATE TO YOUR OWN PANEL. Sometimes there are travel delays. But, other than that, get to your panel on time. Especially when you are the first presenter.
9. DON’T FORGET YOUR PLAN B FOR TECHNOLOGY. If your entire presentation is inside a flash drive or only exists on an iPad, be prepared for failure. Technology often goes wrong at conferences. Lots of people are using unfamiliar technology with moderators who know nothing about how the technology in that room works; it is not surprising that problems are so frequent. I almost always present with my iPad; but I come prepared to do otherwise. I also come prepared with handouts in case the powerpoint doesn’t work. Finding out 5 minutes before the panel starts that you don’t have access to your presentation is bad for everyone who attends that session (and this actually recently happened to me, the only time I haven’t had a backup plan…).
8. DON’T BE HIGH MAINTENANCE. A presentation room isn’t your personal study. Making the moderator rearrange furniture and drapes and find bottled water for you isn’t their job. It also doesn’t reflect well on you.
7. DON’T ASSUME KNOWLEDGE. Most people know nothing more about your paper than the title. Despite your advanced preparation, they probably didn’t read the abstract posted on the conference website. If they need to know information for your paper to make sense, give that information in your presentation. Otherwise your audience will be googling for background information instead of listening to you.
6. DON’T RELY ON JOKES TO MAKE UP FOR LACK OF SUBSTANCE. Laughs are good when the paper is persuasive, built on good evidence, and well presented. Otherwise jokes mostly fall flat. They can’t make a bad paper good. Write a good paper first, and then add in funny comments later.
4. DON’T READ A PAPER THAT HASN’T BEEN SEEN BY AT LEAST 2 OTHER PEOPLE. Let someone read the paper before you present it. If your best friend can’t follow your argument, you need to rewrite it. Letting your thesis advisor hear your argument for the first time in front of 35 other people at a national conference might go really well; it could also go really badly. Err on the side of caution and let her read it in advance.
3. DON’T READ A PAPER YOU HAVEN’T PRACTICED. Even when I am writing the day before, I still never present a paper without reading it at least twice and timing myself both times. And I have been presenting conference papers since 1999. I routinely find that reading a paper out loud helps me iron out language, cut unnecessary sections, and smooth transitions. It also makes me more comfortable with the paper, helping me to read it more naturally and to engage more frequently with the audience (glancing up from the paper, making eye contact, etc.). It also helps me make sure my paper is well within the time limit.
2. DON’T GO OVER TIME. Please, please, please don’t go over time. When the moderator has to signal you, it usually means you have already gone over. When the moderator stands up, you are way over. When the moderator walks up and stands next to you, just stop talking and sit down (which you already should have done)! It is rude to go over time–it is rude to your audience and it is rude to your fellow presenters. It is also counterproductive. The minute people realize you are over time, they stop listening and start wondering what the moderator is going to do. I doubt this is the impression you want to make.
1.DON’T PRESENT ON A TOPIC YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT. This should be so obvious. You present conference papers on your research that you have been working on for weeks if not months or years. You should be comfortable enough with the topic and primary sources that you can field questions during the Q&A and bring in examples not included in the paper. You should NOT be presenting on a primary source you read last week that you thought was cool (yes, this really does happen!). Don’t tarnish your scholarly reputation by a poorly-thought out presentation.
You don’t have to be perfect at conferences, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your best.