Research hacks #14: 15 tips on planning and writing a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Judging by their behaviour, people seem to approach to the prospect of giving a conference paper wildly divergent ways. Watching some poor souls present, it looks for all the world as if they consider a conference paper to be the modern-day answer to trial by ordeal. Others seem to be approaching the exercise as a gladiatorial duel, the main purpose of which is to attack and repel all adversaries with obnoxious ferocity, forcing them into submission by fair means or foul. Still others seem to have little interest in their own paper, while some give the impression of having downed a few gallons of Red Bull directly prior to speaking.

I claim no particular distinction for my own presentations but I have observed a fair few over the years, both good and not so good. In this post I begin to distil some paper-delivering ‘best practice’ and combine it with other advice I have gleaned over time.

Planning and writing the paper

      1. Don’t try to say too much. In most cases try to say one thing well, even if you say it in different ways. Have a main point. A conference paper doesn’t give you long enough to develop an octopus-like argument with arms going in all directions. Have one main argument, and stick to it. Only bring in other ideas, however brilliant they are, if they support your main point.
      2. Hit your main point at the very beginning of the paper, sprinkle references to it in the paper’s body, and return to it at the very end. This way, it’s fresh in people’s minds when the question time starts, and people whose attention has drifted will still go away with your main point in their heads.
      3. You can structure an argument like a story, with a beginning (scene-setting), middle (introduce a problem, show how difficult it is to solve) and an end (you solved it, hooray! Look at all the consequences and implications of having solved it…). Use some of the story-teller’s art to lead the audience through your paper.
      4. Make everything explicit, even the things that are mind-numbingly obvious to you. The audience have two things against them when it comes to understanding your paper: 1) they are not as close to the material as you are, and 2) they are trying to grasp your point after hearing it once, rather than after reading it many times (as you have done). Add to this the normal human vicissitudes of digestion, tiredness and daydreaming, and you end up with a situation in which you will have to work quite hard to make your point intelligible and accessible. Don’t assume any moves in your chain of reasoning, and spell things out in a way that may even seem a little obvious and crude to you. Chances are, your audience will appreciate it.
      5. Let your argument breathe.
      6. Make your signposting explicit. Use phrases like “I am now turning to the second section of my paper, in which I want to…”; “This point is really important because…”; “Let me start with x, before moving on to y.” You could even begin the first sentence of the paper like this: “In this paper I want to…” That way, people will know right from the very beginning where you are planning to take them. Predictable? Perhaps. Helpful? Certainly.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

      1. If you say anything controversial or unconventional in your reading of a particular thinker, try to make the point with a direct quotation. It’s much harder for people to dismiss your argument that way.
      2. Don’t say anything that is in the least academically controversial or unconventional if it’s not necessary for your main point. Chances are, the question time will be hijacked by your controversial remark and people won’t even remember the broader argument you were trying to make.
      3. Say things as simply as you can without being simplistic. If you are dealing with an abstruse thinker in your paper, don’t ape their idiom.
      4. You can get away with much denser prose when people are reading you then when they are listening to you. Shorten your sentences and rein in the subordinate clauses.
      5. Answer the ‘so what?’ question and answer it early. What is at stake in what you are saying? If your argument is correct, what difference does it make? If you provide people early on in the paper with a sense of what hangs on your argument then you will give them one more reason to listen to what you have to say.
      6. Use exposition to serve your argument, not as an end in itself. Talk about the material you need from your primary texts in order to lay out your argument, but don’t expound it for its own sake. It is your argument that should drive the paper forward, and everything else should arrange itself around that.
      7. If you can find examples or illustrations of the argument you are making, especially examples that leave a visual impression in the audience’s mind, they can really help people latch on to what you are saying. (Just note how often it’s the images and examples that come up in the question times: they are what draw people into your argument more than anything else).
      8. As you prepare the paper, note down likely questions that will come your way, and the answers you will give. Make a special point of planning answers to the questions about the weakest points in your paper. I will say more about answering questions in a future post.
      9. Your audience probably isn’t worried about the same things you are. After having listened to many papers and given a fair few, as well as having advised students preparing their own conference presentations, here’s where I think the differences in expectations lie between presenter and audience:
What the presenter is probably thinking What the audience is probably thinking
Am I understanding my primary texts correctly in every small detail? How does this relate to what I already know?
Have I said everything I want to say? What are the bigger issues at stake here?
Is this complex enough? Why is this important?

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Dushan Hanuska on Flickr.

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