Research hacks #15: 15 Tips on delivering a conference paper

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

In the previous research hack I discussed how to plan and write a conference paper. Now we move on to delivering the paper to your conference audience.

Delivering the paper

  • Be enthusiastic, but not manic. If you don’t look interested in what your saying, why should your audience be? But if you come over like the Duracell bunny you risk diverting attention away from what you are saying and onto yourself. If you look as if you are trying too hard, you lose some of your authority. Note the demeanour of the best (clearest, most persuasive, most engaging to listen to) presenters at your conference, and try to pick up tips from how they conduct themselves during a presentation.
  • The authority of the way you hold your body and use your voice is all part of the impression you give the audience, and consciously or unconsciously it contributes to what they think of you and your paper. How your paper is received is–one would hope–mainly about what you say, but not exclusively about what you say. So put a little thought into how you will say it.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Speak in a way that you would want to listen to, and hold yourself in a way that you would think appropriate for a conference speaker if you were looking on.
  • Don’t be too arrogant, and don’t be too apologetic. A note to the arrogant: you’re not Immanuel Kant. You are not always the smartest person in the room. So don’t act like it. It doesn’t attract discerning people to your ideas; it just turns them off you. A note to the unduly meek: Your paper has been accepted in just the same way as everyone else’s. No-one gave you special treatment. You have a right to be up there speaking. You don’t need to be Immanuel Kant to give a good conference paper, so don’t make that your yardstick of competence.
  • Eye contact really helps, even if it’s not all the time and even if you are reading your paper word for word.
  • Try not to read your whole paper word for word. Know which sections need special precision and might warrant a word-for-word approach, and know which paragraphs can be delivered from memory, while maintaining eye contact with the audience. Try to deliver at least your opening paragraph without looking down at your notes.
  • Smiling also helps. It helps you to calm down and it leaves a positive, warm impression on your audience. Don’t smile like the Cheshire Cat and don’t smile at inappropriate points in the paper (if you are discussing torture or death, for example!), but a constant frown or an Eeyorish disposition creates an unnecessary distance between you and your audience. By and large your audience will be subtly drawn to mirror your emotion and expression, so if you want them to ask grumpy questions go right ahead and keep on scowling at them.
  • You are a person, not a reading machine. It’s OK to lose your place once or twice, to sneeze, or to take a sip of water. That’s what real people do. There’s no need to apologise or to get flustered.

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  • Often, the way people try to cover up something going wrong comes over much worse than the thing that went wrong in the first place. Things go wrong, we all know that. So if you drop your papers on the ground or stumble on the way to the lectern or overturn a glass of water or mispronounce a word in a humorous way, let the audience know that you know that what just happened was a bit funny (a raised eyebrow or smile will usually do the trick, even a shrug of the shoulders or a quick “it happens”). Acknowledging what has happened diffuses the tension in the room and gives people permission to chuckle with you, rather than smirking at you. Don’t break your rhythm for it. Don’t rush to pick your papers up like a rabid dog; do it properly. Rule of thumb: it will almost always be a bigger deal to you than it is to your audience, so don’t make too much of it. Don’t launch into a 10 second apology. Your audience don’t really mind; they just want to hear your paper.  Also let them know by your body language that it hasn’t flustered you, and get right on with the presentation.
  • Any non-verbal communication you can add (within reason!)—hand gestures, changes of intonation and so forth—will really help your audience to engage with what you are saying.
  • If you are not using a microphone, speak up. Stand up if necessary in order to make sure that your voice travels to the back of the room. Sometimes it might even be appropriate to ask people in the back row if they can hear you, rather than just hoping they can. People usually won’t move forward unless you given them “permission” to do so, even if they can’t hear.
  • Use silence to your advantage. Don’t speak at 100 miles an hour from the first word of your presentation to the last, but slow down and use pauses to emphasise important points and to let ideas sink in before you move on. Don’t go slow and use pauses in every other sentence, but one or two pauses in a paper can help people understand what you are saying and also bring them back from the brink of slumber if their attention is drifting.
  • The same goes for repetition. A little judicious repetition can really help your audience (is this your main point? then say it twice), but mechanical or incessant repetition can become tedious and inappropriately humorous.
  • If you are using quotations and don’t have a handout or PowerPoint presentation, let people know when the quotations begin and end (by saying something like “quote… close quote” perhaps).
  • As a summary of the above points, you are there to serve the audience by helping them to understand something you think is important and worth saying. You are a human being communicating to human beings, and communication from one human being to another is about more than the words on the page.


What are your own tips for delivering a conference paper?

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

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