Writing Conference Papers

Aphra Behn by John Riley (1646-1691) Wikimedia Commons

Aphra Behn
by John Riley (1646-1691)
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Aphra,

A good deal of pressure is currently being put on the traditional academic conference paper format of reading papers aloud as the norm, pointing for example to the oddness of folks listening to something that could more effectively be distributed and read and that is in no meaningful way different than a text to be read on the page or the screen. Aside from looking up or adding a faux causal reference or two, do you have any thoughts regarding how one might approach an academic paper? For example, is it appropriate to share thoughts in process, talk from (and not read) power points, be more free ranging or more substantively DIFFERENT in kind than a printed paper simply read aloud?

Yours in earnest,


Dear Performa,

Aphra agrees wholeheartedly with this Pressure to Perform a bit better.  She has found that those Academic Papers written to be Book Chapters and Scholarly Articles to be very hard to listen to or follow or comment on, or stay awake for (especially when a Conference coincides with Jet Lag!)  Her favorite Papers at Conferences have been less formal Presentations, where interesting, funny or beautiful Pictures are juxtaposed with a witty and clever conversational Style. Urania also helpfully points out that some of the worst Presentations have occurred when one was working without a Paper at all and seemed to wander aimlessly among the Buttercups of Endless Ideas, only to have gone astray by the end of 20 minutes at some Arcadian scene, lost and bewildered, with a lost and bewildered (and somewhat exhausted) Audience.  So: to be formal or informal? As with many bits of Advice Aphra offers, this is going to be a personal decision. But there are certain ideas afloat among our Contributors that are worth sharing.

Antipodea has the following advice and has penned some Tips for your perusal:

If you aren’t going to present informally, or don’t have the confidence to do so, then Write a Paper to be Read Aloud.

Good conference papers are not academic articles, or excerpted chapters of your book, or half of your current article in progress.  They are a genre unto themselves.  There is a myriad of advice out there for how to present, but these are tips on how to write the paper for a listening audience, one that may have stayed up too late, gotten up too early, or listened to papers for too long a time.  In short, keep in mind that your audience cannot possibly hear you say a phrase like “There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” and follow anything but the first few concepts.  You are writing for an audience that is generally and genuinely interested in what you have to say and may have some helpful feedback for you.  They can’t help if they didn’t follow!

  1. Stick to the academic paper formula.  Here is one possible example, but speak to your advisor or a peer about the best formula to use, or construct one for yourself.  (Once you’ve done this a few times, you can deviate, but if you are a newbie, start here.)
    1. Hook, introduction and/or overview
    2. Framework and research questions
    3. Background/literature review/methodology
    4. Close reading and analysis
    5. Conclusions (and maybe some questions)
  2. Structure your paper carefully. You may wish to construct your paper as you might plot a work of fiction.  Who are the “characters”? What is the “story”?  What is the climax?
  3. Spend your time on your research, not on summarizing the research that is already out there. If you have a 20-minute paper, you should be at your argument in 5-6 minutes.
  4. Vocally highlight your key ideas, authors, terms, critics, and keep your arguments short and clear.  This is not the place for minutia.  (But keep all your footnotes, bibliography  and detailed/multiple arguments somewhere.  If it turns into an article or chapter, you don’t want to redo any work.  You may wish to refer to them when answering questions.)
  5. Keep your language elegant and clear, even if the idea is complex.  In fact, the more complex the idea, the more eloquent and clear your language should be.  (George Bernard Shaw was a genius at this; re-read his Man and Superman to see what I mean.)
  6. Use all those rhetorical signposts.  “I wish to make three points about eighteenth-century literary sex…”  “A second textual example occurs when Belinda rips off her clothes…”  “In conclusion…”
  7. As you write and revise, read the text out loud.  Adjust your writing for the ear rather than the eye.  Put in all the commas, periods, semi-colon etc that you need (punctuation was originally invented to remind readers when to take a breath when they read aloud.  You can use them this way, too.)  Remember that papers from conferences are never reproduced word for word, so make it a “script” that you can read and present.
  8. Rehearse!  Say it to your pets, toddler, boxing gloves, long-suffering partner, mirror etc.  Make sure you have seamless transitions from visuals to paper.  Script in jokes, remarks, and questions.  Script in when you will click to the next PowerPoint slide.
  9. Stick to your timeFor goodness sake, don’t ever give a paper without having rehearsed it and timed it first.  This is a rule that could be better observed by new and seasoned scholars alike.  It is simply rude, rude, rude and the whole room knows it and everyone has stopped listening at about 15 minutes anyway (10 if it’s late in the day or late in the conference).  You will be the embarrassing person who went on for too long.
  10. Use visuals.  The rules about PowerPoint are endless and debated and there a million of them a simple Google Search away.  But visuals keep people interested.  You can choose pictures, illustrations, images of titles pages, make up cartoons, use video clips (if your presentation is about media of some sort and it will make your idea clearer), put up (short) quotes, those key terms and ideas we talked about earlier.  But only create the PowerPoint that makes sense for your presentation, that you are comfortable with, and that you can do without sacrificing ideas to lame clip art—it should only add to your ideas, never distract from them.  Always have a handout backup in case the computer technology implodes.  Nothing too long: people can’t read and listen at the same time and you shouldn’t expect them to. Not too many slides (a rough rule of thumb might be 5-10 slides for a 20 minute paper, but if you are discussing images, you might use more.  Never read your slides, rather use them a “memory refreshers.”  Get your key terms up there (and your accurate personal information as well!)  Put your name, affiliation and email on any handout.
Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn is a pseudonym for ABOPublic. This is not the real Aphra Behn—she died in 1688, and the world hasn't been the same since!
Aphra Behn

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