We all know that many (some harsher folks might say all) academic presentations can be….boring, dense, snoozy, and sometimes pretentious. But, here’s the thing, they don’t have to be.
I started presenting at conferences in my undergrad, and didn’t really slow down too much since then. I love conference presentations, they allow my ideas and work to resonate in ways that are otherwise impossible. I can place them in a context, and let them converse with other folk’s ideas. I generally (though not always, see awkward anecdote below) receive positive feedback on how I present. Now, I’m a social person, and an actor, so speaking in front of crowds, generally doesn’t make me terribly nervous—but I do have some tips on how to minimize stress and give a dynamic presentation.
#1. Ask yourself that time old question: To read, or not to read?
There are some upsides to both reading and not reading the paper you are presenting. I prefer not to read at all, and instead give the presentation the same way I would if I were giving it as a lecture in a classroom, however, sometimes (especially if the conference you’re presenting at is SUPER academic, meaning most attendees are there for purely academic and scholastic purposes) it’s rather expected of you that you simply read what you have written.
Whether or not you read directly from the paper should be decided on how comfortable you are with trusting yourself to know the information in the paper. If you’re really anxious about speaking in front of people, keeping the paper in front of you can help you feel grounded, but it can also shut you off from engaging with your audience.
Going paperless isn’t as troubling or nerve-wracking as you might think, you did write the paper after all, you do know what you’re talking about. Trust yourself, listen to your instincts, and respond to your audience’s energy. When there’s confusion you can feel it.
My best advice is to strike a balance:
- Divide your paper into chunks of your primary ideas and those that resonate with the conference or panel theme (if there is one)
- Check for accessibility purposes, if it’s dense and sounds like a train ride to snoozeville, write it again in a more conversational tone
- Know your audience, who are the attendees of the conference? I generally attend queer conferences, many of which include students, activists, scholars, and others coming together. This means that I make my language more accessible and make sure that my arguments are already unpacked and ready to be understood.
#2. Get Embodied
Breathe. No, seriously, paying attention to your breath is a quick way to check back into your body. It’s easy to tense up and basically projectile vomit your ideas in a weird, monotonous, “scholarly” voice. Don’t do that, breathe instead.
When I presented at the Lesbian Lives Conference at the University of Brighton, I was not embodied. Bird la Bird, a performance artists who works primarily on issues of queer femme invisibility and class, waltzed right in and sat down next to me, when I almost effectively peed myself. Suddenly, with someone I admired so present, I quickly began to doubt everything I was about to say, think, or do ever again. I grew hot, words caught in my throat, and I found myself laughing maniacally at my own Lacanian jokes as I plowed through my argument at break neck speed.
Please don’t do this to yourselves.
Since then, I’ve had practice presenting in front of people who I admire and learned to trust myself.
- Because I trained as an actor, I generally do warms ups in the morning of the presentation the same way I would for a performance. These can include a quick sun salutation, some voice warm-ups, and generally some form of chakra check in.
- If you’re not into yoga, or think acting is weird, simple stretches of your shoulders, sides, and back can help you release tension that you will inevitably hold there
- If you find your words getting away from yourself or talking a mile a minute, seriously, just take a quick second to find your breath, so you can be present in the room
- Shake it out, seriously shake your whole body furiously get out your nerves!
- Also, when in a pinch a quick listen to Beyonce’s “Get Me Bodied” should do the trick
#3. Respond Effectively
In order to respond effectively, you should think first about how your paper might be received. This means you should be familiar with your work’s context. Some audiences will not respond at all, and some will respond in ways that can feel accusatory, so make sure that you’re still embodied. Respond honestly, simply, and directly. If someone’s bullying you, which sometimes people do, keep your responses grounded in your work. This will allow to you avoid being defensive, and keep the conversation impersonal and focused on your ideas at hand.
If you’re dealing with a downright troll, chances are that they are making an ass of themselves, so don’t pay them no mind and let them, as my grandmother would say, “show themselves.”
If someone asks you a question that you flat out do not know how to respond to, tell them honestly that you do not know how to respond.
- Doing a mock presentation beforehand with friends or colleagues can help you get an idea of how people might respond
- Make sure your language is inclusive and accurately describes what you mean it to
- If you are unsure of how you are wielding a certain term or concept, ask someone, preferably a mentor or trusted colleague for their opinion
- While conference presentations are inherently, to some extent, opportunities to show off: keep your bravado to a minimum. I know that graduate school is a one long ongoing, debt mongering existential crisis, I know that validation feels good, but no one wants to know that you can use the word “matrix” 57 different ways.
#4. Talk to people, ask questions, and generally socialize
These are opportunities to put your work in a context, go do that. Don’t be afraid of people.
But, most of all, you’ll be fine.
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