Academic Presentations

Via David Delgado Shorter, a guide to academic presentations prepared by Mary Hunt of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER).

Be Brief, Be Witty, Be Seated[Updated link, Sunday, March 16, 2008 10:07:17 PM]

Delivering a paper is learned behavior. It is like preaching a sermon, teaching a class or giving a lecture anywhere else. You can get it right with practice. Bad things can happen-the microphone can go dead, your PowerPoint® presentation can freeze, you might even have an attack of nerves that will cause you enormous stress. But for the most part it will be a good, even an enjoyable experience.

One thing to note is that even experienced speakers make mistakes and that the stakes aren’t as high as others may lead you to believe. A given academic presentation is just that. It won’t destroy your carreer and it might possibly launch it. So, IMHO, these guidelines are simply useful things to think about and should not be considered a dogma to strictly follow.

In fact, these same guidelines might not work in all academic contexts. For instance, in France and some other parts of Europe, it has been typical to give academic presentations using broad notes instead of complete texts. That method has the advantage that it is much easier to adapt your presentation as you give it. In some specific contexts, wit may be considered inappropriate if overused. Also, making straightforward, simple points might fail to provide certain types of scholars with the dense, layered thinking that they expect from fellow academics. But, on the whole, Hunt’s advice sounds perfectly reasonable for presentations at large academic meetings in the United States and Canada.
On brievity, my experience tells me that eight pages might be in fact be the perfect length for me, in such a context. It’s a challenge to condense ideas in such a short form without getting too “dense.” but such short presentations enable me to adopt a relaxed attitude and leisurely speech rate. Also, if you end up finishing a few minutes early, you might use that time for discussion.

This isn’t meant to say that I’m a very good presenter. But I do tend to enjoy presenting, in many contexts.