Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More craptastic advice from Chronicle careers

I have a lot of respect for this person as a scholar, and she has oodles more conference-going experience than I have.

That said, I haven't read such bad conference presentation advice anywhere. In the age of the collective web, knowledge production is changing, and people who read conference papers don't get it. Why are you presenting your paper, anyway? Are you merely showing off your research? Or are you actually trying to help me learn something about--and buy into the significance of--this topic you're passionate about?

Step out from behind the podium. Interact with your audience. You have 20 minutes (keep to your time limit!) to get the audience excited about your research and to bounce some ideas off of scholars in your field. Take advantage of it. Drop the formality and connect with people.

If you must persist in the old ways, if you present with your hands at your side, gripping the podium, as this scholar suggests, and you're reading your paper at me. . . I'm going to do one or two of the following: (a) leave the room; (b) blog about the crappy panel I just attended; or (c) get snarky on Twitter about your poor presentation skills.

Get with it, folks. Reading papers from behind a podium is old school (in a very, very bad way).


Alan said...

I could swear that this was written in 1993 and is almost an anti-rule for everything I do and appreciate in other presenters.

The last thing I want to do is spend money, time, travel, to have someone read me content I can get at home.

Good presentations take more cues from performance than sermons.

Like I dont need more proof, but if anyone has a doubt how long behind the Cluetrain the Chronicle is... well there you go

Nina Simon said...

I had a funny conversation with some techies the other day about SXSW (an extremely expensive and lauded interactive conference). They were shocked to hear that I actually prepare slides etc. for museum conferences in which I am a panelist. Apparently in the tech world "panelist" means you just respond to a moderator and to the crowd-with no visuals. I was shocked to hear about people talking about websites and not displaying them...

So I have a soft spot for being prepared. However, I totally agree that your presentation should engage and be WITH the audience. I think a great way to do that is to slowly phase them into the interactivity over the talk, so that questions are not segmented to one chunk of time. It also avoids putting pressure on audience to come prepared with their own questions... let's them work into it.

My three rules would be:
1. It's not about you--it's for the audience. Give them short, useful pieces of info, well-illustrated, and ask for their response.
2. They are an AUDIENCE, so you are a performer.
3. Stick to the time limit.

Ubiquitous Pidgeon said...

Yeah, and podium-stuck paper reading was even crappy presentation in the old school.

And while we're at it:
a) Get a little creative w/powerpoint, if you insist on using it

b)please don't read said powerpoint. If I'm at your conference, I can probably read already.

Anonymous said...

It strikes me that if I were new at presenting and read this, it would make me REALLY nervous.

At the same time, it occurs to me that this advice may appropriate for the extremely formal process still followed at disciplinary (I use that in both senses) conferences. Ones performance there could help determine a job or tenure. She's a historian and I've certainly seen this pattern at history conferences.

Any conference where you need to give your paper to a commentator for a formal commentary does make it more likely that one would have to eschew the more human-like presentation modes that come naturally to those of us actually trying to communicate and involve the audience. :-)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I was going to say that this is still definitely the norm for history conferences! (and medieval studies, too, to a large extent.) I think gripping the podium like grim death is bit much, and quite like someone who's more physically animated (not fidgety, but animated), because I know that myself, if I stand stock still as I read it's hard to read animatedly (but then, I pace like hell when I lecture, too, so it's my default mode). As a historian, the bit that I appreciated was the bit about writing for the audience actually in front of you. I don't have a problem at all with people reading papers if they've actually written for oral presentation - and I think one can do this well, and give an engaging presentation that way - it's when someone reads a journal article to me that I get bored silly. I think the idea is that you "read" in the same way that politicians "read" speeches - it's not necessarily the act of reading that's important, but working from a fixed script.

I also appreciated seeing someone make the case for standing to present, because I hate it when people present from a seated position (unless they're seated on a raised dais or something) - they tend to talk into the table, and I can never see them unless I'm sitting in the front row!

I think a lot of history conferences are still invested in making sure there's a distinction between "presenting research" and doing something that might look like what you do in a classroom. I personally often like a "spoken" paper, but I know a lot of historians who think they look unpolished and unprofessional. So whether or not the model Kerber presents is the *best* model, I think it still dominates in many disciplines and therefore the advice is fairly decent, if you're in one of those disciplines.

What Now? said...

I was going to chime in along the lines of NK's comment. I've heard so many people disparagingly use the phrase "reading a paper" as shorthand to mean "reading badly a bad paper," but there's also the possibility of writing what is essentially a "script" that can be "performed" engagingly; and I would call the latter "reading a paper" and doing a fine job of it.

Thoroughly Educated said...

I'll chime in in support of NK and WN. Presenting a talk without reading a paper (and keeping EXACTLY to time or a smidge under, which imho is the most important characteristic of a good paper) is extremely difficult to do without a great deal of practice and experience. But a well-written paper well read, or well performed, is something a grad student or faculty newbie can do that can make important impressions in the right places. Heck, I got offered a job on the basis of a conference paper well performed. But when I'm working orally through a technical philological argument, I don't want to go off-script except in carefully planned asides. Reading or hearing such a paper in public is not a useless duplication of reading similar materials privately, because the ex tempore feedback in dialogue that happens in a session can be invaluable. I should say that there are plenty of kinds of technical material that are NOT suitable for oral presentation. But writing up the thread of an argument with the most important evidence in a way that is suitable for an 18 1/2-minute performance is a very, very useful way to achieve clarity about whether one's thesis is tenable.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much to all the history bloggers for chiming in. I get that each discipline has its own conventions, but I also have to admit that I've never been able to enjoy a history panel where people read from their papers--and I've sat through many--because I can't stand academic papers being read to me, scripty or not. (The same holds true for lit panels. Ugh. And history and lit are my fields.)

I believe it is entirely possible to give a thoughtful, organized paper presentation without reading, and still be considered within the bounds of one's humanistic field. I've seen it done with my very eyes, by newbie and seasoned faculty alike. These folks refer to notes, but they aren't reading.

Or maybe it's just my short attention span that makes me believe that all this is possible. :)

Anonymous said...

I believe it is entirely possible to give a thoughtful, organized paper presentation without reading, and still be considered within the bounds of one's humanistic field.

I definitely think it's possible - but I have run into historians who just don't consider something "not read" as "professional." (Again, not me, but I've seen it.) And it's not just because they're old farts, either!

I personally don't at all mind being read to, as long as the paper is a good one, and a bad paper is definitely not redeemed by it being "spoken" rather than read! I still think the problem is usually not reading a paper as much as it is not considering what makes for a good experience for one's audience (and here I think one of the problems is, and I'm going to stereotype madly, that the people who are most rewarded for excellence in research are least rewarded for excellence in teaching, and presenting effectively - whether reading or not - is much more related to the latter than the former. All brilliant research gurus who are excellent presenters excepted, of course!).

FWIW, I think being able to absorb and retain material being read aloud is totally a skill that has to be learned. When I started grad school I'd go to talks at the medieval studies center, and half an hour later I couldn't have told you what I'd heard. Now (o so many years later!), if I hear a good paper and pay attention, I can practically replicate the argument step-by-step for days after (I can't if it's a bad paper, usually, because I stop paying attention!). I think enough historians learn how to do this well enough that history conferences work for us.

That also being said, I'm amazed at how many academics I know who say they hate conferences and never learn anything from them, so maybe not as many people learn to do this as I'm assuming. I really like conferences, even with historians reading stuff at me. Maybe it's because I mostly go to the infamous Kzoo. ;-)

(Oh, last comment on presenting papers: I once saw a woman present her paper in the form of a dramatic dialogue, I kid you not. She performed it exceedingly well. I still don't recommend it as a method!)