Preparing for Your Conference: For Presentations in Literature, Language, and the Humanities

I continue to receive feedback regarding my guide for how to draft and submit abstracts for successful placement on a range of conference panels on literature, language, and the humanities. I appreciate the responses, suggestions, and alternative methods for how to revise seminar papers and developing articles to write presentations for conferences. Please keep the suggestions coming!

Speaking with one colleague recently, our discussion turned to practices for how to write the actual conference paper itself, and how to be ready for the conference itself. The briefer advice is, for a 15- to 20-minute talk, to have a hard copy of your presentation ranging from five to ten pages. Skew more to fewer pages if you are giving your first 15-minute presentation and especially if you are prone to improvise. And be cautious of improvisation: this approach is necessary for roundtables but less effective for paper presentations that are timed and must include as much clear information as possible within a set period of time.

Below I offer (and updated here) thorough advice for what to do in the months, weeks, days, and minutes leading up to your conference presentation. This topic is on my mind right now because of a lot of prep time I need (I’m presenting at the MLA again in January, an Edgar Allan Poe conference in February, and the Northeast MLA in April), so I plan to update this post in the future. For now, keep these ideas in mind, especially if you too are heading to MLA this year.

And let me know how you prepare for a conference. Comment below, email me, or post on Twitter.

Thanks to the guidance of Michael Harrawood at the Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University; Hilary Edwards Lithgow at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; Ayesha Ramachandran at Yale University; and Susan Scheckel at Stony Brook University.

Preparing for Your Conference:

For Presentations in Literature, Language, and the Humanities

Dr. Derek S. McGrath

PhD, English literature, Stony Brook University /
Twitter: @dereksmcgrath

What should I do before the conference?

Two months before

You can’t put it off anymore, so write your conference paper already! Yes, two months is a lot of time—which is why you need to plan now because a lot of work can emerge in that two months when you really need the time to write. You may not anticipate emergencies as well as surprises in new funding and teaching opportunities that take away time you need to write that conference presentation, so starting two months ahead of time is more than appropriate.

Therefore give yourself one hour per day to look at the presentation to perfect it.  Share that hour of time with related tasks; you can find overlap in your work such that, rather than only working on the presentation, you actually are revising this draft for submission to your adviser (dissertation chapter) or to submit to a journal (article).

The two months of writing may include additional research, but, really, by this point, you likely are developing this draft from a previous document (a seminar paper, a dissertation chapter, an article in progress), so now you are polishing the writing and including only a few of the most recent pieces of scholarship that resonate with your topic. 

Two months is also an ideal time to plan ahead because, as I will outline below, that is the amount of time it may take to receive items on time or more cheaply than purchasing them at the last minute: computer and digital equipment; medicines to refill; passport to order; travel and lodging to book.

The pressure to write a conference presentation two months ahead of time is daunting and, honestly, you will be re-writing some of it (one word or every single page) up to the day of your presentation.  But this opportunity is exciting:  unlike writing for publication, you are writing for an audience, which may be intimidating having to speak in front of large (or even a handful) of audience members, yet is an opportunity to draw upon your skills in the classroom (as a student and as a teacher) to speak with scholars interested in your topic.

Therefore treat the conference paper more like a lecture than like a text prepared for a publisher: people are listening to you once and will not be able to re-read your talk.  Your presentation must be comprehensible to people listening.   A handout and a slideshow is not a sufficient substitute, as you want to make the presentation as comprehensible to anyone who is listening, not reading along with you.

However, because the presentation is more like a lecture, even—forgive the cliché—a conversation, the stakes in writing are lower.  Your presentation is for 15 minutes, it is not getting printed yet, so please be forgiving of yourself for any potential errors.  The research has to be solid, so you have no excuse not to make your facts accurate, your logic sound and clear, and your writing excellent, but the goal is to speak clearly. Have fun!  You’re about to present to people really interested in your ideas and are coming to this panel to see you! You can afford to loosen up while maintaining your serious attention to the research, the logic, and staying on topic—so don’t ramble.

If you have too many pages for the length of your presentation (a 15- to 20-minute presentation is usually at least five pages; with practice, it can be seven to ten pages), develop two documents: one is your presentation copy to read; the other one is your set of notes to bring up during the question and answer session.

If you make a handout, create a Creative Commons license to protect your material:  This Creative Commons license functions as an open source equivalent to a copyright: it credits you as the creator of this document.  Because Creative Commons includes an option to list a web address for your document, create that document in Google Docs (or another service: Dropbox, Tumblr, WordPress). You may then copy and paste the license directly into your document. Protect the work that you present in public.

Also, publicize. Set up a web site (WordPress, Tumblr, Google, Yahoo, or whichever platform you prefer) and post a link to the conference page. Also link to any other web sites that are advertising your talk: the conference itself, the sponsoring institution or organization, or the individual area or caucus at the event may advertise your talk. You want attention; you want a record that is searchable online for your achievements; and you want your web site to be an archive of all that you do professionally.  The CV is one document, but the web site is a much larger platform to market yourself.

When publicizing, use social media.  In your audience at your presentation, there are going to be people live-blogging your talk: you can’t avoid them.  They are going to spoil your presentation.

That is why you need to publicize your talk first. Get ahead of the people writing about you on Twitter and Facebook.  One advantage is that you will attract more audience members and, thanks to the archival powers of the Internet, your publicizing is now on record long before someone else wrote about you on social media—and hence risks having your ideas sent out online to be taken by someone else and published in an article before you did.  Get ahead of the journals—publicize your conference presentations now.

Publicize by creating business cards.  If you will not receive business cards from your institution, and are not willing to pay for a printer to make them, you can make your own with a firmer paper.  Your card must show your name, institution, and email; it doesn’t need to be a hard paper, just firm enough.  Office supply stores do sell perforated business card sheets—and making your own card can aid you with improving your print and web design skills, vital for publicizing yourself.  Otherwise, find a colleague to help with the printing and design.

And by this point, don’t forget to finalize travel plans.  This work should be finished much earlier, but if you are the kind of person who waits to the last minute, book your travel now, confirm your lodging (a hotel or staying with friends), and list all materials you need for your trip.

Know the local hospitals and physicians in the area that are part of your insurance—don’t laugh, you don’t know whether you will need medical aid while traveling.

You will need any medications as well as one outfit per day of the conference, A/V equipment and computers, and your passport for international travel (and you should have ordered your passport far in advance). And for those traveling with children all additional materials you need, especially toys to keep them preoccupied—unless your child is super interested in your discussion about personified industrial instruments in Dickensian novels, you should keep them busy with someone fun, safe, and fulfilling.  (Play re-runs of Animaniacs—at least give them something hilarious to watch.)

For traveling out of the country, have your passport: you need at least two months to apply and receive your document in the mail.  Confirm that your health insurance applies outside of the nation; if not, get coverage as necessary. Likewise confirm whether your cell phone service is suitable.

Get a smartphone with a data plan, and add your apps for notetaking and travel.  It does not need to be expensive; a data plan for just a few gigabytes at $30 to $60 is sufficient and will keep you fed, entertained, timely, and above all else much safer than traveling through town without a guide and a way to contact others. You will want to know the services available in the area for maps, taxis and buses, local sites, and using social media to publicize your presentation. Therefore place apps on the phone that will guide you: put on a map application, including one for driving and walking; add apps for Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media that you use (be wary of Tumblr, however: it eats up a lot of data); add apps for your research and notetaking (Evernote, Pocket).

One week before

Read aloud.  Read from the page, and time yourself: do not go off-script unless you have timed yourself for going off-script.  Practice reading aloud multiple times.

Read in front of a mirror to practice eye contact and to enunciate.  Look at yourself in the mirror and see whether you are opening your mouth.  This skill takes practice, so be patient–you don’t want to over-enunciate at the presentation, so you are practicing now to slowly speak more loudly and clearly.

Find a partner to read with you.  If you are concerned about typos or missing words in your draft, print two copies of your presentation—get out of the habit of reading from a computer and read from a hard copy to avoid technical difficulties—and have your partner read along with you.  As you read aloud, if you missed a word or typed the wrong word in your presentation, your partner can catch the error and write the revision. This practice is also excellent when proofreading articles you are about to submit for publication.

Then practice reading aloud again, only this time take your presentation copy away from your partner and have them watch you speak.  Ask for their honest feedback.  Were you maintaining eye contact?  Have them sit in the back of a room comparable to where you think your presentation will be, such as a sizeable classroom or even lecture hall at your college; can your partner hear you from the back row?  Did you balance your presentation between your own spoken words and what appears on your slideshow?  Did you maintain professional body language—sitting or standing up straight, not fidgeting?

When giving your practice presentation, dress as you would at the real event.  Dress comfortably, so don’t change your attire drastically–if you don’t usually wear a tie, don’t start now.

Likewise, don’t change health practices drastically unless instructed by a physician–caffeine, smoking, exercise, sleep.

Before You Travel

Print out a few copies of your presentation: one goes in your carry-on luggage, one goes in your other piece of luggage. Have your back-ups.

Bring your talk on a USB and save it to your computer, to your email, and to a cloud–back up your presentation electronically multiple times, and keep those back-ups consistent by giving them the same file (in the file name, include a date and version number).  At your hotel, you may not find a computer where to print, so you need the hard copy; you may not have Internet, so you need the document on USB; you must have a USB because someone else may not; you will look awkward reading from a smartphone, and you may lose your charger to your tablet or your computer may be too slow for reading, so you need a print-out.

Immediately Before the Presentation

Before your talk, fulfill all bodily functions.

Yes, groan over the scatological implications—but you need to take care of your body.

Eat ahead of time so you can satisfy your hunger.  Choose foods that will agree with you.

Drink water, not just tea, soda, or coffee.

A half hour before the talk, use the restroom or bathroom. While there, also brush your teeth far in advance so not to taste your toothpaste during your presentation. Floss, too.

Visit the room where you will be presenting: if you can sit in on the session before yours, do so in order to see where chairs are placed, whether all A/V equipment that you need is present.

If you made any revisions to your presentation, print it at any available printer, whether at the hotel’s business/computer room or a nearby office store.

Bring a closed container of water with you–the convention may forget to provide water, you may run out of water, the water may have too much ice or not be cold enough, and you want a bottle, not a cup, so that you do not spill.

During the Presentation

Wait for your turn to present.  Don’t be a jerk.  Do not look down and re-read your presentation: you’ve practiced enough, so be polite to your colleagues—because that’s who they are, and they deserve your respect, and they could be your future colleague, editor, or boss, so make a good first impression.

Listen to your peers’ presentations critically: take notes, preferably on paper rather than on your tablet, computer, or smartphone (don’t look like you are texting during a presentation). As you take notes, notice how your presentation relates to someone else’s, especially for the question and answer session and any social events after your panel (dinner, drinks, email exchanges).  Your questions about their presentations should not be narcissistic, but you’ll recognize how to find overlap between your research.

When you present, speak loudly enough to be heard in the back rows, so open your mouth.  Look to three points in the room–left, center, right–a few times, and focus on the friendliest face that you see in that section of the audience.

But, before you do present, remember to do the following.

Take a deep breath.  Hold it just for a second or two.  Exhale slowly.

Your presentation is going to go well. You know more than anyone else in the room about your argument, so show off all that you know.

After Your Presentation

During the Q&A, keep up your self-esteem if you do not receive questions from the audience.  Having organized panels, I think it is the responsibility of the chair to maintain balance—which means making sure as many questions are taken from the audience (to avoid having long-winded questions that are not going to have immediate payoff to the benefit of the presenters or scholars interested in this topic) but also that, if I notice a presenter has not had a question asked, to ask one.

If you are not asked a question, you want to make a positive impression that demonstrates your desire to engage with the people who you think have something valuable to share with you.  If the panel is a wash-out, don’t worry, future panels will be more satisfying.  Otherwise, trade contact information with your colleagues; share your business card.

Within a week of your presentation, when you are back home, write to your chairs and panelists.  Postal mail goes a lot further than email, but always address the mail to your peers’ college offices, not any private addresses.  If you lack the postal address, especially for colleagues who lack offices at those colleges, email is sufficient.  Let new professional connection develop as it is; you may have made a contact for a panelist at your own future panel, a co-author for a future article, or a future colleague when hired on the job market.

Within a week, also write a summary of the event, not only for yourself but to post to your own web site.  Do not divulge details about your peers’ presentations—they, too, want to publish their work and do not want someone stealing their ideas after a quick Google search.  But you can write carefully about how pleased you were with how the presentations related to each other and to thank the conference and your chair in particular.  Publicize the post on your web page by linking it to social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, two or three weeks after your conference presentation, get to work on your next presentation or start revising for publication!  You want to present at least once per year—once per semester if you can afford it—unless you are in the midst of publishing, in which case focus on how to revise the draft.  You may wish to email your chair and colleagues if you think they would be helpful for revision.

However, whenever submitting your draft for peer review, always include language in the header that specifies the document is “not for re-distribution,” and place a Creative Commons copyright on the document.

Creative Commons License
Preparing for Your Conference: For Presentations in Literature, Language, and the Humanities by Derek McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s