I have organized and chaired 11 conference sessions on literature, language, and culture between 2012 and 2017, and I have presented 19 papers at 9 different conventions, including six sessions at the Modern Language Association, between 2006 and 2017. I want to share advice for when you’re stuck with writing a conference paper, how to practice the presentation, how to prep for the gauntlet that can be the conference networking scene, and how to followup when a convention is over. This tutorial will be updated whenever possible, with the date of revisions at the top.
Read aloud multiple times.
Type your presentation in 12-point font, double-spaced, one side per page. Read aloud in front of a mirror to force yourself to practice eye contact (and as you read aloud repeatedly, you’ll start memorizing portions of your presentation).
The way you write on paper is different from how you write to present–and it helps to improve your writing. If you can read something aloud, it is likely sufficient writing: it is clear, you can pronounce the words, and you make sense. Read aloud once just to get a sense of the words on the page, to identify spots where the sentences are too long to catch a breath, and where you made typos.
Read again aloud and mark up the paper–change punctuation for pauses (add commas for shorter pauses, add periods for long pauses, and add dashes to rush certain passages). Go back to your computer, and type in the edits.
Continue to cycle through re-writes and reading aloud to get the presentation where you want it to be.
Most conference presentations are 15 to 20 minutes, which is roughly five to ten double-spaced single-sided pages in 12-point font. Some of us read faster than others; slow down your pace when speaking. Some of us are slower readers than others; cut pages, and keep the cut content written down as notes to refer to during the question and answer session–better to have much more to talk about during the Q&A than to give a presentation that is too long and hence cut off early by the session organizer.
Stay healthy and comfortable
While traveling and attending the conference, stay healthy: drink water, get the nutrients you need from the food available. Don’t make drastic changes to your habits–consult your physician before any changes to your lifestyle, and that includes all substances you put into your body. (If you depend on caffeine, now may not be the time to cut off coffee and soda.)
Before you present, handle all bodily functions first and re-hydrate as much as necessary: you want to be comfortable standing or sitting before your audience. If necessary after a meal or snack, brush your teeth and floss well ahead of time to have clean teeth but to get the taste of mint toothpaste out of your mouth.
Follow the rules
Don’t be rude at someone else’s conference–you’re too mature for that kind of behavior, you are among colleagues, and you want to treat others as you would want to be treated. That means do not go over the time limit: the panel organizers are under enough stress fitting in multiple papers and a question and answer session into an hour and 15-minute time block, and they don’t have time for you to turn your 15-minute presentation into a 30-minute narcissistic fit.
Don’t let the jerks get you down–for many of us, if you can survive the worst participants in any conference, you can handle the rest of it. Not everyone will be polite; keep being the smart but friendly scholar you are.
Go to the panels and events that you want to; don’t let peer pressure dictate where you go.
If you want to use your time away from your own session to see the city or stay in your hotel room, do so–this conference is your time, and you will have time at your own panel to make your contacts, to represent your institution well, and to participate in the intellectual discussion with your peers.
Now finish your abstract, present your paper, and be awesome!
Oh, and follow-up so you can network.
Email is always safe and quick. Don’t wait too long to follow-up: a week is the longest you should take, although it’s never too late to send an email, even a year later.
A thank you card may be a bit too formal, especially if you don’t know the chair’s address. If they are at a university or college, finding their departmental address is an easy online search and would not be too invasive. If you do pursue this option, make your card stand out: keep it professional, write it out by hand (so practice penmanship), choose a card that will be memorable for all the right reasons.
Whether emailing or sending a thank-you card, add something in your message that will stay on their mind. For example, comment about their presentation that reveals an insight they can use for revisions or future work. Or remind them of some detail you brought up when you met so they can apply the face to the words. If you have a project they may provoke their interest, suggest it. Maybe your department has an invited speakers series that is close enough for this chair to visit–if and only if you actually found what the chair did fascinating and think it would get a big enough audience to suit this speaker and make it worth your department’s costs in honorarium and travel reimbursement.
Many of us meet chairs who may suit us as advisers, outside readers for our dissertations, collaborators, future editors or co-editors. That’s a lot of pressure–so just start small. If you know your research aligns with theirs, mention that common interest: “I am interested in your focus on [TOPIC A]. I too examine it, with regard to [AUTHOR OR TEXT]. I would love to speak with you in the future, I hope at a future convention.” It’s a start, it leaves the door open to that chair to offer a response, whether a friendly “That’s nice” or a larger offer later to be your adviser and collaborator. This is your colleague: you owe each other acknowledgement and have to let respect and collaboration build.
Finally, pursue future opportunities with this convention, if it would help.
Did you like the conference? It’s fine if it was not the fit for you. If it was, though, check their web site after the conference to see their deadline for hosting your own session: often, those deadlines come right after that convention, so turn-around is fast. Also see whether the convention offers awards for revising your presentation into an essay. You may win money or get a chance to publish in their journal.