Having being doctored in the summer I realised I had given over seventeen papers and talks to conferences and local history societies. From my first hand-written scribbles to my newest typed notes I have gained a lot of experience. I am still learning, though. Here are a few reflections on giving a paper. As a brand new PhD student I couldn’t wait to rush off to my first academic conference. Indeed, my very first one was a musicology conference in London. This was followed by others. In the first two years I attended at least six conferences. This was great. Over the course of my part-time PhD I have given talks at a wide range of groups. I have found out a lot, some of it good, and some of it bad. Having misplaced yet another memory stick last week I thought I would share some of my insights.
1) Timing is Everything
When you give a conference paper the normal time allowed is twenty minutes. It is vital that you stick to this time. To have to rush to the end of your paper is embarrassing and looks a little foolish, cutting large parts of text out of your argument. The key thing to remember is that a twenty-minute paper is between 2,500 and 2,800 words long, at a standard speaking speed. (Longer talks can be worked out by multiplying the word count)
This has several advantages. Firstly, of course, sticking to time is not only polite, but also makes you a professional. In other words, you have taken the invitation to speak seriously, showing respect for the conference organisers. Secondly, and often overlooked, having a set time to aim for will help you refine and your argument, bringing out the important points. Finally, conference papers are often turned into collected volumes for publication. Showing yourself to be professional and able to stick to time could well produce an invitation to submit an article.
2) The Pitfalls of PowerPoint
It’s not compulsory! Let that be your mantra. Unless you are familiar with it, don’t use it. After running over time, not being able to use the equipment is the biggest pitfall. Does the format you use at home work on the host computer? Have you made a back-up copy, for when the venue has no internet to access the cloud where you stashed it? Have you a spare memory stick with it on? Back up, back up, back up. Consider that a hand out is a tactile thing that can be taken home by the audience. Simple is often best.
3) Answering questions: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Hostile
A good paper or talk will generate many questions. This is your chance to affirm your authority in your subject. When researching you will have a lot of material from the archives. Use this material to illustrate your answers, this proves you are an authority. Most questions are interested people wanting to know more. remember that, nevertheless; there will be one, there always is, that is hostile. Do not get into an argument. Don’t get mad get even. Support your reply with archival evidence, always be doing this. If they have genuinely floored you, be gracious and say something like,’I’m glad you highlighted that for me, it’s an interesting point that I will explore further, thank you for that.’
Always take a moment to collect your thoughts before answering a question. Let the archival evidence lead you with your answer. In 1888, for example, Smith said that… and so on.
What if there are no questions? It does happen. A good session chair will generate questions by leading with one. If there are none then thank the people for their time, and for listening to your talk.
4) Dealing with nerves
Just a few thoughts. The best, and arguably only way, to deal with nerves is practice. Get yourself out there, no venue is too bizarre. Talk to everyone, community groups, local history groups, universities and, of course, conferences. This will make you a well-rounded speaker, and it is, of course, excellent practice for your PhD viva. Having a large and varied portfolio of talks can only add kudos to your CV, when job hunting. Indeed, it is an important element in academic job hunting.
Sounds obvious, but get to the venue early. Sit in the room and get a feel for it. Get familiar with the equipment, walk around and get comfortable.
5) Final Thoughts
It’s all about the buffet! Enjoy yourself. People are there to hear you, they are interested in your material. Take the opportunity to network and make contacts.