How To Present A Paper - or Can Anthropologists Talk?
1. Tell us your main points and findings before you start ("I will show that the Earth is flat" or so) and sum up your paper at the end.
2. Tell us why we should listen to you. Yes, it's interesting that you have studied childhood in India. But why can your research be interesting or relevant for us who are not specialists in your field? What new insights does your paper give regarding general theories in anthropology and being a human?
3. 20 minutes are 20 minutes. Stop talking when your time is over. Check the length of your presentation a few days before the conference, so that you avoid struggling with the introduction few minutes before your time is over.
4. Don't read from your paper. Talk to and with your audience! By reading from your paper you show disrespect to your audience. This is the most important point and can't be stressed enough. Many speakers at conferences and seminars don't bother presenting their papers in a way that is understandable for us who came to listen. We have discussed anthropological writing. Maybe we should also talk about anthropological talking. Anthropologists can't write. Maybe they can't talk either.
Steve Portigal, a customer research consultant using ethnography, has written a brilliant post about his experiences at academic conferences, among others about a conference with both anthropologists and designers.
Meanwhile, the theory presentations emerged. And here we saw the academic tradition, I believe, where instead of a presentation or a talk, a paper was delivered. Several people in a row stood in, some without any visual aids, and read. For forty-five minutes. They read. At least one person had the ability to jump in and out of his text, make eye contact, and spontaneously offer up a clarification or a hand gesture. But others simply read. It was horrifying. The density of prose was (as with the 7-minute DUX example above) way beyond my ability to parse and it was boring and not engaging.
But back to the reading. What the hell? Is this standard? How is this a way to convey information or start a dialog? I got a lot of grumbling from my colleagues about this; some would have rather read the paper on their own time, rather than coming a great distance to watch someone else read it. Others just stopped coming into the sessions.
A common experience: The speakers go over time. Five minutes before their offical time is over, they still struggle with their introduction. I always wondered why they haven't checked the length of their presentations before.
Steve Portigal writes:
a read paper could not be modified when time ran out, and so facilitators inched closer to presenters in the hopes of having them wrap things up, but no, darn it, I’ve written these 20000 words and I’m going to spit them at you regardless of what time it is. The emphasis was not on making connections between people and other people and ideas. It was really a drag.
Denise Carter comments:
Reading How To Present A Paper - or Can Anthropologists Talk? had me nodding along in agreement at the wishlist.
I’ve had some experience of conference presentations in various parts of the world with poor presentations that had left me bored and fidgety. Hence I have already decided NOT to write a paper, but instead, to write a presentation around my topic ‘Order and Disorder in the Virtual City’. My intention is that a fruitful and enlightening dialogue will emerge that will clarify some of my ideas – resulting in a more rounded and polished paper that will address some important issues.
Thank you for saying this!
I wrote about my experience at EPIC
where most of the presentations were absolutely terrible - being read, with little eye contact or actual conversational utterances. I didn’t (and I guess still don’t) understand why this was tolerated.
Thanks. Brilliant post. I’ll quote from it and update the main post. And I forgot one thing: Time! Most people go over time as you write in your post.
I’ve also always wondered why this kind of presentation is accepted an d tolerated. On my first conferences I thought I might be the only one finding the presentations dull. But if you start asking other participants, they all would agree with you. But I guess, many just accept that’s just the way it is - that’s academic culture and therefore nothing is going to change.
Comment from: John McCreery [Visitor]
The curmudgeon offers the following hypothesis: For most presenters at meetings the papers they give are excuses for their institutions to pay their expenses. Once the bursar OKs the funds, the paper is a unwelcome obligation in the way of the real business of meetings, which is networking and job-hunting. Many papers are, in fact, cobbled together at the last minute, with how they should be presented hardly considered at all.
My experience of going to conferences has been the same. Although there are some good presenters out there, there are some presentations you wish that you had just walked out of. I even heard of one presentation where the speaker admitted in the question time that he had no idea what his paper had been about. It raises the question of what is the point of giving a paper in the first place.
As a young academic, giving your first paper is terrifying. I laboured over my first, and indeed second paper, worried about how it would be received. To then be faced with senior academics who ramble on past their time limit about goodness knows what is extremely disappointing. It really comes back to some of the main points that we deal with when we write, what is the story, and am I really telling the story. Sounds simple, but it really is a skill that should be nurtured and valued by all academics.
I agree with the gist of Mikol’s comment. Both reading a paper and using a whole mess of Powerpoint slides packed with useless material (that defies the term ‘visual aid’) seem like ways to handle being insecure and shy. Many people don’t want a dialogue with their audience, they want something for their resume or (as John McCreery said) to get a free trip to a networking event.
I want to insert a quick plug, though, for the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) conference (http://www.sfaa.net). It’s an awesome meeting. I’ve been 4 times now, and found it comparatively informal, fun, and engaging each time. The talks tend to be conversations, the discussions are lively, and the people are, in my experience, humble, accessible, and wonderful. And there are more and more papers on design, IT, and the like. My wife and I are headed there next week - there being Vancouver, which is another reason why I’m happy to go.
“I always wondered why they haven’t checked the length of their presentations before.”
They are not taught to do so.
“By reading from your paper you show disrespect to your audience. This is the most important point and can’t be stressed enough.”
I heavily disagree with this statement. A non-read presentation is of teh highest art only a few are capable of.
Listening to someone who tries to present freely but is being very nervous and not speaking in full sentences and so on can be a real torture, too.
If you read a presentation you must do it slow enough. Most people just read way too fast.
The advantage of reading a paper really is, you can be absolutely exact in your time management.
You said: A non-read presentation is of the highest art only a few are capable of. Listening to someone who tries to present freely but is being very nervous and not speaking in full sentences and so on can be a real torture, too.
I agree (I belong to the majority who isn’t capable to present freely without torturing the audience…). My work-around: Once I wrote a speech that I read. This worked well! In contrast to the paper, the speech has an oral structure. You should never read a paper that was written with a printed publication in mind. Nobody is capable to follow / understand the written structure of your text. Most people stop listening after a while.
re: oral structure/written speech
Good point which I missed to mention!
Just a quick comment; for speakers who give their papers not in their mother tongue (like me for example), reading is almost the only way to do it.
Hi Ioannis. Yes, of course. But why not - as an alternative to reading the paper - read a presentation, written in oral style where you talk about the main points of your paper?
Hi Lorenz. Of course you’re right. However, it depends on the nature of the paper. For instance, one of my recent papers was on the tomb types and burial customs of a specific area in a specific period of time. That involved lots of architectural features and measurements as well as the orientation of tombs, types of offerings and so forth. As you can see, that sort of detail requires the careful reading of the paper. Having said that, I always try to have lots of eye contact with my audience and always read my paper REALLY slowly.
Good to know that you read your papers slowly. I hope you use images / slides / illustrations as well. From my point of view (audience) your kind of topic with so many details requires a particularily elaborated / deliberate presentation.
One thing I hate about studying is having to listen to tons of really bad presentations by scared students. I´ve been so annoyed by the time I´ve been stolen in those seminaries that I decided to do it differently and use the time I´m given to present something. Here are some points that helped me get some very good response after giving speeches:
Make the penny drop
Before presenting a paper, one goes through a certain process: After having researched on a topic, you have to come clear on the issues of your paper, find an overview, find your path through the maze of data noise until the penny drops and you finally know what you want to say.
The audience often doesn´t know about the specific topics or aims of your paper and if it does, then in most cases they unavoidably don´t know as much as you do. Remember: You´ve researched on the topic, you made the major work and it´s you who has to convey the destillate to the listeners. Have a clear line, there´s nothing duller than pointless blabla.
You´ve got to perform the magic of evoking the same process you went through in the minds of the audience. Leave out ornaments, include what helped you come to your point. Make the penny drop. Always plan your presentations in order to cause a light bulb to hover over peoples heads.
The Rhapsodists of Ancient Greece
Above, I explicitly chose the term perform, since I think that giving a speech is closer to drama than science. Science is what happened before the speech and will happen after the speech, but as soon, or at the latest when the speaker steps on the podium he or she becomes a rhapsodist who has to ban the listeners with his tale.
The rhapsodists in ancient Greece wandered from place to place to sing the homeric epics, which they knew by heart! Take them as an example: Never, I repeat, never read your papers! Never! For your own sake! Reading in public is an extremely difficult task that requires a great deal of training or an unheard of natural talent. Unskilled reading in public is an expression of uncertainty, it´s making the presentation deadly dull. Best thing is to learn it by heart - like the rhapsodists - or at least have some cards or something as mnemonic device. The latter should be the least choice though, because you would have to hold them in your hands. That´s the next point. Always keep in mind that the aim of a presentation is not completeness (there´s usually time for questions and discussion afterwards), but the message you want to send out.
Stand with both feet on the floor. Don´t twist your legs, your feet or any other awkward gesture. Stand there with both feet on the ground. Yes, chest out, belly in, shoulders straight, you´re not a jumping jack.
Try not to hold anything in your hands or even worse: Stick to a table or lectern. (Knowing your speech by heart is a big help here) Use your hands. Keep them out of your pockets!
Moving on the podium:
A speech is not only performed with your speaking facilities. Use the whole space of the podium, walk, jump do anything that could emphasize what you want to say. You´ve got many devices on your body to express what you´ve got to say: Use the whole of your arms to sculpt pictures in the air. Be present on the stage, fill the whole space. A human being can take up to several cubic metres. Believe me, I´ve seen it.
In your mind there´s a stream that leads from the beginning to the end of your speech. Let the stream take over cotnrol of your body. Abandon self-control to a certain degree. (But don´t freak out too much.)
Relax. A speech can be fun for the audience if it´s fun for you. Being nervous is normal and important before the speech, but always enjoy doing it. Remember: Once you´re old and gray, all things become relative. ;-)
Thanks! Very good ideas, especially the first point. Not everything (f.ex. knowing your speech by heart etc) sounds very realistic for many of us, though, but it’s important to have your points in mind as a kind of vision.
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