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…and All the Academics Merely Players

In this post, regular contributor Claire Warden offers her top tips for giving excellent conference presentations. She is Lecturer in Drama at the University of Lincoln where she has been working since 2010. She blogs at www.clairewarden.net and tweets as @cs_warden.

Here in the University of Lincoln’s drama department we are approaching our first performance fortnight of the year: a chance for students to showcase their talents and explore new methods. Currently I spend Thursday mornings amid a sea of robots, fake blood and apocalyptic visions as we rehearse a version of Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. In recent days I have been thinking a little about the way we ‘perform’ as academics. Our performance ability is particularly tested at conferences and, in this my third short meditation for PhD2Published, I want to consider the way we perform at these events.

For as a postgraduate I remember being taught about archives and writing journal articles and the need to develop a workable bibliographic system, but I cannot recollect ever really learning about conference presentation. The assumption, I imagine, is that it must come naturally to anyone considering an academic career or passionate about their research. Anybody who has sat through long days of conference proceedings will know that this is far from the case and, though I do not claim any real expertise in this area (I am the presenter whose Powerpoint didn’t work at my first major international conference as well as the panel chair who introduced a colleague with the wrong university affiliation), I have been considering what help us ‘performing arts types’ could provide to colleagues in different departments. So, below are my top tips for excellent conference presentation and, for those of you balking already at the thought of a drama scholar at the helm, I can promise that there will be no exuberant jazz hands, no actorly hissy fits and I will not call you ‘darling’ at any stage…

1)      The first act: Beginning well is really important and, just like that opening paragraph of any article, transmits a certain, long-lasting impression. This takes place before the presentation even starts with obvious things like preparing well and writing all your notes in big print. But it also involves timing your presentation before the performance. I have been to a good many conferences where presenters have suddenly interrupted themselves and proceeded to inform the audience that they are going to leave out that important bit in the middle because they are running out of time. If considered as a rehearsed performance, this sort of approach should be discouraged for it leaves the audience wondering what they missed. And have you even considered this audience? I try to ask myself, ‘what sort of conference am I attending?’ If it is a small, specialist conference on, in my case, modernist theatre then my paper will differ considerably from one given at a general themed-based event. How much will your audience know about your subject? Do you need to provide all that background information? Do you need to situate your paper within larger debates in order to connect with your audience? Are there parallels that can be made to more well known examples?

2)      Getting off book: I say this with a caveat. I have heard some genuinely wonderful papers that the presenter has merely read to the audience. That said, the best have also included moments where presenters have gone ‘off piste’, directly addressing their audience. I like a bit of Powerpoint and its new, brash cousin, Prezi, although I have also seen them used badly. Whichever tack you take it is imperative that we perform our papers. This means giving eye contact (not in scary ways!) and varying the tone of your voice. It also means dealing with nerves effectively. I always find that I virtually stop breathing during those early moments of a big conference paper and am reminded of the breathing techniques I do each week with my students to relax the muscles. I quite like to give myself a moment at the start of a paper to look round the room (in icky performance speak, ‘to become aware of your performance space’) and connect with the audience.

3)      Ending with a flourish: There is a big difference between conference papers and journal articles. The former should always be written with performance in mind – can you break out of your script to provide an example? Can you bring a little humour? Can you make spontaneous connections to the other papers on your panel? Is there a pithy central idea that can be explored in just 20 minutes? And, importantly, does your paper open up questions for the post-performance Q&A? While a vibrant, energetic time of questions cannot be wholly orchestrated by the presenter, we can certainly contribute to a spirit of openness and curiosity by purposely engendering debate. Some of the most useful feedback I have ever received has been proffered in this context and it is vital that, as performers, we present papers that generate questions.

And finally, as a matter of etiquette, I would stay away from the buffet. Though you may be starving by the end of the day you will not a) have spilt vol-u-vent down your suit, b) have unsuccessfully juggled a plate and a glass while eating, standing in rather uncomfortable heels or c) have unidentifiable greenery in your teeth. This has little to do with my background in performing arts and more to do with general rules of conduct.

So, as my first years continue to battle with line learning, attacks of nerves under hot lights and last minute costume adjustments, I hope that, as a new generation of academics, we can perform our conference papers in a way that will inspire, that will challenge and engage our audience and that will potentially open up new ways of presenting our work to a non-academic audience somewhere down the line.

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