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Conference Presentations

This resource provides a detailed overview of the common types of conference papers and sessions graduate students can expect, followed by pointers on presenting conference papers for an audience. 

Types of conference papers and sessions

Panel presentations are the most common form of presentation you will encounter in your graduate career. You will be one of three to four participants in a panel or session (the terminology varies depending on the organizers) and be given fifteen to twenty minutes to present your paper. This is often followed by a ten-minute question-and-answer session either immediately after your presentation or after all of the speakers are finished. It is up to the panel organizer to decide upon this framework. In the course of the question-and-answer session, you may also address and query the other panelists if you have questions yourself. Note that you can often propose a conference presentation by yourself and be sorted onto a panel by conference organizers, or you can propose a panel with a group of colleagues. Self-proposed panels typically have more closely related topics than conference-organized panels.

Roundtables feature an average of five to six speakers, each of whom gets the floor for approximately five to ten minutes to speak on their respective topics and/or subtopics. At times, papers from the speakers might be circulated in advance among the roundtable members or even prospective attendees.

Workshops feature one or a few organizers, who usually give a brief presentation but spend the majority of the time for the session facilitating an activity that attendees will do. Some common topics for these sessions typically include learning a technology or generating some content, such as teaching materials.

Lightning talks (or Ignite talks, or Pecha Kucha talks) are very short presentations where presenters' slide decks automatically advance after a few seconds; most individual talks are no longer than 5 minutes, and a lightning talk session typically invites 10 or more presenters to participate over the course of an hour or two rather than limiting the presenters like a panel presentation. A lightning talk session will sometimes be held as a sort of competition where attendees can vote for the best talk. 

SIGs (Special Interest Groups) are groups of scholars focused on a particular smaller topic within the purview of the larger conference. The structure of these sessions varies by conference and even by group, but in general they tend to be structured either more like a panel presentation, with presenters and leaders, or more like a roundtable, with several speakers and a particular meeting agenda. These styles resemble, respectively, a miniconference focusing on a particular topic and a committee meeting. 

Papers with respondents are structured around a speaker who gives an approximately thirty-minute paper and a respondent who contributes their own thoughts, objections, and further questions in the following fifteen minutes. Finally, the speaker gets that same amount of time to formulate their reply to the respondent.

Poster presentations ask participants to visually display their ideas on a research poster, which is typically displayed with other research posters in a specific area at a conference. The poster needs to be understandable on its own (without the author) as viewers sometimes look through the posters outside the bounds of the poster session, which is a scheduled period of time where poster authors stand with their posters and engage viewers in conversation about the work. Research posters have long tended to follow common templates for design, but in recent years some scholars have begun challenging these templates for improved usability (for example, the Better Poster campaign as described here or the APA template based on the original, here.

You can read more about research posters on our resource here.

Presenting the conference paper

Aim to take less time than you are given! If your presentation slot is 15 minutes, aim for 13 or 14 when you practice. A little leeway and a slightly shorter presentation is a courtesy to your audience and to your fellow presenters, and will not at all imply that you are unprepared or unprofessional — in fact, being able to keep well within your allotted time is the mark of a good presenter.

Make sure you speak slowly and clearly, using accessibility aids if available such as a microphone or closed captioning on a slide deck. Many presenters have begun bringing accessibility copies of their talks, which are printed transcripts of the talk using a larger font for audience members who need them. It is also becoming increasingly common for presenters at conferences to share their slides and copies of their talk via a shortened link or QR code found on the bottom of the slides so that audiences may access them later or even while they are in your session.

The conventions for presentation differ based on field. Some fields tend toward reading papers aloud with very little audiovisual accompaniment; others use slide decks; others speak extemporaneously. You can find out more about typical practices in your field by attending conferences yourself and by asking mentors. Generally, you will be able to improve the accessibility of your presentation if you have a visual accompaniment and prepared remarks.

Even in fields where presenters tend to read papers verbatim, it is rarely a good idea to bring a paper from a class or another research paper you have written without editing it for an oral presentation. Seminar papers tend to be too long to read in 15 minutes, and often lead to graduate students surpassing their time limits. Moreover, research papers are meant to be read — they lack the kinds of repetition and simple sentence structure that are more beneficial to listeners. Finally, conference presentations do not serve the same purposes as most class papers — typically in a class, you're expected to show that you have understood the material, but at a conference, listeners are more interested in hearing what contributions you have that might help them in their own research. It's typical to move the bulk of your literature review to an appendix or another document so that you can discuss other scholarship in the area if it comes up in the Q&A, but during your presentation you're left free to focus on your own methods and findings. (Many presenters will even say: "I'm skipping a lot of [X material] for the sake of time, but I'm happy to discuss it later with anyone who's interested.")

Since you will present your paper orally, you may repeat important points and say more about the structure of the essay than a written submission to a journal (or a paper for your undergraduate or graduate courses) would require. This often means signposting orally when you are moving to a new section of the paper or when you are shifting to a new idea. The thesis of your paper should come early in your presentation to give listeners a clear understanding of what is to follow. At this point, you may also overview or forecast your paper and tell listeners how you will move from one argument to the next. It is generally advised to quickly summarize your important points in a bulleted list at the end of your presentation to remind everyone of the two or three most essential arguments or findings.

If you use a slide presentation, you may want to follow the guidelines presented in the OWL resource, Designing an Effective PowerPoint Presentation.