Attending your first conference can be a nerve-wracking experience, and giving your first paper can be even more stressful. However, a little bit of forethought and preparation can make the whole experience much smoother and more enjoyable. For those who may be attending or presenting for the first time at a conference, here are some top tips on making sure you get the best out of the experience.
Writing the paper
- Make your argument obvious. Be absolutely clear about why your audience will benefit from listening to what you have to say. What is new and exciting about your research? Why are you changing the way people think? Make sure you clearly state your main point more frequently than you would in a written piece – this means your audience has multiple opportunities to absorb the information.
- Keep to the time limit. Your paper must fit into the time slot specified by the conference organizers.
- Remember that you are speaking, not writing. Keep your sentences shorter, more so than you would in your writing, as listeners will be able to follow your argument more easily.
- Practice reading your paper. Make sure you know the shape of each sentence, where the emphasis will fall and what direction the paper moves in. Listen for the places where you might rewrite passages to make them easier to say (and thus to understand).
- Make sure you begin and end your talk well. Begin with a couple of sentences to contextualize your work, and end with a clear summary of what you have said, so your audience knows you are rounding off your argument.
Delivering the paper
- Remember that you are giving a performance. Speak confidently and at a sensible speed. Whatever you do, remember to sound excited about what you’re saying – if you aren’t enthused about your subject, why should your audience be?
- Think about your body language. Try to establish eye contact with your audience as much as possible. Watch out for slips in your posture, like swaying from side to side or jumping from one foot to the other. Be aware of what your hands are doing.
- Be sensible about your presentation aides. PowerPoints are useful if you have images, figures, tables or site maps to display; if you will mainly be discussing texts, then handouts with margins for people to scribble their own notes on will be more useful.
- Don’t panic if you don’t get any questions. This doesn’t mean your paper was a failure – it means that you thoroughly convinced your audience of your point.
- Manage your crisis in advance. Back up your paper in something like Dropbox. Have a copy of your paper and handout or PowerPoint e-mailed to yourself. If you are travelling by plane, keep the paper copy of your talk in your hand luggage.
Attending the conference
- Do your preparation. Have a look at the conference program, find out who you know who is going, work out what you want to hear and who you want to catch up with.
- Be willing to experiment. Pick a panel you know absolutely nothing about that sounds interesting, and go along. You may hear something unexpectedly helpful for your own research.
- Take an interest in other people’s work. Think of questions for speakers, either during the discussion period or to follow up with them afterwards. The subject matter of papers also always gives you material to start up a conversation during the breaks.
- Network – and remember what networking is about. The primary goal of networking is to meet interesting people working on interesting things, not to engage in some kind of Machiavellian mind game. Be guided by your genuine curiosity and enthusiasm about your subject, and you’ll start meeting people who are as fascinated by your work as you are by theirs – which is the point.
- Remember that conferences are supposed to be fun! For all the pressure involved in preparing for conferences, they are great opportunities to meet interesting people, hear exciting new ideas and continue learning about your discipline. Try not to forget that once you’re actually on the ground.