Writing and presenting a good conference paper
Philosophy, University of
good conference paper has a good idea – some interesting and relatively
novel position to defend. But this
is merely a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. Here are other hallmarks of a good
conference paper, in my view, and in the view of Waterloo Philosophy faculty members
who threw in some excellent suggestions.
- Philosophical cartography:
showing where this problem falls on the larger map of familiar
philosophical or intellectual concerns.
- Set up key concepts:
define and motivate the terms and methods you will use, in a way
that a smart philosopher who works in a different area will understand.
- Modesty: donŐt
oversell your thesis; be clear about limitations in scope and major
- Spoilers: ItŐs not a
detective novel. Give away the
ending (and the method) right from the start.
- Scholarship: locate
your thesis relative to the most influential figures and views on the
topic, competently, even if your
focus is on a newer or less central figure/view on the problem.
- Clarity: be
intellectually generous; get to your points directly; make your points
clearly; donŐt be hard to understand.
periodically remind your audience where you are in the overall plan
of the talk.
- Concessions to spoken context: A talk is not a journal
article. Take those long
sentences with embedded clauses or semi-colons, and break them into two or
three smaller sentences. Avoid
proliferating acronyms; avoid confusing homophones if possible. Also, more repetition of key points
is needed than in a written article.
- Minimize: the talk is
short, so you donŐt need a grand summary. A few sentences will do fine.
- Reemphasize caveats:
remind people why you glossed whatever important details/looming
problems you had to gloss.
- Rehearse: Give a dry
run of your talk in advance, tracking how long it takes, and making notes
of any bits that are hard to read or pronounce, or that are confusing when
read aloud. Make sure you
anticipate and include whatever verbal asides or ŇpatterÓ you will include
in the talk itself, when rehearsing its timing!
- Revise: Rework the
awkward bits, and modify the paper for length on the basis of your dry
run. It is hard to end up with
too short a paper. Make notes
in the margins of the latest time you should be at that section (i.e., on
a well-timed dry run).
- Use the bathroom immediately before your talk, even if you donŐt
think you need to. ItŐs a
long, long session when you just need the toilet more than anything.
- Even if youŐre nervous, eat a bit before your talk. Have a snack if your last meal was
hours earlier. Giving a talk
is hard work, and you can easily run out of energy during the question
period. (Avoid highly sugary
snacks, which may leave you feeling sick or listless. An oatmeal cookie is probably
better than a chocolate bar.)
- Speed: Speak steadily;
- Dynamics: slow down for important, dense, or otherwise difficult
sections, and maybe even repeat a key sentence. Reading at a uniform pace makes the
paper seem a mere recitation, as if youŐre insensitive to the content of
your own presentation!
- Be audible: It very
rare for someone to speak too loudly.
A very quiet talk is maddening to your audience. Especially be aware of the
inclination to start a sentence audibly but trail off the further you get
- Watch your time: bring
a watch (clock/sundial/iPod) and use it to keep track of where you should
be in your talk.
- Just say it: Utter the
sentences. No um, right?, okay?, etc.
- Write down the good questions, and the names of the people who
asked them, and how you answered.
This is a good way to make your paper better after the fact and to
engage your audience in longer-term discussions.
- Avoid presenting long quotations unless absolutely necessary. Distill the idea of the quote,
include the whole thing in a handout, and tell your audience they can read
the longer quotes at their own convenience.
- DonŐt give into the temptation to give quick asides that
anticipate the commentatorŐs objections. This is poor form and typically
makes your paper worse anyhow.
- Handout: Put these on
a handout: Paper title, summary/road map; lengthy quotes (if absolutely
necessary to the talk); numbered examples; acronym explanations;
cumbersome data. Make sure
your name, the conference name, the date, and your contact details are on
it as well.
- Overheads: Use
sparingly, for the same sort of things you would put on the handout. Do
not put your prose on the overhead/PowerPoint, and then just read from
- Clock: See Delivery
- Drink: Bring a bottle
of water or a coffee. ItŐs a
good way to steady your nerves and help pace your talk, and a good idea in
case you get a scratchy throat.
- Be confident: Your
paper got accepted. It belongs
there as much as any anybodyŐs paper.
If you are constantly apologizing for your paper, people will
believe that you something to apologize for. Do not start by saying that you
have come to believe the paper is all wrong; even if true, this distracts
your audience from the argument itself.
- Be modest: YouŐre
there to learn how to make it a better piece of work, not to protect your
image or destroy those with the temerity to question you. Thank people politely for their
questions, even for their trenchant challenges, and answer as fully and as
honestly as possible.
- Be calm: Some
philosophers are trained in (or just enjoy) the bloodsport tradition. They may wish not only to object or
to raise a hard question, but to convince you and others that you are
Their being a jerk doesnŐt make their criticism a good one, though;
nor does it mean you have to respond defensively or combatively. A charitable, measured, smiling
response is very effective under such (rare) circumstances.
Timing problems: You have
an inattentive time-keeper who allowed an earlier talk to run on. Now youŐre left with less than your
allotted time. What can you
do? It helps to flag a few
paragraphs of your paper in advance as ones you could skip over if necessary,
perhaps just reading one key sentence that you highlight in advance. This is much better than speaking as
usual until time runs out, then hurriedly skipping all the way to the
conclusion. You can always just
invoke the key ideas contained in a few paragraphs, plead lack of time, and
offer to justify those claims in the question period if necessary.
Interruptions: Sometimes an
audience member will repeatedly interrupt your talk, and the chair will not
intervene. The acceptability of
this approach varies from one discipline to the next, so donŐt assume that this
is hostility or rudeness. If you
find the questions or comments disruptive, just politely say that the
questioner may find an answer in what you are going to say later, so youŐd like
to reserve all questions until after the talk.
Persistent questioners: The
Q&A can be a great opportunity to get into a fairly detailed discussion of
a point raised in your paper. This
will often involve a questioner who asks one or two follow-up questions to your
initial answer. If a questioner is
going on too long, though, and dominates the discussion period to no useful
effect, the session chair is supposed to intervene, in order to move things
along. Session chairs sometimes
fail in this duty. So you should
feel free to reply politely that you see the general issue being raised, but
would prefer to let others join the discussion too – then move on to the