Tips for Presenting Conference Papers

Any effective conference presentation must do three things: effectively communicate your arguments and evidence, persuade your audience that they are true, and be interesting and entertaining. These tips will help you accomplish those goals.

Before the Conference

When presenting a paper at a conference, you will be delivering a document that was originally far lengthier than what you will be reading. Therefore, editing your paper will be necessary to present your work in full considering the given time restrictions presented to you at the time of your acceptance to the conference. Typically, most conferences allow each presenter approximately 15- 20 minutes, though this is not always standard and times may vary.

Editing Your Paper

Your time restriction will guide your editing process. What does this mean? It means that you know that you have a certain amount of time to convey the most important aspects of your work. As a general rule, you will have time to make one major point. State it, develop it, and repeat it. You will want to edit your paper accordingly with three necessary components: argument, evidence, and a conclusion. Extract your argument and the strongest supporting evidence from your larger body of work.

An effective rule of thumb to remember while editing is that your primary sources inform your narrative. This is the evidence that you will want to use for your conference paper. Secondary source evidence, while beneficial to your overall work, could weigh down a short and concise conference paper.

After you have extracted a rough draft of your paper in this way, go through and edit for clarity. A conference paper is different than a printed paper; you are presenting the information in an oral format and audience members will not be able to slow you down or ask you to repeat a point that they miss. Make the paper clear for them the first time around.

  • Clearly state your argument, almost to the point that you declare that you are stating your argument.
  • Organize your information in a highly structured The more transparent your structure, the more likely an audience will be able to follow what you are saying.
  • Use clear topic sentences.
  • Remove clauses which can be lethal, turning them in to more simple, declarative statements that are easy to understand and easy to read.
  • Look for dependent clauses. Sentences with semicolons or dependent clauses may be hard to understand for your listening audience. Listeners also have a difficult time understanding deviation from the narrative so be sure to use examples sparingly.
  • Consider your audience. Think about who is going to be there; you will be addressing peers and even distinguished scholars in your field, but you may also be delivering to an audience that is unfamiliar with your field. Think about how your paper will sound when it is being read to this audience.
  • Remember to avoid excessive jargon. You will most likely be presenting to a mixed crowd; not everyone will be familiar with jargon related to your topic.
  • Use quotations sparingly. It can be difficult to clearly project other voices in your narrative. Paraphrase where you can and only use quotes to add punch when necessary.
  • Limit the number of characters you introduce to only your “A list.” Most audience members will not be able to keep up with all of the secondary characters important in your narrative. They may begin to feel lost if you introduce too many persons, especially if they are not as familiar as Poe, Lincoln, Wolfe, MLK, or Joyce.

Once you have written your conference paper, seek peer review. Ask a fellow graduate student or someone who can give you constructive feedback to comment on your paper. 

After the preliminary edits, you will begin the second phase of editing which is only determined after you begin practicing reading your paper aloud.

Practice Reading Your Paper

As a general rule, you will want to read directly from your paper during the conference. This will keep you from straying off topic, forgetting vital information, running over time, or rambling. After sufficient practice, if you feel comfortable going off script and think that your talk can be more effective by doing so, do it.

Incessantly practice reading your conference paper aloud and time yourself. Practice reading your paper alone, in front of a mirror, in front of peers, even record or tape yourself. This is the only way you will be able to gauge how quickly or how slowly you will read your paper on the day of the conference.

Practice making eye contact with your audience. If this is anxiety-inducing, at least pretend to do so by casting your gaze toward the back and sides of the room. Be careful not to ignore one side of the audience. Many speakers “side” unconsciously.

If your presentation will include the use of visual aids, be sure to practice with them. Be careful that you continue to face the audience when you refer them to your visuals. Do not read off your visuals.

Timing yourself will also be an indicator of whether or not you need further edits to shorten your paper so it may be presented in full in accordance to the time restrictions. For the average speaker, one double spaced page takes about two minutes to read. This is simply an average. Read at a normal and comfortable pace according to you. If it takes you longer to read, then shorten your paper. It is that simple. You do not want to read so quickly on the day of the conference that your audience may find it distracting or worse yet, they may not be able to follow what you are saying or miss key information that is essential to your argument.

The more you practice reading your conference paper, the more familiar you will become with it. Familiarity is essential because it will allow you to naturally project the rhetorical nuances you want to incorporate in your reading. Your overall tone will improve and you will be able to naturally emphasize the words that you find most important. This will prevent you from delivering a boring paper.


How your paper looks to you will also be important. It’s your paper; no one else is going to see the copy from which you read, so design it in a way that aids your presentation. Some useful formatting techniques you can adopt for your paper include:

  • Enlarging your font from a standard 12 to perhaps 14 or 16-point. This will help you see more clearly when you are standing at a podium.
  • Paginate. Considering that you will not want to staple your pages together, this is a simple way to ensure that your pages do not come out of order before your presentation.
  • Use different colors and/or fonts on words, sentences, or even paragraphs if you need additional visual cues for adding emphasis.
  • Make yourself notes in the margin such as “breathe” or “slow down” if you have a tendency to get nervous and speak too quickly.
  • If you are using Power Point to aide your presentation, mark in the text of your paper when you need to switch slides. It can be easy to forget to change slides, causing you to have to play catch-up with the slide show, to the detriment of your overall presentation.

If you consider using any of the above formatting techniques, remember to practice with them extensively. Nothing could be worse than forgetting what one of your silent signals was supposed to mean. Using some of these suggestions could be helpful, but using too many could be distracting.

Prior to the conference, you want to edit your paper according to your time restrictions and make it as lean and clear as possible.

A Note On Timeliness

Please submit your paper to the scholar who will be commenting on it in a timely manner. You want to provide them ample time to reflect on your work and make a good impression on anyone and all attendants of the conference. Most of the time the conference committee will give you a deadline by which time you need to submit the long version of your conference paper to them. They will then circulate it to the appropriate persons. Do not miss the deadline to submit your paper. It is unprofessional and will reflect poorly on you. If you make substantial changes to your conference paper after you have already submitted it to the conference committee (say you find new sources that better evidences your argument), send an updated version of your paper directly to the commenter with a polite note addressing what changes you made and why you felt the need to make them at this time.

On the Day of the Conference

Confronting Anxiety

On the day you are to give your paper, don’t be nervous about being nervous. Even the most seasoned professionals feel anxiety about speaking in front of large groups of people and this is a signifier that you are taking this form of scholarly discourse seriously. That added nervous energy can actually be of benefit to you. Channel it into your presentation to add vigor. This is what will help you avoid the trap of delivering a boring presentation.

Bodily Motions & Physical Signs of Anxiety

There are certain rules of conduct that generally apply to most conference settings that you will want to note, particularly your bodily motion and how you present your paper. Even though you will most likely be nervous, try to avoid showing any indication of discomfort through fidgeting or the use of your hands as you speak. Persistently moving your hands and body can be distracting to the audience and you want all attention to be on your words, not on your motions. Try to keep your hands on the lectern, perhaps using your finger to help keep your place as you move your eyes from paper to audience. Your hands can also be used discreetly to help you most effectively transition from page to page as you read.

Professor Linda K. Kerber, in her article, “Conference Rules” describes a technique called “sliding” that is the most effective, non-distracting way to transition from page to page as you read. Many students are used to reading a paper, with one page in front of them and simply turning it upside down to reveal the next page to read. This will leave you an upside down stack in the order in which you began. This method, while not uncommon, can be distracting when turning the page and can lead to unnecessary sound in the microphone or distracting pauses as your audience waits for you to reorient yourself. To avoid this, the “sliding method” should be employed. Begin with the first two pages in front of you. Then proceed to slide the second page onto the first. This not only is a discreet way to move your pages, but it also gives you the advantage of seeing what is forthcoming. Once you have your bodily motions in check, your final task is to assess how to deliver your paper.

Reading the Paper is Part of Conference Etiquette

Many students agonize over the strict adherence to reading directly from the paper for the fear of it being boring, this does not have to be the case. Your personality and cadence are the determining factors between boring and engaging. Remember this because reading your paper is an absolute necessity, especially if this is your first time giving a paper.

Forget all of the inclinations and preconceived notions you have acquired in the past about what a presentation is supposed to be, conferences have a structure all their own. Prior to a graduate conference, many students remember the days of undergraduate when they were told not to read off a paper when presenting. The standard presentation of your work that you once knew is no longer good for the etiquette that is necessary for a conference. Even the most seasoned historians still deliver a conference paper by reading directly off the page. If you feel the urge to improvise or speak off the cuff, remember that you will have an opportunity to speak extemporaneously during the Q & A portion of the conference.

Speaking Off the Cuff Can Ruin an Opportunity for a Good First Impression

It is imperative that you read from the paper, because there are many instances when people begin to speak loosely and this can be devastating for numerous reasons.  You may run out of time before you are able to completely present your work. You could loose track of what you are saying and your speech could become tangential.  Do not let this happen to you. That can be highly embarrassing and you want to make a good first impression on fellow colleagues and distinguished scholars. You want to be remembered for the content of your work and not for the blunders of your presentation. Reading directly from the page does not assure you a stellar presentation, but it does guarantee that you will not make the massive mistake of getting off topic and will help ensure that you stay within your time limit.

The Two-Minute Warning

During your presentation you will be given a two-minute warning. If the warning comes earlier than expected, this may be the only instance where improvisation is acceptable. You will want to cut to the chase and make sure that you have discussed the most important parts of your paper and conclude before time runs out. Touch on your topic sentences for the rest of the paper and then finish strong with your conclusion. If you know in advance that you will be at risk of running over time, you should make additional cuts. If you do not want to make additional cuts but know that you will be cutting it close on presentation day, have a contingency plan. Create a secondary cue card with your main points and conclusion. When you see the two-minute warning and know you will not be able to read the remainder of your paper, switch over to your cue card. Your main goal at the end of your presentation will be to emphasize the arguments you have made and why they matter.

Handling Comments and the Q&A

The commenter is there to help you. You may think you can remember all he/she has to say about your work, but this cannot be assured, especially if you are nervous while listening. Make sure that your write down his/her comments, critiques, suggestions, and questions. The commenter’s advice will help you strengthen your work as a historian and conference presenter.

The Q&A can be scary. Remember to breathe and take the questions in stride. It might help to write down the question being asked before you attempt to answer it. This will help you digest the question in full and allow you to answer it thoroughly. Not hearing or remember all parts of a person’s question can increase your anxiety when answering and cause you to misspeak.

Don’t Forget the Positives

Beyond the rules and etiquette of a conference, remember that you are there to engage in an exciting scholarly endeavor. Yes, you are making yourself vulnerable intellectually, but bear in mind that all of the distinguished scholars you are speaking before, have also been in your shoes. They are not there to embarrass you, but to support your work and push you further with their inquiries. Embrace the experience, know you are among academic friends and know that as a scholar, you are better for it.