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What Makes a Great Conference Paper: A Step-by-Step Guide


A conference paper is both a presentation and a paper. A scholar is invited or selected to present their research at a conference, and will prepare a paper to accompany that presentation. In some fields, conference papers are published as part of the conference proceedings, either before or after they are presented at the conference. In other fields, only abstracts are published in the conference proceedings. These abstracts help conference attendees decide which sessions to attend, which is especially important when there are concurrent sessions. Presenters may be asked to provide a copy of their conference paper to the person moderating their session, to help him/her facilitate discussion. Other times, writing a conference paper is simply an intermediate step for the author, with the final goal being the conference presentation. In these cases, the researcher will usually say they are "giving or presentation" or "giving a talk", rather than "presenting a paper".

Here we will go through the steps of putting together a great conference paper and presentation.

Step 1: Keep in mind the benefits of presenting at a conference

A major benefit of presenting at a conference is the opportunity to connect with people who work on similar topics. By presenting your work in progress, you can get feedback that helps identify and address shortcomings, and/or helps focus the overall research project. This feedback will help strengthen your work before it is submitted for publication through a rigorous peer-review process, and/or submitted for consideration by a thesis committee, selection committee, or tenure committee.

Therefore, one of the major goals of your conference presentation and paper should be to facilitate conversations with colleagues working in related areas. This may involve highlighting unexpected connections, or problems that you are still working through.

By presenting yourself and your work in a professional setting, you are introducing yourself to a room full of people who might be able to help you with your career goals. There will likely be people at the same career stage with insight to share, and people recruiting applicants for graduate school, post-doctoral positions, faculty positions, and other professional opportunities. A good conference presentation can easily cause them to seek you out for additional conversation.

Step 2: Know Your Audience

Think about why people have decided to attend your chosen conference, and your assigned session within the conference. This will help you decide what concepts you need to explain in detail, and what concepts your audience will already be familiar with. Time is almost always a major limitation for conference presentations, while space (and retaining the reader's interest) is a limitation for conference papers and abstracts. Do your absolute best to hit the "sweet spot" where your paper, presentation, and abstract seem familiar enough for your audience to take interest right away, yet novel enough for them to remain engaged.

While some conferences will cover a broad range of topics (e.g. genetics), your specific session will likely be more focused (e.g. genetic modification with CRISPR-Cas9). Know that your audience will have multiple opportunities to learn specifics about the topics that are common to your session, so you should focus on explaining aspects that are specific to your work.

Introduce your topic in a way that appeals to the broadest audience at your particular conference. For example, at a conference focusing on climate change, you might start with how CRISPR-Cas9 technology can be used to modify crop plants to better tolerate climate change. At a conference focusing on genetic diversity, you might start with how CRISPR-Cas9 technology can be used to better understand how specific genetic changes affect plant phenotypes.

Presenting your work so that it appeals to shared interests will help facilitate conversation.

Step 3: Plan for your time limit and your word limit

Conference presentations have very specific time limits, typically 10-20 minutes with a few minutes for questions from the audience. If you go over your allocated time, you will either lose you time for questions (and lose the opportunity to make useful connections), be interrupted by the moderator, steal time from other presenters who have worked hard to stay within the time limit, and/or cause the session to run overtime. None of these are good options. Be courteous and make every effort to stay within the time limit for your presentation.

For a conference paper, the consequences of going over the designated word limit are less dire. However, staying within the word limit for your paper will help you stay within the time limit for your presentation. In general, it takes 2 to 2.5 minutes to read one page of double-spaced text aloud at a reasonable pace.

Plan for the limited time and space. It is better to explain a few topics clearly than to explain many topics poorly.

Step 4: Focus on the big picture

In a 10-minute presentation, you can reasonably cover one big idea. For a 20-minute presentation, you might be able to cover two big ideas. Start with the "big picture", so that everyone can get a basic understanding of why your research is important. Then add enough detail so that people who are knowledgeable about your field can clearly see that you are also knowledgeable, that your study is well designed, and that your conclusions are based on solid evidence.

You may have a lot of results that you are excited to share. Do not share them all in your presentation. Instead, share some of your results with a reasonable amount of detail, then briefly summarize other exciting results in a concise list. This can help generate questions from the audience, and people who are interested in additional detail can easily find you to continue the conversation. After your session is over, stay near the front to see if anyone approaches you with questions. Chat with the other presenters or the moderator. Make sure that your email address is correct in the conference proceedings, and check your email during breaks.

Step 5: Use appropriate visual aids

Follow the conventions of your field for showing data, calculations, graphs, etc. Make sure that everything is clearly labeled, and expect some people to take pictures of your slides. (In some competitive fields, this unfortunately means that you may want to exclude a few key details until you are close to publication.) A good rule of thumb is to spend 1-2 minutes per slide, although this will depend on how much information is included in each slide.

Your slides should complement what you are saying, not repeat what you are saying. Essential labels must be included, but I otherwise recommend limiting the text. A brief title can indicate what is shown on the slide, while an additional line of text might highlight a key conclusion. A list of bullet points might also be appropriate. Use large font.

For scholars who are communicating in a second language (often English), the same rules apply. If you are nervous about the audience understanding you, use clearly labeled diagrams, graphs, and other visual aids to help convey the important points.

Visual aids can also help introduce the "big picture" to the broadest possible audience. It may be appropriate to use stock photos of glaciers, baby animals, hospital patients, etc. Many high-quality scientific images are also available to share through Creative Commons.

Step 6: Write, practice speaking, and revise

Start with an outline of what you want to cover in your allotted time. For a typical 10- to 15-minute presentation, it should be a short list. Also note how much time you expect to spend on each topic (e.g. 2 minutes for introduction, 2 minutes for methods, 4 minutes for results, 2 minutes for conclusions and future directions).

Once you have a basic outline, start writing. I recommend writing one section at a time, starting with the introduction or the section you feel most confident about. Sketch out your visual aids. When you have a few good paragraphs, practice reading aloud with your best "engaging speaker voice". Read with expression, emphasize the important concepts, point to your visual aids, and pause at appropriate times so the audience can digest what they heard.

After the first few readings, you will likely want to edit to improve flow. Once you feel moderately good about your delivery, time yourself. Consider the time limit for your presentation, and decide whether you are happy with your use of time. Revise as necessary. (You can also talk faster, but a top priority should be to deliver a clear presentation.) Repeat this process until you are reasonably happy with each section, and then with the overall presentation.

Next, practice with an audience. (Colleagues who will also be giving conference presentations are often a good choice.) Make eye contact. Be an engaging speaker. Time yourself. Listen to feedback from your audience about what was and wasn't clear, and revise again.

Putting together a great conference paper and presentation is a lot of work, but it is one of the best ways to connect with people who might be able to help you with your research and your career.

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