Turning Your Paper into a Presentation (Hidden Curriculum #11)

I first started giving presentations at professional conferences nearly ten years ago.

Back then, I only submitted abstracts for things I’d already written, such as seminar papers. In more recent years, I’ve transformed 40+ page dissertation chapters into talks of various lengths for various contexts.

Here’s how I do it.

Black woman wearing a tan sweater and black dress stands behind a wooden podium giving a conference paper

1. Know how much time you have for your presentation

A few months ago, there was a debate on Twitter about whether speaking extemporaneously or with a prepared paper was the better approach. Whatever camp you fall in, I think we can all agree that no one likes a person who goes over their allotted time.

Ironically, this tends to frequently be the case when someone gives a talk without reading a paper.

Therefore, knowing how much time you have for your talk should be priority number one.

If you don’t know how much time you’ll have, be sure to find out as soon as possible. This is an important step because it can help you determine the length of your talk in pages. Don’t waste your time writing a talk before you know how much time you’ve been given.

Generally, I’ve given talks that are 15 minutes with 5 minutes of questions, 20 minutes, and as much as 40 minutes.

7-8 pages of double-spaced text works out to an approximately 20-minute talk. That’s roughly two minutes a page with a little breathing room. You can do the math for other talk lengths, but what it really comes down to is practicing reading your talk out loud (more on that later).

Note that the actual amount of time it takes to deliver your talk depends on how quickly you speak, which in turn depends on how nervous you are at the time of your talk.

2. Adjust your grammatical structure

When transforming a written paper into a conference presentation, it’s important to remember that written language is different from spoken language.

As you read through your original paper, be sure to break up longer sentences into shorter, more concise ones.

How will you know if it’s too long? Most often you will notice when you’re reading through your paper – usually out loud – and find yourself stumbling over words or phrases you’ve written.

This doesn’t mean that your writing isn’t good. It just means that the way you write isn’t going to be easy to speak aloud. Additionally, if you’re having trouble reading the text out loud, it’s possible that your audience is going to have a hard time following what you have to say.

There are two ways you can remedy this problem:

  1. Use plain language. Are there any big words that you have trouble pronouncing? Do you use a lot of jargon?
  2. Shorten your sentences. It’s easy to miss run-on sentences when you’re writing a seminar paper; not so much when you’re giving a talk, as you’ll probably get winded about halfway through. Can any of your sentences be broken into two or three shorter sentences? Is there a more concise way you can say the same thing?

3.  Signpost

I have found this helpful when creating presentations that utilize visual presentations and presentations that use text-based handouts.

When composing a talk that will have an accompanying Powerpoint presentation, I always insert the word “SLIDE” enclosed in brackets to remind myself when I want to move on to the next slide in my presentation.

Occasionally, I bold the word so that it more clearly draws my attention.

With text-based handouts, I have found that including signposts right in the text is most efficient. For example, if I wanted to instruct the audience to pay attention to the first passage on my handout, I would include “In passage one on your handout…” in my talk.

It’s really that simple.

4. Know your audience

There are basically two kinds of audiences: general and specialized.

In most cases, err on the side of caution when it comes to the language that you use in your talk. Define terms, methodologies, and theoretical frameworks that may be unfamiliar to a general audience.

This is especially important to remember when you give talks at conferences that may have a mixed audience, such as the Archaeological Institute of America and Society for Classical Studies annual meeting. In these settings, you may be among peers on an archaeology panel, but philologists and historians who do not know much about archaeology may be in attendance. These situations would call for a little more explanatory content in your talk.

5. Practice your presentation

I gave the same advice in a post I wrote about giving conference presentations almost a year ago. While it is generally important for any presentation that you give to practice before the big day, I think it’s especially important when transforming a written paper into a conference paper.

The only way that you will know for sure whether you’re on target with your timing and your delivery is if you practice.

If possible, you should practice both by yourself and with a friend (or group of friends). And make sure that when you practice by yourself you are reading the text out loud – it won’t do you any good to only practice reading the text in your head. Your audience isn’t in there.

Once your slides or handouts are ready, make sure you practice reading your paper with those, too. This will give you an opportunity to check your pacing and your paper’s alignment with the examples you give (and vice versa).

Doing this a week or two in advance will you give you the time to adjust if necessary.

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