Having just returned from a conference where the presentations were a little mixed – to say the least – I was reminded of the reality that conference presentations are not the same as the conference paper. The paper is the basis for the presentation, but the actual standing up and talking is something else again, something with its own conventions, opportunities and pitfalls.
The pitfalls in conference presentations are numerous – and I’ve just seen most of them. People reading their paper not looking at the audience. People with too much information packed on slides which the audience has to try to read while listening at the same time. People reading their slides verbatim, adding nothing to them. People with too many slides. People who assume that everyone in the audience is able to follow a really complex argument without any guidance. People who assume the audience is as familiar with the extant literatures and/or a specialised vocabulary as they are. People who go way over time and make it really hard for every other presenter in the session – and eat up the time for questions.
My audience experience reminded me that I’d once read Anthony Weston’s* rules for oral arguments. He wasn’t writing specifically about conferences, but about any situation where you are required to present a case in public. He was thinking about a range of situations from presenting in class to arguing a case in front of an official body to an electoral (or keynote) speech. But I think that his rules are pretty apt for conferences.
Here’s his six golden rules.
Rule One: Reach out to your audience.
Weston suggests that you have to show some enthusiasm for the topic, be respectful of the audience, be patient with them, never talk down to them. After all, he says, you are asking for a hearing, and the audience doesn’t have to give that to you. You have to do what’s required in order to get and keep their attention.
Rule Two: Be fully present.
Being there means not reading something that people can read for themselves, but engaging with the audience. This is achieved by making eye contact, speaking with expression and energy – walking around even. Even if you do read, you can still do these things. Weston reminds us that oral presentations are a face-to-face experience and that people will be dissatisfied if that’s not what they get.
Rule Three: Signpost your argument.
When people read, they can go back over the bits they don’t understand, or choose to skip over things that are difficult. Weston argues that an audience can’t do this and so they need more signposting than in a written paper – the speaker stating what the argument to come is going to be, repeating the various steps of the argument, summarising what’s just been said. He also points to the importance of the speaker making sure that they allow the audience time to follow what’s being said, to make notes if that’s what they want to do, and to make the transition from one point in the argument to another. Weston suggests that speakers need to start by saying something like – my basic argument is – and conclude with something like – I’ve argued that…
Rule Four: Offer something positive.
Weston proposes that just presenting an audience with critique leaves them feeling depressed and that the speaker needs to moderate the negativity and offer some direction forward. He doesn’t mean spin by this. I think in academic presentations this rule means making sure that the implications of the argument – the so what and now what of the presentation – are made clear at the end. There shouldn’t be the slightest opportunity for the audience to be left wondering why they needed to know what it is you have said.
Rule Five: Use visual aids sparingly
I’d probably say sensibly and sensitively here rather than sparingly. But Weston has clearly suffered from conference Powerpoint overdose and he argues that if it is used it needs to be engaging. He argues for variety in presentations rather than reliance on one medium – using a range of techniques such as inserting a short reading from a text, a bit of audience participation, the use of handouts. Above all, he says, don’t let the slide-show substitute for you.
Rule Six: End in style.
Weston says this means keeping to time and not petering out. Having a snappy ending that reinforces the major point you are making is the way to go, he suggests.
I must say that I’d be pretty pleased if more of the presenters I’ve just seen had known and taken Weston’s maxims to heart. I’d have got more from the sessions and therefore from the whole conference.
So I’ve been thinking that in future maybe these six rules could be sent out with the acceptance letters that go to all conference presenters, with all due acknowledgments to Weston, of course. Speakers would know then what’s expected and what’s good practice.
So come on conference organisers – how about it!!
Weston, A (2009) A rulebook for arguments. (4th edition) Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company