Congratulations! You’ve been invited to present at an academic conference. You have a topic that you’ve been selected to present on, and perhaps a draft of a paper or publication, but where should you go from here?
You’ve done the research, you’re an authority on the topic, and now you need some tools to break your written work into its composite parts and recombine them into a compelling story told orally.
The rules of good storytelling are useful when converting a piece of academic writing in the humanities or social sciences into a conference presentation. In storytelling, there’s a narrative arc—the audience is introduced to a topic (the set-up), met with a problem (the confrontation), and brought to a conclusion (the resolution).
Here, take time to look at what you’ve written about your topic with fresh eyes.
Outline and Map
The first thing you should do is create a post-draft outline of your topic write-up and map its parts to the three rules of storytelling:
- The Set-up—Present general information about the topic and the problem. Acknowledge what your audience knows and accepts; include previous work in the field, your background, and how you came to the topic. Establish your authority and introduce a teaser for why the audience should care.
- The Confrontation—Discuss/show/share your methodology, evidence, and findings; reinforce your authority and maintain integrity through selected, clear, correct, and impactful statements of facts and graphic images.
- The Resolution—Share your conclusions and next steps; reiterate more strongly why the audience should care.
Authority, Integrity, Entertain
While considering the three rules of storytelling, there are additional elements to keep in mind:
- Establish authority—Don’t rush through the important task of letting the audience know who you (and your collaborators) are, your background, how this topic found you, and why you were the right person to tackle this topic. Don’t confuse arrogance with confidence. Embrace the reality that, at least during the presentation, you are the authority. Whatever the audience members’ reasons for attending, you have the stage, you have prepared, and you are leading the conversation. Allow your credentials, your time investment, and your enthusiasm support your authority.
- Maintain integrity—Include clearly worded facts and impactful graphic images to support your message and reinforce your integrity. Typos on your slides and over-complications alienate the audience and may undermine the argument. Here’s where having an editor or proofreader go through your presentation will ensure that such mistakes won’t detract from your message. Also, consider what might motivate the audience to care about your topic. This is the “so what” factor that supports your claim of the topic’s significance.
- Entertain—Be joyful. Be enthusiastic. Be vulnerable. Share a funny anecdote to break the ice and win the audience over from the start. It’s okay to make fun of yourself a little. Being the authority doesn’t mean being infallible. And the audience will appreciate a window into your struggles, especially told through humor.
Leave the Audience Wanting More
Undoubtedly, you’ll have to prune and pare down. It is rare that time allotted at a conference session is adequate enough to include complete details of a written piece—and to hold your audience’s attention you’ll really want to stick to the designated time slot.
Therefore, identify the most salient and critical points along with the best supporting evidence that are key to making your argument. “Less is more” and “leave them wanting more” are well-worn cliches but also well worth considering when converting written work into oral presentations.
Audience members who are interested and who want to know more will follow up with you. For them, include a final slide with your contact information along with a memorable image.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Just as you took time to research this topic and write multiple drafts, practice the presentation multiple times by yourself. Consider the use of a free app like Teleprompter (available for phone or desktop) to help with timing and pacing. Practice the presentation in front of a mirror with the goal of keeping your facial expressions open, warm, and sprinkled with genuine smiles.
You will also want to do run-throughs and in front of a friend or colleague for feedback and for confidence-building; if you don’t have anyone you trust, then consider hiring a coach.
Considerations for Multilingual Presenters
If you happen to be a multilingual researcher presenting in a non-native language like English, practicing can help you feel comfortable saying terms out loud and intonating as the audience may be expecting. For example, US English uses intonation to differentiate statements of fact from questions.
Having a professional line editor help you with English checking, language smoothing, and localization will help you establish your authority and maintain integrity with your audience by reducing their implicit bias, communication misunderstandings, and uncomfortable moments.
For all presenters, it is prudent to prepare backups and redundancies; for example, having the presentation loaded to the cloud and accessible through a mobile device could be a life-saver. An easy-to-refer-to hard-copy outline is handy in case of last minute technical issues.
Your Voice, Your Story
Finally, when the moment to present has arrived, slow down, smile, and breathe. Allow your deep knowledge of the topic to infuse the presentation with life. Tell the story with authority, with integrity, and with fun. Set the audience up with a surprising or fun fact, confront them with your topic’s claim of significance, and resolve the tension by giving the audience a reason to care with plans for future work.
Enjoy bringing the best of your hard work into the light of day through your own voice, body, and spirit!
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About the author
Rees is an academic line editor with Flatpage. She has more than thirty years of experience as a coach, teacher, mentor of learners from all backgrounds, ages, and English-language skill levels. She edits and English checks all kinds of documents, although typically works with STEM, social science, and education researchers.