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Tips for presenting, chairing, and discussing at conferences

Presenting papers, and serving as a chair or discussant at a conference is often nerve-racking, especially early on in an academic career. Any of these three roles are excellent ways to begin the process of building a reputation as a good colleague an d an intelligent scholar. And that is the main goal here - to begin building your reputation and your career.

Of course, like doing anything else you haven't done before, it's difficult and you are bound to make some mistakes. Fortunately, political scientists are reasonably forgiving of mistakes, especially by graduate students. And, usually, it feel s far more embarrassing to you than it actually is. Plus, if you prepare and follow the tips below, your chances of making a big faux pas should be reduced significantly, if not eliminated.

The major pointers (the three P's and an I) that apply to presenting, chairing, and discussing, should be obvious:

Be prepared - regardless of the role you have, make sure to prepare fully beforehand. Think through what might go wrong and prepare for it before it does. Have gone over everything you will do beforehand and check with friends and m entors if you have questions. Never assume anything - ask somebody who knows exactly how long you will have to present or to discuss, whether there will be an overhead projector in the room, how large the room is, or whatever.

Be professional - make sure you act professionally throughout the process. Being flaky and making excuses is the surest way to avoid being asked to be on a panel. Also, at all times, make sure you are respectful of others on the pan el and in the audience. It is never appropriate to get angry or nasty at a conference, even if others are acting that way. There is no better way to ruin a reputation than by engaging in petty sniping or responding angrily to a nasty comme nt from a discussant or a nasty question from the audience. Staying calm and responding respectfully to such unfortunate habits of some of our colleagues can only help make you look even more poised and professional than the next person.

Be prompt - make sure you send your paper, if you are presenting, to other panel members on the deadline set by the association for the conference. If it's a month before the conference, send your paper then. The fact that most peop le don't do this should be seen as an opportunity to impress others by meeting the deadline, rather than as meaning you don't have to meet it either. Make sure to show up early for your panel. You should be at the room at least 10 minutes before "s how time" so that you can finish preparing yourself, putting your overhead slides in order, reading your notes one last time, or whatever.

Imitate others - the best way to learn how to present, chair, or discuss is to watch others do it. Go to panels and see the different styles people use and imitate the ones that feel right to you. Write down the polite phrases peopl e use to deal with nasty questions, to cut off long-winded presenters, or to present their own ideas. Many people have been doing this for a long time and have some nice tricks.

Now, on to a few more specifics.

Presenting a paper
(thanks to Patricia Keilbach and Max Brown for most of these)

Before you arrive at the conference:

Have your paper finished at least two weeks, and preferably a month, before the conference. Doing that requires planning accordingly at the time you submit your proposal. Spend the remaining time before the conference focused on preparin g the presentation.

Simply, simplify, simplify! "Presenting a paper" never involves reading a paper. You should always be creating a 10-15 minute presentation (I have never heard of someone being granted more than 15 minutes), which means that you can make 2 or 3 major points to your audience. You can not make the 9 or 10 points that you make in your paper, so pick the most important ones.

Practice your talk until you know exactly how long it will take. It should take at least 1 or 2 minutes less time than you have allotted, i.e., 10 to 13 minutes or so.

Choose whether you will be using overheads or presenting without overheads. It's a personal choice but I (and I think most others) find overheads to be helpful for those members of the audience who are visually inclined rather than audile inclined. O verheads can usually involve between 4-8 slides. The first is your title, the second might be a brief outline, the third would be the three main points you will make, the next three are one slide per main point, and the final one is a concluding slide th at reiterates your main points. This, for example, involves seven slides: notice that if you spend only 2 minutes per slide, you have already taken up 14 minutes, your allotted time.

You should have practiced your talk (whether with or without overheads) at least ten times before you show up in the room. Six of those should have been to the mirror or wall in your house before you left and three of those should be in your hotel roo m. One of them should have been to your peers or mentors before you left. I will always be happy to set up practice presentations for any grad student who asks me. Again, this takes planning to be ready early enough so you can schedule a practice long enough before the conference to be able to incorporate any feedback your friends and mentors provide. So, the practice should be at least a week before you get on the plane.

    On the day of the conference

    Make sure you are dressed professionally - better to "overdress" conservatively - ask others if you aren't sure.

    Arrive at the room at least 15 minutes early. Make certain that any equipment you need is in place. Take some time to "put on your game face," run to the bathroom one last time, go over your notes, etc. Introduce yourself to the chair, di scussant and other panelists, but only chit-chat with them if you are fully prepared and comfortable. It is not rude and people will understand if you simply say, "I'd love to talk with you after the panel, but I need a few moments to do some final preparing." There is always more time after the panel to make a connection.

    Decide whether you feel more comfortable sitting or standing. Even if everyone else has been sitting, if you feel more comfortable standing, do so. Likewise, if you feel more comfortable sitting, do so even if everyone else is using the podium.

    Use a written-out script and an outline. Most people find it best to memorize the introduction. If all goes well after the intro, you can move onto the outline. Don't ever read your presentation. If you write it out word for word you need to memori ze it so if flows. If they do need to be read (i.e., it's a theory-heavy paper and it is necessary to lay out the argument clearly), then draft no longer than a 5-page, double-spaced script for a 15 minute presentation. If the script is longer, then one will inevitably read too fast and lose the audience.

    Keep to your time limit. It is rude to other panelists to go over the allotted time. Its always impressive to come in under the allotted time. Since being a chair is difficult, make it easier for them by letting them know before you start that you w ould appreciate it if they gave you five minute and two minute warnings. Use a watch and right down the time you should end by so that you don't have to calculate times as you speak.

    Speak confidently -- good voice projection and eye contact is important.

    Answering questions: Write down any questions posed and answer them to the best of your ability. Be very appreciative of all comments whether they are constructive and destructive. Do not be defensive. Regardless of how a question is p osed, respond to it as if the person asking it were a friend trying to make a helpful suggestion. It's almost always a good idea to begin a response with something that affirms the questioner, so long as you can do it sincerely. "That's an interest ing question that I have thought a lot about" or "That's an interesting question which I haven't yet had a chance to focus on." Then you can go on to a response to the substance of the question, but you have helped get the questioner on yo ur side from the beginning. Even when people ask "jerky" questions that make you defensive, take a deep breath, and respond as if they are trying to help you improve your paper. Don't go on too long in your answer - you can always wrap things up by saying "I would be happy to talk to you more about this after the panel session ends." Remember that there are other panelists who would like to have some time to answer questions and respond to suggestions, so leave "air time" for them - don't monopolize the session.

    When you are done, shake hands with the other panelists, tell them what parts of their papers you liked, etc. If possible (i.e., if you are not so nervous you can't see straight), try to listen as they present their papers. It is particularly impress ive if you have read the other panelists' papers and can provide them written or typed comments. That is a very good way to build a reputation as a good colleague.

      Being a chair

      Being a chair is a socially awkward task. Your main job is to facilitate the panel and it has three main components:

      Introducing the panelists. You can usually do this simply from the program page. Make sure you have the names of people, their affiliations and their paper titles written out, and make sure you introduce yourself to all the panelists be fore the panel starts so you can determine the correct pronunciation of their name and ensure that you know what school or organization they are affiliated with (many academics may have moved to another university since their proposal was accepted). Make sure you have the current title of their paper as well, since titles often change as well.

      You can make a particularly good impression if you have received and read all the papers before hand and can make a one-sentence comment on each, mainly noting that "Jane Smith has written a very interesting paper on the democratic peace entitled ..." After the session, give each of the panelists any written or typed comments you may have, and you will have just gained major points with the presenters. Chairs rarely do this and it isn't expected, so it sure makes an impression when it occur s.

      Keeping time. The hardest and most important job is trying to keep panelists on time. Most panelists run over their allotted time. At least a month before the conference, send an email or letter to all the panelists reminding them of h ow much time they will be allotted. Make sure you do this early on so panelists cannot say, "I didn't know we had such a short time period." Then, remind all the panelists before the panel gets started of the time constraints. Also, announce to the audience during the introduction that you will be holding the panelists to a particular time constraint. Hand each panelist a slip of paper with time remaining at 5 minutes before the end and 2 minutes before the end. You can give each person a minute or two beyond their allotted time, but then wait for them to take a breath and simply interject something like "Time is up. Could you please wrap up now?" Do this with the discussant as well. People will run over and don't sweat it too much, but at the same time, try to get people to stick to their time limits. Essentially, you want to try your best to keep people to their time limits, but do not get angry or bent out of shape when they don't. Make your best effort and then if people ignore you, c'est la vie. Trying to get people to finish within their allotted time reflects well on you. Getting nasty at someone for running over their allotted time reflects badly on you.

      Managing questions. Chairs usually manage the questions from the audience as well. Begin by saying "Now, I would like to open the panel up to questions. Please keep your questions brief, if possible, so we can maximize the number of people who have a chance to ask questions." If it's a small group, you can also ask people to identify themselves. If people go on too long with their questions/comments, you can ask them to get to the point in a polite way, but don't sweat it. Again, try to manage things well, but don't worry if people don't comply.

      Ending the session. Sometimes sessions just fizzle out. If that is happening, just put everyone out of their misery by saying "Well, if there are no more questions, I would like to conclude by thanking our presenters for providing us with a very provocative set of papers today and I would like to thank all of you for coming."

        Being a discussant

        The major task of a discussant is to provide focused and useful constructive criticism and suggestions for their papers.

        Identifying coherent cross-paper themes. It is usually difficult to find anything that binds the papers together, but try to find something. What big themes hold the papers together? Perhaps you can see all four papers as asking the sa me question, even if they have different answers to it. Or perhaps they are all looking at different cases of the same phenomena. Often it takes some time and reading the papers twice to identify the linkages among them, but it can be very helpful to th e audience to have you do it. This is a great opportunity to make a good impression as a scholar, by showing your ability to bring together apparently disparate ideas.

        Making specific constructive criticisms and suggestions. Discussants usually provide specific comments on each paper as well. The best way to do this is to begin with one positive element of the paper. And then point out something that they could do which would strengthen the paper. Remember, that most criticism can be made constructive simply by phrasing it as "One thing that you might do to strengthen your argument is to bring more of the recent literature on X to bear on the t opic" or "The excellent theoretical material that you have brought together in the paper could be presented even more compellingly by making use of some of the empirical material as anecdotal illustrations of the key theoretical points." T he main goal here is to try to help the author improve the paper. It is not to try to sugar-coat real zingers (you are not trying to say "this paper is intellectually meaningless" in a nice way), but rather trying to honest ly help the author present their argument more clearly and convincingly. If you really think the paper was complete junk, keep that to yourself and spend the hour necessary to identify how the author can make something out of that junk. If you are havin g trouble, ask a friend for help in identifying a nice way of saying what you want to say. Its often hard to find the good part in a bad paper but its always more helpful to the author than simply telling them its an awful paper. And, that skill becomes all the more important to develop as you provide comments as a referee for journal articles or on undergraduate and graduate student papers and theses. To reiterate, the goal is to help the author improve their argument, not to prove to them that it needs improvement.

        Keep to your time limit. Like the presenters, you are likely to have only 10-15 minutes as discussant. Keep to your limits. You too should have prepared your comments beforehand and know exactly how long they will take to present. 3-4 minutes for identifying cross-cutting themes and then 2 minutes (1 positive point and 1 way to improve) for each of four papers is 12 minutes or so, right there. So, do that and you are done.