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Conference Presentation Prep: Words of Advice from Seasoned Scholars
March 30th, 2010 - Posted by Natasha Varner

Conference presentations can be a source of much anxiety and stress for scholars at all stages of their careers. They can also be incredibly rewarding and provide rare opportunities to meet other scholars with similar research interests. We asked several Indigenous studies scholars and seasoned presenters for advice on what they do to prepare a presentation, tips they have for novice presenters, and their opinion on what makes a conference presentation a good one:

Kehaulani Kauanui
, Associate Professor
American Studies and Anthropology – Wesleyan University

“I think it’s crucial that what is presented at a conference has been written as an oral presentation. What we expect audience members to listen to live differs from how we may craft sentences in print to be read. Once a paper has been written for oral delivery, it is then key for the presenter to stick to it and read it, all while engaging the audience with eye contact and a confident way of reading that isn’t detached, which means practice reading it before the conference!”

Robert Warrior
, Director
American Indian Studies Department – University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
President of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA)

“In general, I prepare more now than I ever have before for conference presentations. I like to have the confidence that comes from having a paper written well in advance. I also take really seriously the need to get a paper to a commenter or respondent so they can read it, think about it, and thoughtfully consider my ideas. Perhaps the most important thing I try to do is remember that the time limit is real and is there for a reason. Going over may seem like not that big of a deal, but it often takes time away from someone else, or it cuts into the time that audience members might have used to ask questions. That’s one of the reasons I am a real stickler as a session chair, and I encourage others to be tough time cops as well.”

For those of you preparing for the upcoming NAISA annual conference, Dr. Warrior has this advice: “NAISA has a growing reputation, from what I can tell, as being a meeting where people in your audience are highly likely to know a lot about your topic. That’s great, but it’s also a reminder that it’s harder to get away with fuzzy thinking or incomplete research. That’s all the more reason to get things done ahead of time.”

Brendan Hokowhitu
, Associate Professor
School of Maori, Pacific, and Indigenous Studies – University of Otago

“I think it is always good to prepare a presentation as if you are going to read, especially if the ideas you are trying to convey are complex. You may not need to read in full, but at least you will have your notes to fall back on. If you are a nervous presenter, as I am, I think the worst thing you can do is to be under-prepared. PowerPoints can help or hinder presentations – PowerPoint slides should be few and should augment your talk, as opposed to becoming the focus of your presentation.”

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert
, Assistant Professor
American Indian Studies and History – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Never assume that your PowerPoint or audio/video equipment will work as it should when you begin your presentation. Always be prepared to move forward with your talk in the event that your PowerPoint or audio/video equipment fails.”

Keith L. Camacho, Assistant Professor
Asian American Studies Department – University of California Los Angeles

“I rarely get nervous when I present a talk nowadays. But, if I do get nervous for whatever reason, I find a quiet place in the area to sit down, relax a bit and reflect upon the key points of my presentation. This practice usually eases any anxiety I might have.  Now, if this doesn’t work, I would look, when speaking, at the farthest corners of the room. By doing so, I can avoid looking directly at people’s facial expressions and reactions, which is usually the cause for anxiety, and still give the impression that I am talking to the audience. Clever, eh? In fact, I learned these speech practices from my communications 101 course in 1993!

I prefer to read a paper, even though some people frown upon this practice. Why do people find this practice problematic? The main reason is because people who read papers sometimes deliver their work in monotonous tones and rarely make eye contact with people in the audience. The result can be a disengaged speaker talking to a disengaged audience. You never want to present a paper in such a way. As for me, that’s not how I read conference papers. Instead, I read every paper as if it were an extended poem, with an attention to the poetics of sound and rhythm, the poetics of context and change and, finally, the poetics of agency and ideology. In other words, I read my papers knowing that the political stakes are huge for peoples who make history, as much as history makes them. Their lives, our lives, all lives, are very much poetic as well. That’s the least I can do as an Indigenous historian.”

Thanks to all the contributors to this post. We hope these insights are of use to many of our readers.  On Thursday we’ll post  more suggestions for how to prepare a good conference presentation, tailoring your talk to a particular audience, and redirecting nervous energy. Don’t miss it!


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