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by Anna Morozov with Cally Guerin

Here at DoctoralWriting we often focus on issues related to thesis writing, but of course doctoral candidates need to write all sorts of documents. For some, learning how to present ideas in a range of genres for a range of purposes is one of the rewards of undertaking research at this level. Writing a conference presentation is very different from writing an article or a dissertation. While writing the script of a presentation recently, a list of questions arose for us that might be useful for others doing this for the first time.

How do I adapt my PhD to this context?
Some big conferences might attract a rather broad audience; on the other hand, smaller niche conferences often focus on a more specific subset of that disciplinary ‘tribe’ (Becher & Trowler, 2001; Trowler, Saunders & Bamber, 2012). Even for those in the habit of working across more than one discipline, adapting the PhD to fit a slightly different context is challenging. The conference might need to have different aspects of the work emphasised, and different language or terminology employed, compared to the thesis version of the research.

Who is my audience?
In the smaller conferences, the audience one might expect to find is potentially more predictable than the possible readership of a published article. This makes it possible to tailor the presentation to a very specific audience with particular interests in terms of their preferred theoretical stance, the emphasis they are likely to place on certain details, and the kind of language they might expect. Thinking carefully about what this audience already knows can help to determine the content and focus of the presentation.

How do I introduce myself?
Another question that arose during preparation was to decide how much personal information was relevant. The speaker needs to position him/herself as ‘one of the gang’ in the particular field, an insider in the current debates with something worth listening to. Wisker (2012) explains that a literature review for a thesis engages in a dialogue with the discipline; a conference presentation is literally an opportunity to be part of the conversation. And part of this is to present a more personal approach to the topic by owning the content: that is, be willing to say ‘I’.

How formal should I be?
When presenting in person, it’s possible to be more chatty than is usual when writing a journal article or thesis. This will, of course, depend on the conventions of the specific disciplinary/discourse community, but on the whole we would expect rather less ‘lexical density’ than in a written version. That is, there are fewer content words in spoken language than in written academic language, and lots more ‘filler’, giving the listener a little extra time to process the information (Halliday 1985 has a much more sophisticated way of explaining this). It also helps to write a one-sentence summary of the main point of each slide to reinforce the message as the story proceeds.

How much can I say?
One big challenge is to conceptualise the conference presentation as a standalone piece of writing that is separate from (but grows out of) the bigger project of the PhD. It’s not helpful to condense the entire PhD into a 15-minute presentation, but at the same time that overall project provides a context for this particular element of the study. A conference paper can’t say everything; it needs to be closely focused on a single main argument so that the audience can engage with the ideas. It’s important to think carefully about the relationship between the paper and the thesis.

Do I really have to be so tentative?
It’s also important to calibrate the strength of conclusions in the conference paper, especially if presenting work in progress. Leaping ahead to where we hope the data will lead can result in an unpersuasive version of the research. Be very careful about pushing the conclusions too far or over-generalising, particularly when only a small part of the data is being discussed. It might add to the research credibility if you can support your conclusions with direct quotations from your study participants.

How should I divide up the time?
Although it sounds like a small detail, one useful tactic in the early stages is to decide how many of the 15 minutes should be allotted to each section of the presentation. For example, the project is new to this audience, so a little bit of time needs to be assigned to setting the context for the study (maybe 2 minutes?). But then, it’s also important to make sure this audience leaves with a sense of having learnt something new, so in this case should we keep around 6 minutes for presenting results? More? Less? It can be helpful to decide early on how to balance the weighting of the various sections as a guide to how much detail could be included.

What about graphics?
The big advantage of having access to PowerPoint or Prezi alongside the spoken presentation means that the graphics can enhance communication. Given the very short timeframe for presenting complex ideas, graphics allow more information to be presented – but do ensure that the visuals match the verbal content. And, of course, don’t crowd the screen with too many words. Think about the layout to ensure that the audience can see at a glance how the visuals fit with the verbal message. Images add interest and help to keep the audience focused. So, if you have decided to use images in your presentation, make sure the pictures are from copyright-free stock if you don’t have your own to use.

What other issues have you come across when working with PhD candidates on their first conference presentations? What are the useful tips that become second nature after you’ve done a few presentations, but are not so obvious when starting out?

Becher, T. and Trowler, P. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines (2nd edition). Buckingham: Open University Press/SRHE.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1985). Spoken and Written Language. Waurn Ponds, VIC: Deakin University.
Trowler, P., Saunders, M. and Bamber, R. (eds) (2012). Tribes and Territories in the 21st-century: Rethinking the Significance of Disciplines in Higher Education. London: Routledge.
Wisker, G. (2012). The Good Supervisor: Supervising Postgraduate and Undergraduate Research for Doctoral Theses and Dissertations (2nd edition). Basingstoke and NY: Palgrave Macmillan.