How Not to Present a Paper

I’ve been to two academic conferences in recent weeks: the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Baltimore and the Association for Jewish Studies conference in Boston. At each of them, I heard some interesting talks, along with some that were not interesting, some that were not talks, and one or two that I really couldn’t hear much of.

Every year I angrily declare that I’m going to write a blog post called “How Not to Present a Paper.” This year I’m finally doing it. But let’s try to be positive. So forget the negative title and call it instead …

Some (Cordial) Hints for Presenters

1. Learn how to use a microphone. Yes, this means you — even though you’ve been presenting for 40 years and pretending to use one all that time. If the spirit moves you to go off script, don’t mutter your aside in parentheses to yourself; either say it so your listeners can hear it, or swallow it. You can always tweet it after the session.

2. Don’t write a journal article and then read it. It’s true that you are “presenting a paper,” but the way you are presenting it is by giving a talk about it. You must speak to us, not read to us, if you want us to follow your argument. A written paper follows different rules than an oral presentation.

3. Do write out your talk. Unless you are a remarkable speaker, you will want a script for your talk. This will help you to present your points clearly, to emphasize the correct words and pause in the correct places, and — most of all — to keep to your allotted time.

4. When your time has expired, shut up. You’re given a time limit of x number of minutes. Edit your talk in advance so that you present your argument in the allotted time. (Two minutes per double-spaced page is a good ratio.) You don’t need to present the footnotes that will eventually go into your written paper, and you don’t have to be concerned about providing all the relevant details or even about hinting that you know them. Let the audience ask about them during the question period and provide them then. Don’t tell us what you’re skipping; if we care, we’ll ask you.

5. Don’t speak too quickly. Squeezing a 30-minute talk into 20 minutes just means the whole thing will go by too fast for most people to grasp.

6. Don’t say too much in a single breath. I once heard a paper presenting a result of clinical psychology: that people can only absorb 6 or 7 words at a time. Unfortunately, the paper was presented in chunks of 15-20 words at a time, so that’s all I can tell you about it. Give your audience a chance to take in each phrase before you rush ahead.

The bottom line: When your talk is finished, there are three things I want to know that I didn’t know before you opened your mouth. They are:

1. The take-away. What was your point?

2. The argument. How did you reach that conclusion?

3. The significance. Why does it matter?

I learned some things at this year’s conferences that I’ll incorporate into my own thinking and writing. I’m going to present at least one scholar’s work, and argue with the conclusions of another, in my weekly Torah Talk podcast (when the texts they were talking about come around next). But, as always, there were some boring or pointless papers, and some that seemed important and interesting but that went past in a blur.

Remember, we read to kids to put them to sleep. Don’t do that to your audience! Presumably you think your work is important, interesting, and meaningful. Unless you are just making sure someone pays for your conference expenses, why not let the rest of us in on the fun?


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