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How to Write a (Humanities) Conference Paper

Hello, Dear Readers - welcome back to An Eddying Flight.

Firstly, my apologies that the blog has been a little quieter than usual in the last couple of months. As I said in a previous post, I was scheduled for surgery in June. I also had my PhD upgrade and mini-viva (which I will blog about in detail another time) booked for July. In between the surgery and the mini-viva I managed to catch Covid for the third time (despite being vaccinated and boosted) which meant I completed said viva with a fever of 38.8, an achievement which feels much more impressive in retrospect. At the time, I mainly wanted to curl up under a pile of blankies and expire quietly.

And then - much more seriously - my mother caught Covid too, and because she's a pensioner with multiple health conditions, she was hospitalised with complications. Although she's back home and doing better now, I admit that the summer so far has left me feeling frazzled - which is why when I got the email telling me that my abstract had been accepted and I was going to present my first ever academic conference paper at my first ever academic conference (the AHRC Cambridge International Conference) my main reaction was... terror? Yes, terror.

Apparently public speaking is the most common phobia of all, but oddly enough I'm not really bothered by that. I started doing school visits (counts on fingers) ooh, let's just say a bit longer than a decade ago now, and when I started out the schools seemed to consider me as a particularly cheap supply teacher onto whom they could dump any old scutwork they didn't want. Once you - with no teaching qualifications or experience, and charging only £30 for a two hour creative writing workshop - have been shoved into a room with a group of kids with behavioural difficulties, provided with only three and a half dictionaries (one had been ripped in two and the other half was missing), a heap of broken pencils that needed sharpening and some already used paper and left there, just you and the kids (yep, I'm serious) until the bell rang two hours later... well, you either go and herd yaks deep in the forbidden mountains so you never have to face another human being again, or you adjust.

I'm not saying that I don't get nerves; I definitely do. I've done panel events and presentations and workshops up and down the country, some to kids, some to adult readers, some to other authors or publishing professionals, and whether my audience is ten twelve year-olds or five hundred editors, agents and writers, I get the sweaty palms every time. But it's not something which gives me nightmares anymore.

But this, Dear Readers... this was different. Because I've never written a conference paper before. Having written the abstract mostly as an exercise in summarising my research, and submitted it convinced that it obviously would not be selected, I experienced complete panic when I realised I was going to have to put my money where my abstract was.

It's a very different thing to attend a few online academic conferences and happily watch other people do presentations than to know how to actually put together something so entirely new to you, based on your own, never-shared-before research - and remember, I don't have an academic background.

What even is a conference paper? How long are they supposed to be? Do you have to do slides? How many slides?

Well, the conference is coming up in September and I'm happy to say that I have managed to pull something together, something which I feel quite proud of, in fact. I will most likely post again about what it is really like to present my research to an audience of my peers and what I learn from that after I've (hopefully) survived it, but I thought that it might be useful for anyone who is similarly paralysed if I shared my big takeaways on writing a conference paper (for beginners!) now.

The most important thing is that obviously your first port of call if/when freaking out about writing a conference paper should always be your supervisor/s. Mine offered me sensible and useful advice that helped to calm me down immensely. One of them also offered to let me practice on them before the conference via Zoom call, and I think that's going to be really invaluable.

So, with thanks to them - and to the videos of Dr Andy Stapleton, Dr Lucy Kissick, and the legend Dr Tara Brabazon, from whom many of these insights are adapted - what information would I, a newbie academic with quite a lot of public speaking experience and a conference paper so fresh that the ink is still metaphorically wet, like to share with other panicking newbie conference paper-writers, based on the fact that I somehow managed to push through my terror and actually produce something which I'm now excited to present?

Most conference papers are supposed to be used to present either an overview of your research or a deeper look at one smaller aspect of it. That's what should be in there: enough information to get the key points of your research across, or make a really good argument for just one key point.

Conference papers are generally about 15-20 minutes long. Depending on how quickly you talk, that's around 2500-3500 words. I don't think there's any law that you must use slides - if you're a really confident speaker who can keep an audience spellbound, or very nervous with technology then you may be better off without them. Some people say that you should have one slide per minute of your talk. Some say that when presenting online you should use even more than that. Again, there are no hard and fast rules.

Except for the ones I'm about to get into below, which you must obviously observe on pain of death (kidding, these are suggestions):

  1. Don't be afraid to get click-baity. Try to come up with a title that is arresting, familiar, eye-catching, even funny or a little shocking. I know this is academia, but academic people are still people. If you want their attention, you need to grab it. Once you do, you can use your subtitle to offer description and context. For instance: 'ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES & OTHER FAIRY STORIES: How B-Movies Attain Cult Status Through Archetypes'; or perhaps 'LAST NIGHT I DREAMT I WENT TO MANDERLEY AGAIN: The 20th Century Female Writer, the Gothic, and Feminist Struggle in Dream Imagery'.

  2. Start out strong. Begin your paper by summing up the story of your research in a way that will engage the listeners in everything that is to come. This might be a relatable personal anecdote about what inspired the research, or a bold statement of the one key idea that you want the listeners to take away. Tell them why they're here: why your research matters.

  3. Anchor your listeners verbally within the talk. If your paper is in three parts, or you have two important concepts to touch on and bring together by the end, make sure you tell your listeners this: it helps them to orientate themselves and keep track of where the talk is going. At the simplest level, you could say: 'Remember this concept, I will be returning to it later on', or 'And this brings us to the final section of my paper...'.

  4. Slides are a visual aid to the conference paper - they are not the conference paper itself. Don't use your slides as your auto-cue. Attendees are there to see a person deliver a paper. They are not there to have a Powerpoint presentation read to them, verbatim. Too much information on the slides is likely to be visually unappealing and messy, and if you're focusing on the slides and not the audience, your talk will struggle to interest and involve them. The best idea is to make the slides image heavy and stick to one key quote or three or four short bullet points per slide. If you're using charts or data, make sure that these are visually striking, easy to read and - this goes for all slides! - that you interpret the information for the audience in a way that shows the depth of your knowledge. The slides support the talk. You GIVE the talk.

  5. Your voice is your instrument. Speak slowly. Breathe deeply. Pause frequently and allow what you say to sink in before moving on to the next paragraph or slide. Do not be afraid of silence. If, like me, you talk veeery fast when you are tense, you are going to have to practice this a lot, but you might find that once you've found a slower pace of speaking, it actually helps to calm you down as you move through the information you want to share. Which leads us neatly onto...

  6. Aim for Carnegie Hall. Practice. Practice a lot. Time yourself doing this and if you can't give the paper in the allotted minutes every single time, or can't do it without rushing, then cut the paper down. There are always technical difficulties somewhere, or someone else running over: you want to be the person whose talk ends either exactly on time or even a couple of minutes early. And when you're sure that delivering the talk in the perfect amount of time will be a piece of cake? Practice some more. The slides are useful for reminding you what's coming up next, and most of us are going to need to glance at our notes occasionally, but the closer you can get to word perfect - the more time you can spend looking directly at the audience, engaging with them - the more everyone there will enjoy it.

  7. Back yourself. This one comes staight from Dr Tara Brabazon and, on my part, is especially aimed at us ladies. You, like me, may have spent many years attempting to make people like you by being self-deprecating and 'grateful', amusing everyone with funny stories about your own flakiness or misadventures, and ensuring that you never sound like you take yourself too seriously or think you're cleverer than anyone else. The sheepish laugh may be your stock in trade. You may pepper your speech and your written communications with anxious little phrases like: 'Sorry, hope that makes sense!' and 'Is this OK, let me know if not,' But Tara Brabazon, the legend, says: Back yourself. Make the decision to be a confident, composed, compelling academic communicator. You don't owe it to anyone to play down your cleverness, and you do owe it to yourself to go out there and lay claim to the work that you've done. If other people feel threatened by your cleverness, that is no one's problem but theirs. Stand up and be proud. Back yourself.

Providing my world doesn't explode (again) I ought to be back later this month with a new Pick & Mix and I hope you'll join me for that. If you have any reactions, requests or deep philosophical thoughts to share, please drop me a line in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.


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