I just returned from a great few days at the International Studies Association Annual Convention in Atlanta. I had the opportunity to present at two sessions, serve as a discussant on a panel, and, of course, be in the audience for many, many other sessions and events. As a junior scholar, it's a great opportunity to meet people whose work you admire, learn about topics that aren't the focus of your specific research, and, in general, exchange ideas with others (and get your work challenged, which I think is really important). Before my first large conference as a graduate student several years ago, I was a bit intimidated, but have since found how to make conferences work to my advantage, especially the national ones that require a lot of time and energy (and often, yes, money). I'll compile my advice based on these experiences for a three-part series depending on your role (presenter, discussant/chair, and general attendee). I hope they can help other junior scholars who may find themselves unsure of what to expect.
This first part will focus on presenting your own work at a conference, either as part of a panel or on a poster. Depending on your discipline, you may do significantly more of one or the other, but as an interdisciplinary person, I have done a good bit of both (more panels/papers for political science or IR conferences, more posters for health conferences). Lots has been written on this already, so I am just emphasizing what I find to be the most important things to remember.
Presenting your Paper on a Panel- Things to Keep in Mind
1. Write your paper! No, really. A conference is a great place to bring work you are developing, polishing, or just want feedback on before whatever the next step is- usually publication in a journal. However, it is important for not just the audience (who is expecting a fully coherent presentation, not fragments of thoughts and out-loud brainstorming) and the chair/discussant (who needs to see the paper ahead of time to provide meaningful feedback), but also for you, to finish the paper before the conference. Once the conference is over, the urgency has dissipated, and you might shelve what could have been a solid paper because you have to move on to grading, proposal writing, whatever. It is also generally very obvious to the audience if you didn't finish your paper because your presentation is all over the place, and annoying to whoever is moderating your panel if all they have to go on is your title and abstract.
2. Prepare an actual presentation. Panels (usually, hopefully) have an audience. And an audience does not want to hear you drone for 10-15 minutes while reading a paper word for word. They don't need to hear the entirety of your literature review or the minutiae of your methodology (unless the conference or panel is methodology-focused). In whatever your allotted time is (make sure you find this out ahead of time), you need to successfully present 1) why your topic is important, 2) a brief (!!) synopsis of where your project fits into the existing literature, 3) an easily digestible explanation of what you did in your project, and 4) what you found and what your paper contributes. Most people do 1 fine, spend waaaaaay too much on 2, stumble through 3, and then have to rush through 4 (if they have time to cover it at all). The problem is that most likely, what your audience really wants to hear is 4. Practice your presentation ahead of time, even if it's just once, to yourself, in front of a mirror, the night before. Make sure you hit the high notes. Make sure your presentation is interesting. Make sure you are within the time limit.
2a. A thing about presentations... Be prepared to give your presentation without Powerpoint. Issues with technology are abundant at even the biggest conferences (I recently attended a panel on using technology in higher ed when, no joke, the projector stopped working). However, your fall back shouldn't be reading your paper verbatim. Remember that the experience of being a reader and a listener are very different. Things that are intuitive via text (headings, punctuation, transitions between paragraphs, etc.) are not as obvious in spoken word. So be sure to include these kinds of markers in your own notes- lists are helpful (i.e. "In summary, the three most important pieces of work in this field are...."). Include obvious transitions between sections of your talk. Also, remember the typical devices we think of in public speaking. Vary your tone. Use pauses wisely. Make sure you aren't speaking too fast, or too slow. Try to minimize verbal and physical tics. The best way to accomplish all of the above is to practice. I recorded my presentation for one of my ISA panels ahead of time and noticed that I had a habit of playing with the hair tie on my wrist while speaking. I had no idea! Unless you are an extremely practiced public speaker, you likely have something like this that you can work on.
3. Accept questions gracefully. It is easy to get defensive when people question our work- after all, we have spent hours, months, sometimes years on this project. We know it inside and out (we think). So when we are challenged, it is natural to feel a mix of embarrassed (oh my GOD, did I really forget that seminal work?), defensive (who are you to question me?), anxiety (does that methodological error make my entire conclusion invalid?), confused (what was the question?), and so on. In most panels I've attended, the audience is not out to get the presenters, and the panelists are generally appreciative to get feedback that makes their work stronger. That's why we brought it to a conference, right? But every once in a while there will be a palpable awkwardness when an audience member just won't let up, or a panelist gets indignant. Hopefully the chair will step in if this happens to you to move things along, but if not, remember that you a professional. Your work is not a reflection of you as a person. We all have something to learn. If you react poorly to a harsh critique, you will be remembered as a hothead, or worse. If you respond with a smile and the best response you can muster at the moment (even if it's just vague deflection: "That's an excellent point. I will work to make that argument more clear."), then it's the questioner who will be remembered as unnecessarily aggressive.
Presenting a Poster- Things to Keep in Mind
1. A poster is a visual medium. A poster is not your paper, printed out and tacked onto a poster board. Generally, poster sessions at conferences will have dozens if not hundreds of posters. If someone scans your poster and it is not visually appealing, they aren't going to stop and look. And isn't that the point? Make sure fonts are appropriate sizes (you can find endless templates for different sizes of posters online- just find out the parameters of the board you will be provided). Use pictures! Use charts, graphs, and tables when appropriate. Make sure there is plenty of white space and not just wall to wall text blocks. Use headings. Use occasional splashes of color for interest. Yes, the focus should be on what you have to say, not what it looks like...but no one will stop to see what you have to say if they don't want to look to begin with.
2. You have limited space, so use it wisely. Despite the inherent differences between presenting at a panel or on a poster, the biggest error in both outlets is generally the same. Too much focus on everything (especially the literature review) except the most important thing- what you actually found! Did you accept/reject your hypotheses? Did you answer your research questions? If not, why? I admit, I was really guilty of this in my first few posters. I would have two entire columns of background, statistics, lit review, etc., and then my findings were kind of squeezed into the lower right corner as almost an afterthought. Viewers want to know about your project. Unless your project IS a literature review, background/lit review should cover 3 slides max. While it is important to provide the foundation for your work, especially for observers who aren't well versed in your specific topic, the focus should nonetheless be on your work. Your conclusions should be clear, easy to find on the poster, and easy to read.
3. Figure out the logistics. Again, this is one of those things that is important in both panels and posters, but in different ways. What size poster board will you be given? Will a poster board be provided at all? Will push pins be available? If you want to print your poster as one large poster, does your department do it? If so, how much does it cost? If your department doesn't do it, is there a place on campus that does? How must lead time does the printer need (this can vary from days to weeks)? My department printed oversized posters for free for students, but after I graduated, I got a quote from the campus print shop that a color 4x6 foot poster would be almost $200. Instead, I created and printed individual PowerPoint slides, in color, on glossy paper, for $2 a page at the UPS store. If you do print an oversized poster, how will you transport it to the conference? Flying can be pretty hard on delicate, huge posters that aren't in some sort of box or other protection. These are questions you do not want to be thinking about the night before the conference, which should give you extra motivation to finish the poster early so you can figure out the printing, transportation, and posting ahead of time.
All in all, presenting at a conference can and should be a motivating and inspiring experience. It is only as stressful, hectic, and last minute as you make it. As academics, our work is what is important, but relaying it to audiences, giving it meaning, making it interesting- that's part of our work too. Getting out there in the academic community to exchange ideas and get feedback is, to me, one of the best parts of the job. I always leave conferences with pages and pages of notes, project ideas, e-mail addresses, papers and authors to look up, and revisions for the projects I brought. With a little bit of prep work and patience, you can ensure that you leave the conference with a stronger project.