To read or not to read a conference paper

I’m trying to fight off a cold, recover from a busy week that included unexpected travel (which also involved being unexpectedly snowed in), and prepare for the upcoming CCCCs pretty much all at the same time. All of which means my head is feeling pretty fuzzy this morning, so you’ll have to bear with me here….

Anyway, Collin’s blog has hosted a lively conversation about the idea of giving a conference presentation by reading an essay (essentially, staying on script), or by speaking from notes. Collin says his presentation this year will actually be a “talk” based on notes and not a paper that he reads word for word, and he suggests that things might be better if more folks took this approach. I would have posted something over there about all this, but it’s been a while since I’ve written much here anyway. So several thoughts:

  • My own “speaking role” at this year’s CCCCs is quite small, limited to my place on a “Special Interest Group” session about creative writing. I’m going to be talking about the use of blogs and the “writerly life.” Essentially, I see blogs as a double-edged sword: I find blogging to be a good way to brainstorm and prewrite and I also think it is a great way to get your writing “out there,” which is the goal of any writer, creative or otherwise. On the other hand, I also find blogging to be a fine procrastination tool. Anyway, I’ll have a handout with some recommended blog reading and I’ll “hold forth” for a few minutes tops. What I’m getting at is for this year’s CCCCs, there isn’t much point in my writing up a paper per se.
  • I’ve seen bad conference presentations where the speaker simply reads a paper, and I’ve seen bad conference presentations where the speaker attempts to speak from notes. In other words, I don’t think to read or not to read is the problem. I think the problem, as Bradley Dilger points out in the comments on Collin’s post, is that a lot of conference presentations are flat-out poorly prepared.

    If you “read a paper” for a conference presentation that you wrote on the plane and/or on bar napkins the night before, you’ll probably give a pretty crappy presentation. If you “talk from notes” for a presentation prepared in a similar way, you’ll probably give a pretty crappy presentation, too.

  • I don’t know if we need to go to a system where we force presenters to prepare by requiring them to actually prepare ahead of time, if for no other reason because conference presentations aren’t usually “worth” it. Let me put it this way: if I had to spend a lot of time writing up a tight essay in order to participate in a conference presentation, then I would probably just send it out to a journal for review.

    I actually kind of like the fact that conference presentations don’t have to be as “thought out” or sharp as a journal article. Sure, there are a lot of half-baked conference presentations; I’ve given a few myself. But I also think most of my publications first began life as a conference presentation which I revised based on feedback at the conference.

  • I think whether or not to read a paper or to give a talk based on notes has a lot to do with one’s comfort (or lack thereof) as a public speaker, but it also depends on the forum. When I go to the CCCCs and I go to one of the “featured speaker” sessions, I want to hear those folks read a paper, kind of the same way when I go to a fiction or poetry reading, I want to hear that writer read her or his own work.

    But frankly, my favorite sessions to be on and to see at conferences aren’t papers but roundtables, the ones where folks on a panel each make a short statement and then the bulk of the time is an exchange between panel members and the audience. Which is kind of what I’m hoping happens at my SIG.

Ack. I think I need some cold medicine….

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One Response to To read or not to read a conference paper

  1. Pingback: Steven D. Krause’s Official Blog » Blog Archive » On writing talks

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