With the Evangelical Theological Society starting tomorrow morning, it’s time to link again to Fred Sanders’s commonsensical sagacious piece offering “a few tips about how to present a paper.” He writes, “I have heard, and I have delivered, some bad presentations, and have learned from trial and error. But I’ve also seen some great presentations, and have tried to name and describe what I saw, in hopes of seeing more of that kind of thing.”

Below are his six encouragements, along with a couple of excerpts of his explanations:

1. Write the kind of paper you wish somebody would give. .

2. Read, but read well.

The conference paper is its own weird genre of public speaking. There’s a sweet spot of perfect delivery, and it involves following your script (thus guaranteeing that you’re not up there just, you know, saying stuff). But it also includes some eye contact, the ability to speak long phrases without looking down, and to make a few gestures now and then. Take the script you’re going to read from, and mark it up for oral delivery. Underline words you want to emphasize; gather natural groups of words together in parentheses so you can say them as a unit; and choose a couple of places per page to slow down on purpose (you’re almost certainly talking too fast for too long at a stretch). Finally, plan some spontaneity. That is, if you’ve got a short narrative or illustrative bit that doesn’t require such precious scripting, plan to deliver that section without teleprompter. But don’t go too long that way. An academic audience usually wants some symbolic assurance that you wrote this all down very carefully in advance, and that you’re not just, you know, saying stuff (JYKSS).

3. Keep to your time.

Unless you’ve got a lot of experience reading papers, and just know you can stick the landing, you should do a read-through with a stopwatch to practice your timing. And if you have to cut a big section, cut it in such a way that you don’t have to say, “I cut a big section here.” Even if you’ve written a massive study, you should respect your audience by producing a new, derivative work of art: a conference paper. It’s a parergon, a by-work, a thing you cared enough to make for this audience.

4. Q&A Is Your Friend.

Leave the recommended time for questions and answers, and don’t dread it. If you’re nervous, you’ll have a tendency to think that questions are signs of failure, and you’ll attempt to fix questions by shooting them down prematurely. One temptation is to swat them all aside with “this paper only studied one tiny part of the problem; I have no idea how it applies to your question, sorry, anybody else? No, okay then.” Here’s one strategy for handling Q&A: gather up about a half dozen things you wanted to say in the paper, but didn’t. When somebody asks a question, no matter what the question is, find a way to connect it to one of those points you wanted to say anyway. I swear this works. You’ve probably seen politicians do it poorly (“Your tough question reminds me of my slick talking point which I will now robotically repeat.”), but I’ve seen great communicators like Os Guinness rock the mic this way (“That’s a great question. There are three things involved in the answer. First…”), to everybody’s benefit.

5. Use the internets to distribute full copies.

6. Try out new ideas.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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