Academic conferences have various formats, but in English, the default mode is a series of panels in which 2–4 scholars deliver presentations and then respond to comments and queries. A conference paper is the text for one of these presentations. The presentation length for our BYU English Symposium is 15 minutes, or around 7 pages of text.

What makes a good conference paper?

The qualities that make any piece of research-based writing good–clarity, substance, insight, and stylistic flair–all apply here. The main difference is that you prepare a conference paper for oral presentation.

In 10–15 minutes, you will not be able to present everything you know about your topic. You will not have time to present extensive background material, and you absolutely shouldn’t give a scholarly literature review (yawn!); simply present your best ideas and back them up. You want to make a clear, engaging argument illustrated by a few choice points of evidence.

Because the conference paper is an oral medium, your audience will not have the luxury of reading your prepared text. Here are pointers that follow from that realization:

  • Write with your ear. When you complete a draft, read it aloud. Eliminate awkward passages.
  • Make transitions clear. It is almost impossible to be too obvious.
  • Avoid lengthy quotations. They strain listeners’ attention span and disrupt your argument’s flow. If you absolutely must refer to a long passage, consider providing it to listeners on a handout or an overhead.
  • Think about ways to engage the audience. It’s hard to listen to someone who stands stock still, nose in paper, reading in a hushed monotone.
  • Be careful about beating up on other scholars. Be generous, even in disagreement.
  • Anticipate questions and criticism. Address likely concerns in your paper, or at least be ready to talk about them in a Q&A period. Look forward to learning from your interlocutors.
  • Include a bibliography (Works Cited list) to reference when answering questions.
  • Never, never go over time.
  • Let yourself have fun.

Here are some overall tips for preparing from past Presentation Skills Nights:

Watch Dr. Burton’s Presentation from March 11, 2014.

Or listen to Dr. Brian Jackson’s Presentation from March 7, 2013.

What if I’m a creative writer?

Most of the advice above still applies. Your main task is to craft a presentation that works in the 15-minute window. That may mean reading a selection from a longer prose work or collection of poems.

What about the Q&A afterwards?

Each panel is an hour long. There will be three 15 minute presenters and then a 10 minute Q&A session lead by the moderator afterwards for the audience to ask any lingering questions in response to the presentations. Because of this, you want to know your paper well so that you can answer any question someone may have.

One last key point: members of the faculty will be pleased to mentor you as you prepare your presentations. They will be your best coaches.

The English Symposium is sponsored by the BYU English Department and organized by the English Society and the English Graduate Student Association.