Thursday, May 31, 2012

Conference Papers Are Like Movie Trailers

It's Congress. I've been to see a lot of conference papers. Some of them have been excellent and some of them have not; some of them have been inspiring and some have been boring and/or deeply frustrating. And I have an idea that I think can describe the essential quality that separates a really good conference paper from a poor one. It's an analogy.

A conference paper is to academic research what a movie trailer is to a feature film.

Let's just come out and admit it: it's really hard to convey the nuance and weight of a big scholarly undertaking in a 15 or 20 minute paper. After all, most of us aspire to write books, 80 000 or 100 000 words long, and many of us produce one or two 6000-8000 word articles a year, and chafe at what the length restrictions do to our expression of our ideas. So if an a book isn't always long enough, and an article is almost always too short for our liking, what of the conference paper? I've given something like 15 different conference papers in the last 10 years and I know for certain that 15 minutes is no more than 3000 words. Barely half an article!!!

Some oft-deployed strategies in light of this reality:

  • Pretend that you can read 6000 words aloud in 15 minutes
  • Hope the audience is so engrossed they just hand over all the panel to your talk
  • Pray that the moderator does not cut you off
  • Imagine you can cut words on the fly, while you talk, with an eye on the clock
  • Cut out most of the text to hit the requirements, but extemporize the ideas back in while you present
  • Curse the "time constraints" imposed by the format as the moderator drags you away from the podium

This is all foolish and annoying. If you read really fast, I can't understand what you're saying. If you are allowed to go overtime, I always resent that you are eating up the time belonging to the other panellists. Besides, I had mentally prepared myself to hear an argument that arced over 15 minutes. Go longer and I get confused and thrown off the pace. If the moderator won't stop you, I get very fidgety, like a sheep dog who sees a sheep hop the fence. I can't relax until order is restored. If you cut on the fly, you look disorganized. If you interrupt your own text to add in all the missing details it comes across pompous. And if you make a remark about how the "time constraints" are crushing you I get stabby, because you proposed a 15 minute paper and should hardly be surprised to only have 15 minutes to deliver that paper.

Why don't we think of the conference paper like a movie trailer?

A movie trailer is meant to cover the gist of the thing, to draw your attention to a particular movie, to make you seek out the full-length thing. The way we give conference papers now, often, is akin to creating a movie trailer that is two hours of movie sped up into an incomprehensible and boring 2 minute clip. Or we just play the first two minutes of the movie, which is just the opening credits and one clever shot, and then bemoan that you can't really "get" what the movie is about from that. Everyone knows a movie trailer is not the same thing--can't do the same things--as a full-length movie. I think we should learn a similar lesson about the relationship between conference papers and full-length scholarship.

A really good conference paper, I think, presents your idea in such a way that everyone gets the gist ... and everyone wants to know more. Hit the highlights: if you had one weird finding among ten others, that is leading you in a new direction, just talk about the one. Show the chase scene: some parts of your research are more amenable to delivery in 15 minute chunks and some are less--a close reading of one poem using a particular slant, say, rather than the literature review that undergirds your development of that slant. Simplify the plot: maybe the article you're writing makes three main points--in a conference paper, you should just do one of them. Maybe you can do two more conference papers, devoted to the other points. Like a comedy/action/romance movie, you cut one trailer for air on Sportsnet, and another one for air during The View.

Maybe we're all afraid people will think we're dumb if we create engaging, comprehensible, well-paced, on-time conference papers. (Crazy, huh? But very true, no?) But when I do my conference papers like movie trailers, I find that people tell me instead that they want to know more: have I published something on this? Can they read it? Can we have lunch? What's my Twitter? If they think I've skimmed over something important, they'll ask about it during the question period--and when everyone sticks to time, we can actually HAVE a question period--and I can explain it more fully then, to someone who actually cares about that one point.

So that's my pitch. Think of the conference paper like a movie trailer, because all the speed-reading and complaining about 'time constraints' has been continuing fruitlessly for the 15 years I've been giving papers, so we have to find a different solution, I think.

What do you think?

15 comments:

  1. Wow, Stephanie, that is really awful to hear.
    I attended more than one panel at Congress where people ran through their talks at break-neck speed in order to sort of adhere to the time constraints. This is so very very frustrating--do what you can do in 15 minutes, close with a sentence or two about where it goes from there and then engage in conversation instead of grandstanding.
    Read your paper beforehand. We've all heard it. Why does no one do it?

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    1. I know right? I did timed practice readings for all of my 20 minute papers and most were at 18 but one was exactly 20 minutes. I received the advice that if it feels wrong and oversimplified then I am doing it right. It took some practice, but I got the hang of it. The worst thing I've noticed (and this is primarily in male presenters) is that they will not even write anything or stay on script. It's all just random stuff of the tops of their heads. You end up being disorganized, hard to follow, and often over your time limit.

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    2. Chatwrite, I've started rehearsing my papers aloud again this year, after having not done it for awhile (because if I use the same font and the same margins, I know how to get it to the right time every time) and it makes a huge difference in the quality of my presentations: it's not just the timing, but my familiarity with the rhythms of the oral delivery, right?

      Break-neck pace seems designed to intimidate people with the presenter's erudition, as the great hot air whooshing of big ideas blows everyone's hair back, and they must grip the very fibreglass chairs they perch on, or risk being blown totally away.

      And I think, actually, inexperienced presenters should video their own rehearsals: sometimes you don't know that, for example, you uptalk, or speak so low that you sound like a lawnmower about to stall, or that you are always grabbing at your own nose. It's good to develop some self-awareness of these things too, not just of the time, I think ...

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    3. Video taping yourself is great advice! I used to read super quickly, but only because I was nervous and my papers used to be too long. I'm naturally a fast talker so even though my papers are now a reasonable size I still have to work really hard not to speak too quickly.

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  2. your analogy is perfect, aimee.
    i went to one session with 3 very different presenters:
    #1 included her four conclusions on an early slide, then expanded on one of them. she was incredibly easy to listen to and was able to include enough concrete detail.
    #2 spent 15+ minutes reading what amounted to 2 (or more) versions of an introduction, never really got to the point and (as we have all probably done as grad students excited by specialist terminology) stylistically, stuck with long, jargony sentences with very few concrete examples.
    #3 was an experienced professor who had encountered computer problems that morning and wasn't able to print out his paper - but delivered extemporaneously an intriguing introduction, clear arguments, and interesting examples, complete with references to other work and within the time limit (and with time for engaging discussion).
    Three people, such different deliveries.
    I wish I could be #3, but #1 was a definitely effective model. (made you want to go see the movie...)

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    1. I wish I could be like #3 but I'm still new to the world of conferencing. I'm more like #1 and I still do a lot of reading because I'm afraid of forgetting a point and/or talking about another one for too long and going over time. I practice, but I don't yet trust my memory ;p I also find that as an independent scholar (going into a grad program in the fall) people are ready to attack me, so I like to have my in-paper citations handy as a defense strategy ;P

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    2. This might be discipline specific ... but I find that the best way to compress papers that are a bit too long is to decide what can be relegated to footnotes---tangents to the main line of argument I've decided to focus on for the sake of time, whatever. I don't read them, but remarkably often the questions people ask are ones where I then have a ready-made answers, i.e. things I've already thought through in sufficient detail to have written about them, but have recently relegated to a footnote. "Excellent question. What I think about it is ..." is a good way to squish the aggression of people who think the point of the question period is to bolster their own egos by attacking you.

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  3. Absolutely. The only thing I would add is that the goal is to get people to ask you for the longer paper, more in depth discussion. And that that can happen over lunch, beer, e-mail, a walk around the grounds to get some air.

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    1. JoVE, lately, I've tried to build conference papers as a capstone to the completion of longer scholarship: I cut ruthlessly using the advice I've given above, and it's true, people ask me if there's more and I'm like "I just finished an article on this topic, would you like me to email it to you?" And at least five people have taken me up on it this year already! WIN!

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  4. Also a point about conference papers: The use of jargon to obfuscate and confuse. It's a way of excluding people from the conversation. I also find it annoying because I wonder where the presenters' ideas are in all of that regurgitation. Apply theorists, but define your terms, and provide clear cut examples, and try to phrase things in normal language as often as possible. Even those of us who have read and understand the theorists don't necessarily appreciate pretentious wankery. I hate leaving a paper (or a conversation with a fellow academic) wondering okay but so what?

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  5. Aimée, I totally agree. I love the idea of the "chase scene." I think of the chase seen from Bullet -- that's a great metaphor for a long, and dramatic, literature review.

    In my former life, I was a journalist. I learned how to write radio scripts from the best the CBC ever produced. I learned to be conversational, never jargon-y. I practice. I never put more than 1 line of text on a slide. I try very hard not to use any notes at all.

    I got a huge compliment from an audience member at my Congress presentation. He's a Francophone and doesn't really speak English. But he told me, in French, that he really understood my presentation. Huge win!

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  6. Thank you for the great advice---I feel less like a voice in the wilderness. I'm a historian. While conference organizers encourage "interactive" and engaging presentations at research conferences, the culture is....read your paper. Reading your paper conveys that your ideas and argument are scholarly. I was part of a panel last January in which I was the only presenter who did not read. I actually looked at the audience and used visuals to bring my "paper" to life. My fellow presenters thought it was quaint. In my field, speaking concisely and in a way that actually communicates with the audience somehow means that your ideas are insufficiently complex.

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    1. I want to reach the point where I can do more interactive presentations, but you are right that the culture is definitely weighted in favor of the reading method. I think part of the problem with some interactive presentations is that inexperienced scholars, or less committed ones, use the interactive and engaging approach as an excuse to speak on the fly or shirk organization. I had to step in and actually cut a presenter off (twice!!!) because he was going over time while subjecting us all to a presentation that he had badly made up on the spot. I've also noticed that with graduate students and early career academics there tends to be a problem with jargon used in place of comprehensible dialogue, but that happens even with written and read papers.

      I am annoyed to hear that academics in your field think that a presentation such as yours is somehow less scholarly, and insufficiently complex. I thought communicating with the audience was the point of conference presentations?

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  7. I have always taken this approach to talks, I'm glad to say - the old-fashioned elevator pitch style. I tend to just let my excitement in the findings shine through. I rarely give poster presentations, but on the occasions I have done so it tends to be the case that I put in too many graphs and the story becomes non-linear, jumping all over the poster in different ways each time I give the talk. Which is fine, but it usually leads to a diluted take-home message. It was in designing my last poster presentation that I had my epiphany: forget all the really interesting findings, just pick one, maybe two, and really hammer them home - they can find out more about the study when we talk, or when I publish or what have you

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