Top tips for presenting your first research paper

Jennifer Caisley is a PhD student at Peterhouse, Cambridge, researching the reading of Goethe’s literary works in conjunction with his scientific writings. In this post, she offers some advice to fellow PhD students about presenting your first research paper.

I remember the weeks prior to giving my first paper, in the second term of my MPhil. To say I was nervous would be an understatement, but as time’s gone by, the experience has become much less nerve-wracking. Back then, I found that there was lots of general advice online and on Twitter about giving presentations, but not all that much about giving an academic research paper specifically. So, here are some things that I wish I’d known earlier, in the hope that they might help a fellow grad student have a slightly easier ride!

Before giving your paper

·       It’s easy to present a good paper badly, but hard to present a bad paper well: you can be a master of all of the presentation tricks in the book, but they won’t help at all if your argument is either unsubstantiated or unclear (or both). Try using signalling phrases (like “next” or “in conclusion”) to guide your listeners through your talk.

·       Preparation is key! If you can, get together some friends (or even just a mirror!) and practice reading your entire paper out loud so you can see how it feels, and if there are any sentences that turn out to be a bit of a tongue-twister. If necessary, you can then make amendments to them.

·       No element is too small to consider: think about printing your talk with double-line spacing and in a somewhat larger font so it’s a bit easier to read at a slight distance, such as from a lectern. It can also help to print on one side of the paper only so you’re not worrying about flipping pages over, and I personally like to print on paper that’s a little bit thicker than regular A4 to prevent accidentally turning two pages over at once.

When giving your paper

·       Everyone knows the hallmarks of a speaker who’s nervous: they speak quietly and gabble through their words at breakneck speed. So, to come across as a confident speaker (even if, internally, you’re terrified), you need to do precisely the opposite: speak slowly and clearly – for your entire paper. It’s easy to start off slowly and speed up gradually as you get more into your ideas, but you need to think about doing precisely the opposite. As your paper progresses and your ideas become more complex, your audience needs more time, not less, to absorb what you’re saying.

·       One thing that people often forget to think about is the pitch of their voice. When we’re under stress, our voices usually get higher as the throat becomes slightly more constricted and our breathing shallower. So, to fight this, make a conscious effort to remember to pitch your voice slightly lower than you might otherwise.

After giving your paper

·       Your presentation doesn’t truly finish until you’re on the train (or bus or plane) home from the conference in question: people might come up to you and ask further questions about what you had to say, or simply make the most of the opportunity to say hello and introduce themselves. It’s easy to breathe a sigh of relief and relax once you’ve presented, but there’s still work to be done afterwards!

·       Finally, it’s always nice to send a thank-you note to the organisers of the conference or the chair of your panel a week or so after you’ve given your paper. It’s a great way to grow (and solidify) your professional network, and gives you a chance to follow up on any discussions you might have had.

Most of all, enjoy it: it’s not every day that you get to talk to people about your research, so make the most of it!

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