By Julie J. Kilmer
Chicago Theological Seminary
With hopeful confidence and reasonable fear students regularly present professional papers at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. While Jerry Seinfeld claims, "Studies show that fear of public speaking ranks higher than the fear of dying," I suggest that by following a few basic principles of public speaking, the experience of presenting a paper at the Annual Meeting can be rewarding and fun! In preparing to present a paper at the Annual Meeting it is important to consider the following areas: content, preparation, presentation, the question and answer period, and the final evaluation of the experience.
The key to any good presentation is its content. Make sure you have something new and interesting to add to the conversation in your field. Here, colleagues and friends can offer important critique that can assist one in developing ideas that further the academic discussion in your area of interest. Whatever you include in your paper presentation must support your central argument without inviting the listeners to join you on a tangential trail of irrelevant information. Communicate your arguments and ideas clearly and concisely.
Remember, this is an oral presentation, not a written one. Thus, it is necessary to make changes and alterations within your paper. Remove technical jargon and complicated details. Add structure to the paper by repeating your thesis statement at the beginning and end of the paper. Re-emphasize important points as necessary. You might consider preparing two versions of your paper. The first is yours to read in the actual presentation and utilizes large fonts, boldfaced type, red slashes at the end of sentences reminding you to pause, etc. However, have a second version of your paper available to hand out to interested parties after the presentation. Don't forget to include your contact information on each copy. Practice presenting your paper in front of friends and colleagues. This will reduce anxiety and provide valuable feedback. Time your presentation. While 20–30 minutes may seem like a long period of time, it is not. Within this time period you cannot present your entire dissertation. However, you can focus on one theme or chapter of your work. If you are unsure about the time limit for your presentation, it is acceptable to contact the person presiding for your session to acquire this information.
Although writing and public speaking are very different arts, it has become acceptable to treat public speaking as a mere reading of a written text. However, even though the written word is dominant in the academy, the presentation of a paper can be professional and interesting to both the speaker and members of the audience. Speaking in a soft monotone, in long, complex, jargon-filled sentences as you read your paper will not lead to success. Instead, use the microphone—even if you do not think it necessary. In addition, for many it is helpful to pause and take a deep breath before speaking the first sentence. This enables any speaker to claim the space at the podium as one's own. Taking a deep breath also forces one to relax even under the most stressful situations. Speak loudly, clearly, and confidently. Smile often (even if you don't feel like smiling). Remember, your ideas are valuable. The audience members are there because they found the topic and abstract of your paper interesting. The presentation of your paper also offers an opportunity to network with others in your field. Talk with the other presenters both before and after the session. It is likely you will have similar interests. This enables others in your field to become acquainted with you and your academic work.
The Question and Answer Period
For some, this is the most dreaded of times and the worst of times. What if someone asks a question I don't know how to answer? Your audience will expect you to have mastered the material you are referencing, so do your homework. Make sure you have reviewed the relevant literature in the field. You are likely able to anticipate most of the questions that others will ask. Prepare answers in advance of your presentation. Don't forget that you are the expert in this field. If someone asks a question that you really cannot respond to with integrity, consider turning to others on the panel or in the audience for additional comments on the topic.
Evaluation of the Experience
We learn from our experiences. Thus, within a week of your presentation at the Annual Meeting, evaluate your performance. Did you enjoy your experience? What did you do well? What did you learn? Did others model successful ways to present a paper? If so, identify a few of the particular techniques that might work for you in the future. And finally, make a few notes for yourself to review the next time you present a paper at the Annual Meeting.
Of course, none of the above principles and suggestions can substitute for excellent content. Yet, preparation, practice, good time-management, and a professional presentation ensure a positive experience in the presentation of a paper. And with the support of friends and colleagues, one can be confident and successful every time there is an opportunity to present at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting.