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2018 Annual Meeting, Nov 17-20

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Be Brief, Be Witty, Be Seated

by Mary E. Hunt
Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), Silver Spring, MD

The following is a set of presentation tips the Women and Religion Section has circulated to its presenters.

  1. Be Brief. It takes about 20 minutes to read 10–12 double spaced pages. Allow a little time for introductory remarks and to repeat for emphasis what you really want to get across. Err on the side of too little material rather than too much. Your audience will thank you. Studies show that the average attention span for spoken words is slightly over 10 seconds. A few good ideas with a clear introduction and concise conclusion will stay with your listeners longer than a convoluted argument. Allow time for questions as it is another opportunity, usually more listener friendly than being read to, to communicate your ideas.
     
  2. Be Witty. Every religious studies scholar is not Whoopie Goldberg or Lily Tomlin, but it is important to think of an academic audience as people first and foremost. A touch of humor is always appreciated. It keeps the audience alert. Think of the presentation as needing the clarity of a picture, the precision of an article, the flow of a conversation and the satisfaction of a good meal. Humor adds levity and makes your remarks memorable. Anecdotes and examples will give you a chance to lighten what might otherwise be a deadly dull performance.
     
  3. Be Seated. Honor the time constraints because they assure that everyone will have an equal opportunity to speak. It is boorish not to, a sure sign of inexperience. Practice speakers finish up with a bang on or a little ahead of the time. Novices start out strong but end up fumbling because they try to speed read a 30-page paper in twenty minutes. When they realize that their time is rapidly coming to a close they often exclaim, "Oh, heavens, I am just going to skip the next ten pages and read you the conclusion," or desperate words to that effect as if the content they are leaving aside has no bearing on the argument. To avoid this faux pas, keep your presentation to the time allowed. But if you do not manage that:

    • acknowledge the time keeper with a nod so as not to distract your audience
    • summarize your remaining material without reference to the time problem
    • move smoothly to your conclusion like a practiced speaker and nobody will be any the wiser … except you, the next time.

Delivering a paper is learned behavior. It is like preaching a sermon, teaching a class or giving a lecture anywhere else. You can get it right with practice. Bad things can happen—the microphone can go dead, your PowerPoint presentation can freeze, you might even have an attack of nerves that will cause you enormous stress. But for the most part it will be a good, even an enjoyable experience. You can enhance it by offering a warm thank you to your introducer and by thanking your audience at the end, Miss Manners would suggest. A quick e-mail thank you to the presider and/or the person who chairs the section is a nicety that increases graciousness among us.