A Pedantic Post on Giving Papers

This past week I enjoyed a nice set of papers at the annual School of Graduate Study’s Scholarly Forum here at the University of North Dakota. I was, however, struck by some trends in the graduate student papers that I did not particularly find useful. My papers tend to conform loosely to a template and some folks have nudged me to write a bit on my template and my general critique of conference papers in my blog. I am not super excited about writing such a pedantic post, but I’ll do it anyway. As always, if you do it some other way, have differing opinions, or just want to hate on me, the comments are open.

So, here are five rules for any graduate student giving a paper at a conference:

1. Read you paper. There are three reasons for this. First, it is tremendously difficult to present a complex argument from short notes. Complex arguments rely on a certain amount of intellectual and rhetorical rigor that is typically foreign to a conversations style of speaking. Second, if you have rather extensive notes, one gains little advantage from reading them. If you have extensive notes, might as well write out the entire paper. Finally, people at academic conferences are not there – in general – to be entertained. We’re there to hear sophisticated arguments. If someone in the audience is bored because your presentation style is boring, then they aren’t doing it right. Present a good argument and no one will be bored.

2. No More than Five Words on a Powerpoint Slide. My policy is to avoid the dreaded “Powerpointer” whenever possible. In fact, I’ve given it up for Lent this year. I’ve never quite understood the practice of putting words on a Powerpoint slide that are the same as the words you are reading in your paper. At best, it encourages us to ignore you; at worst it is a distraction. Use The Powerpointer for images that help advance your argument. If images are unnecessary, then skip The Powerpointer and force the audience to focus on your text.

3. Thesis. Provide your thesis within the first 2 minutes of your paper (or in the first 10% of your content). If I have to wait 5 minutes or more to figure out what you’re arguing, then I have lost interest. Your thesis should be supported by historiography or a literature review. As soon as you tell me your thesis, tell me why I should care. My rule is: drop your thesis within the first 2 minutes and then spend the next 2 minutes contextualizing your argument. For a 1500-2000 word paper, it should be 200 words for an introduction concluding with a thesis and no more than 300 words on the secondary literature supporting your thesis.

4. Use a Case Study. I am guilty of trying to say everything that I have ever thought on a topic in a 15-20 minute paper. While these papers stand as personal monuments to my brilliance (cough, cough), they are usually pretty rough on the audience. Recently, I have tried to focus my papers by using a single case study or single, focused argument. I try to keep the case study to around 1000 words and leave a couple hundred words for a conclusion that will relate my single argument or case study to a larger body of evidence.

5. Chose your Last Sentence Carefully. I just discovered this very recently (and in part it is a product of blogging because I never know how to end a blog). A nice, final sentence tells the audience and the moderator that your argument is now done. It avoids the dreaded “that’s all I have to say”, awkward conclusion moment. It also gives the audience something to remember from your paper and gives you one last chance to exude confidence before people begin to pepper you with questions.

I know everyone has their own style. In fact, when other people have delivered papers that I wrote, I’ve been told that my somewhat Billtastic style comes through. And I also realize that adhering to a rather formal template can imply that an argument resides – somehow – outside the text (rather than being coterminous and intrinsic in the text). I also know that some disciplines love The Powerpointer more than knowledge itself and so my somewhat primitive attitude toward The Powerpointer probably reflects my rather conservative disciplinary leanings. My post is meant mainly to offer some practical tips to students as try to figure out how to present their research at academic conferences.

That’s all I have to say.


  1. I totally agree. I’d add: write your paper as an oral script performed aloud, not as a paper meant to be read silently. For me, that means: avoiding complex grammar and keeping sentences short. And I also try to avoid writing a paper that’s too long, because I want the time to speak more slowly and emphasize key points.

    Once, as a graduate student taking a class on pedagogy, the class was given a presentation by a faculty member from education. Literally every word she spoke was on the powerpoint presentation. She also printed up the powerpoint presentation and gave it to us as a handout. I told my friend that this presentation style only makes sense if half the audience is deaf and the other half is blind.


  2. Christos G. Makrypoulias March 13, 2013 at 11:54 am

    Bill, I couldn’t agree with you more (and with the other commentator), right down to abhorrence of The Powerpoint. My wife teaches classes in the Department of Slavic Studies, University of Athens, and she tells me that the faculty both there and at the Department of History when she was a student insisted that EVERYTHING spoken must also be put in Powerpoint form, simply because it gives the impression that the speaker is “up to date and techie”! Yeah right…
    Two pieces of advice, if I may: First, always finish with a minute or two to spare. Chances are that everyone else before you will have exceeded their time, so the audience is bound to look upon you (and your paper) with a far more benevolent eye. I speak from experience. Second (and here I am following advice given to me by one of my professors many years ago), try to sneak in a glass or two of wine or some other mild alcoholic beverage before your presentation. It loosens the tongue. Just make sure that you don’t get caught in the act by people who in the future may be called upon to decide on your tenure.


  3. A postscript to my last comment: I was recently invited to give a talk of 15 minutes (in a panel at the SAA) in which the panel organizer suggested a word count of 3200 words for a 15 minute talk. Looking back, most of my 15 minute talks have word counts of 2300. 3200 words over 15 minutes is over 200 words per minute. That’s way too fast in my view: 200 words per minute is on the slow end of reading speed. My rate is about 150 words per minute, which is slightly below the “books on tape” speed. But you need some extra time if you have slides…


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