Guidelines for Presenters

Franz Metcalf
Former Chair, Steering Committee

I write to introduce you to the style of presentation we encourage at the PCR. We want PCR presentations to be lively and interesting, not crabby and intimidating. This is the key to all the hints that follow: make the presentation fun for yourself and it will be fun for your audience. Can academics be fun? It better. If not, then what are we all doing here? (We in the PCR know this comes in gross and sad contrast to normal AAR meeting practice. We are trying to change the institution from within.) I think of this document as "Helpful Hints for PCR Presenters." That's an intentionally disarming title. The PCR is about intellectual community. It's a place where you don't need to arrive armed.

There are six hints that follow, and though I originally wrote them for persons presenting on their dissertation work, they are valid for everyone. I've rewritten them for everyone because I feel so strongly about them and the spirit behind them. Check them out and, above all, try to sense that spirit. I believe it is the excitement of real sharing, the communication of minds free to play.

1. Choose Your Points Carefully

Many of you will be presenting material from your dissertations or your personal research. All of you will be presenting material you know in much more depth than others. There are advantages and dangers in presenting material that you know in such detail but others will not. The advantages are in being so in command of the stuff that speaking from notes is easy and fielding questions is exciting rather than terrifying. (PCR people are very nice, anyway.) The dangers are in the deadly tendency to present too much and in assuming too much knowledge on the part of your audience.

You're probably planning to focus on a couple parts of your research that are especially juicy and accessible to others (at least I hope these are the adjectives that describe the parts you've chosen; if not, may I ask you to rethink?). Please be careful that these parts fit together coherently and stand on their own. If they don't, you will have to link them into a larger project. And what is that but your whole dissertation or lifework or whatever? Presenting that whole project is a mistake because there simply is not enough time for it, not even in the paper. You'll end up essentially giving only an outline and will not be able to get into any concrete data or stories or fun interpretations. Since those things are exactly the stuff people really enjoy and understand in a one-time presentation, this would be not only dull, it would be a shame, depriving you of turning the audience on to your topic (and potential book!). So I advise you to limit yourself to just one or maybe two issues that are immediately understandable and don't need setting into the context of an elaborate three/five/twelve/forty-four year project.

(As an aside let me say that I presented to the PCR just as my dissertation was being officially approved, but I hardly even made reference to my dissertation in my paper and perhaps not at all in my presentation. I just excerpted one question that had been provoking me and kept it at that. Even this was too much to present, really. I also should have been much less theoretical and much more concrete. People want stories whenever possible--especially PCR people who are used to reading case histories or seeing clients. Make it real; make it human.)

2. Cover the Basics
Make sure you introduce the very basics of your stuff for the audience. PCR regulars pretty well know their psychology, but only a minority will know anything about Buddhism or Maori culture or the immigrant experience or whatever your specific topic is. This does not mean I think you should present an overview of, say, Buddhist ideas on the differences between smrti and upekshaa and which is most parallel to Western therapeutic detachment. Although this is a worthy question and may form the basis of your fabulous ongoing project, all but two persons in the audience will be desperately yearning for you to move on to the juicy part: how smrti and upekshaa actually are used for Buddhist emotional healing. Remember that really basic title you gave to your paper proposal? Well, that's what the committee responded favorably to; get to that. Your audience does not want to get bogged down in the details that made your dissertation such a living he--....well, you get the idea. If you can, involve the audience. Ask questions; this can be a great way of structuring the presentation. Stick with simple questions and get on to your juicy bits and the audience will really come away with something. It may sound like sacrilege to you, but you could probably do a great presentation without even mentioning the name of the most important writer in your field! Save her for the paper.
3. Be Concrete
Be concrete; tell stories. Always good. I learned in my presentation I should have done this much more, so I know. Am I repeating myself? Yes. Does this mean it's important? Yes.
4. Keep It Short

The paper: okay, here you can get more technical, but I would advise you not to go over 20 pages. Here again I'm talking from experience, as my paper was, I think, 22 pages, and I don't think many people read it before my presentation. You are going to lose many or most of your readers if they face a paper over 15 pages. This is simply a function of time constraints and psychology. Keep it under 10 pages and truly most of the audience will read it. Keep it under 20 and maybe one-third will read it. Over 20 pages and people will only skim it, if that. Because people read the whole thing, a 10 page paper actually conveys more information than a 22 page paper that gets skimmed, and to more people. Yes, yes, I know: your 22 page paper is not like other 22 page papers. You've already cut it to the bone and polished your prose to a crystalline purity. But that just doesn't matter if no one reads it, now does it?

5. Don't Summarize or Read) Your Paper

Do not attempt to summarize your paper (let alone read it--even sections of it) in the presentation. I strongly encourage you to think of the presentation and the paper as different genres, even different projects. If you turn people on with the presentation by being fun and free and simple and provocative, they will read or reread the paper and see you are also careful and informed and scholarly and clever. In a way, I believe a simpler presentation allows you the freedom to send in a longer paper because they balance each other. (Ah, but this is my own idea; I don't know if the PCR fully endorses this.)

I know what you're thinking. You're wondering: "Why not read sections of the paper, interspersed with bridging material?" Aha! I am so glad you asked, because I can tell you exactly why not. Reading sections of the paper doesn't work because they are written in the careful style of academic discourse. On the other hand, a presentation is more like a performance. No, it is a performance. Reading a series of excerpts from a longer text does not make a good performance. Simple as that, and God knows I've seen enough people try it and fail. Reading fails because of the clash of genres. You can't read writing aloud for long and expect people to understand, or even pay attention. And as for "bridging material," who wants to listen to that? It sounds horrible right here on paper and you can bet it sounds worse during a talk. Your audience is people and people want you to contact them as people. Look them in the eye and speak to them from your heart. This is good teaching. And teaching other teachers is good scholarship.

This difference in genre is good in a way because it gives you the freedom to do something different in the presentation from what you do in the paper. Some presenters have made them quite different, indeed. This allows for last-minute revision both in the standard sense of slight changes, but also in the larger sense of fundamentally changing the vision of your presentation. Not only is this allowed, people might admire your flexibility.

Because we ask you to turn in your paper early, you'll have a whole two months to pick out the points you really want to make in the presentation and practice making them in your allotted time. When I presented I wrote my comments in outline form, not full sentences. And in the presentation I hardly looked at the outline. I was nervous, but I came alive during that presentation. Frankly it was probably this eye-contact and enthusiasm, not my scholarship, that made my presentation a good one. I'm still not convinced my paper's main thesis was correct, but I hope I got the audience thinking during the presentation and know that's good. So I stayed with my proposal, but my presentation differed from my paper. And it should have differed more. How? More examples, more stories. Oh, did I mention that already? Hmmm, I guess it was important if it's still on my mind, hint hint.

6. Save Time for Questions

6) Depending on the session, you'll have about 30 minutes for presentation and discussion. I recommend leaving at least 10 minutes for questions, which can be the best part of the presentation, but this is up to you. You can speak the entire time if you wish--though this would be unusual and comes across as intellectually arrogant or illprepared, or--shudder--both. Practice your presentation and time yourself. The real presentation will take you at least three or four minutes longer than you think because you will add in things that seem important to say at the time. We all do this. This means your 20 minute plan will likely take 24 or so minutes and leave time for only two or three questions. So leave yourself plenty of time; plan a sixteen minute presentation. Should there be no questions you can always go back to add one more good story or point you left out. Your session chair will of course be there and will have read the session's papers and will be ready with questions should others not be asking them. This means there will always be at least one good question to answer. We want each presenter to get his or her full share of time. Your chair will have good questions to ask, so even a back and forth between presenters and the chair will be productive. Nevertheless, that will only happen if the audience is unusually silent. (And let me admit that my audience was pretty quiet after my paper. Why was this? Can you guess? That's right: too theoretical, not concrete enough, nothing to grab on to.)

There may also be time for further discussion at the end of the session, depending on how much time we avoid wasting during it. We can't count on much time here, though, and the discussion may not be on your work. So plan for your discussion to happen during your 30 minutes.

Whew! That was a torrent of words. Sorry to go on, but I am on a sort of one man crusade against tedious conference presentations. Not to pick on them, but I am in the Buddhism section of the AAR and have sat through plenty of their sessions. They are almost always abstruse and they are always boring! People just read papers, word for word. Why even be there? Why don't we all stay home and get more work done? In my opinion, this is an almost total waste of time. Conferences are too often like this, forgetting their point: putting people together to interact. The PCR doesn't forget, but we must consciously work against it.

So there, you now have the benefit of my wisdom, such as it is. I wrote this originally for a particular PCR session about which I cared a great deal. But all PCR sessions are important because our field is so important. Your session chairs care about your presentations and are eager to help you presenters. Please use them as a resource. Communicate with them when in doubt. You'll learn they feel the way I do, both about welcoming your contributions and about encouraging your distinctive styles and voices. We all want these sessions to be fun, lively, informative, and personal. And even if they don't admit it, all the other academics want that too and are jealous of us because we are where the action is.

Revised August 2000

Franz Aubrey Metcalf

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