Prepared by Ian Colquhoun, Loren Vanderlinden, Jennifer Thompson and Paul Vasey. Date written: 2000.
The Canadian Association for Physical Anthropology (CAPA) is the professional body for physical anthropologists in Canada. Student members have always been a significant portion of our membership and CAPA meetings have become a great venue for students to get their start in conference paper or poster presentation. There is no doubt that participation in academic conferences is an important rite of passage for students and the aim of this document is to not only aid future student paper judges but to act as a practical resource for those students who are either first time or repeat presenters. Student papers will be assessed in the following three areas:
The Abstract: Are the essential elements of the paper outlined in the prescribed format?
The Study: Is the research problem clearly articulated? Is specific attention paid to the originality and significance of the study and the appropriateness of the methods utilized in the research?
The Presentation: Is the presentation organized and concise, allowing time for questions to be asked? Is the delivery of the paper proffered in an articulate and measured manner? Do the visual aids effectively complement the oral presentation? Does the student effectively answer questions posed?
HOW TO WRITE A SUPERIOR ABSTRACT
A superior abstract will convey the importance of your research in a concise and logical manner. Through publication in the conference program and the CAPA newsletter, the abstract will also provide an important record of your conference participation and attract the interest of reviewers and colleagues, many of whom may not attend the conference itself. In theory, you should draft your abstract, use it as an outline to write the paper and finally, revise your abstract for submission. While this order is flexible, you must be certain that if you submit the abstract prior to writing the paper that your research results and conclusions coincide with those data that were previously submitted. Since the abstract is a synopsis of the original study, it should address the research problem, the information and methods used to address this problem and your conclusions. The abstract should present only key points without exceeding a length of 350 words; the use of technical jargon and the citing of references should be avoided. If the abstract is summarizing information to be presented as a poster, this should be clearly stated within the abstract itself. Finally, be sure to proofread, proofread, proofread! Typically, CAPA organizers prefer the e-mailed format for abstract submission, however check the website of each local arrangement committee to find out what they prefer.
COMMUNICATING THE ESSENCE OF THE STUDY
One of the strengths of CAPA is that, given the size of our annual meeting, organizers have not had to run concurrent sessions. Therefore, it is possible for everyone attending the meeting to see each presentation. While this allows physical anthropologists from different subdisciplines the chance to hear about each other’s work, it also creates a challenge for the presenter. Because each presenter will be addressing colleagues from outside their own area of expertise, it is especially important to state concisely: (a) why this research is original; (b) why it is significant, and (c) what methods were used and why they were appropriate. You, as a presenter, must be cautious to ensure that the methods do not become the bulk of the presentation. While it is safe to assume some basic knowledge of methods on the part of the audience, a jargon-filled presentation aimed primarily at kindred specialists in the audience will only serve to frustrate and aggravate others in attendance. By paying attention to these details and providing the audience with the “research context” of your study, the results on which you are reporting will hold greater impact. Remember, it is your results and the conclusions you draw from them that you really want to communicate.
“Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much”. (John Wayne)
It is important to remember that your audience is likely to be tired, thirsty, hungry, hot, uncomfortable, cranky, etc. This means that most will have a limited attention span. It is, therefore, up to you to make their job of listening and understanding as easy as possible. This can be accomplished through:
i). Organization: Above all, PLEASE respect the time restrictions of the session. For a 15 minute time slot, your presentation should take up no more than 12-13 minutes, allowing a few minutes for questions. If you write out your paper, this translates to about eight pages, double-spaced (10 pt), less if you have slides or overheads. The chair of your session typically will let you know when you have two minutes remaining in your allotted slot. The best way to ensure that you don’t go over your time is to PRACTICE presenting your paper and timing yourself. Practice in front of a trusted friend, your supervisor and/or fellow graduate students so that they can give you feedback on your presentation style. Although this sounds like very common sense, you would be surprised at how many good papers fail because the presenter was not heeding these simple tips. This brings up another time-tested presentation tip — the so-called K.I.S.S. approach (keep it short and simple; don’t try to say too much). Choose only key points to convey to the audience and save the details for: a) the paper that you write up for journal submission; b) sharing with your colleagues in the same research area; c) the cocktail hour at the CAPA banquet; or d) your dissertation. Once you have decided which aspects of your research to highlight, craft your talk using advice that we have all been given at one time or another: “Tell us what you’re going to talk about, talk about it, then tell us what you’ve just talked about”.
ii). Delivery: Ignoring the fact that the number one fear of people is public speaking, delivering a paper need not be a stressful situation. Believe it or not, even your most seasoned colleagues and professors still get nervous before presenting! One professor used to advise us to, “Put the fear in your feet!”. You may feel more comfortable if you write out your paper in full sentences and paragraphs. While this is a fine way to prepare and provides practice for timing, it is not necessarily easy for listeners to follow papers that are read, so avoid the temptation to read directly from the text. If you have practiced enough, you should not have to rely solely on your written pages and should not be at a loss should you happen to lose your place on the page (it might be advisable to STAPLE your written pages together so that they do not get out of order). Reading the paper also means that you are less able to fully address the audience. Delivery is a very important part of the evaluation criteria. It is crucial to keep the interest of your audience by addressing them directly, making eye contact (which makes it harder for them to “zone out”), and by being animated at the podium. John Wayne’s advice is sage; however, when presenting one should speak in a loud, clear voice). Try not to rush through your paper (a hazard of not enough practice, as listeners can get very annoyed with this.
iii). Visual Aids: Visuals are an important part of most oral presentations. While PowerPoint presentations have become commonplace, it can also be well worth the time and money to have slides or clear overheads prepared. Clearly, visuals give your audience something to focus on while you talk and, if properly employed, can be a very useful device for conveying your key points. Good visuals, however, require planning. Take care of the technical details, like ensuring they have enough contrast, are not too dark or too busy, and that the font is legible [N.B.–projected images should be clearly visible from the back of a presentation room]. If in doubt, use the K.I.S.S. approach. Flashing endless slides of complicated tables, figures or statistics is overwhelming, frustrating, and sleep-inducing. A note about reading from slides — it is not necessary. The audience can easily read slides and listen to a presenter at the same time.
We hope that these guidelines will make it easier to understand what goes into a good conference presentation and ultimately aid you in having a gratifying and valuable experience.