So You’re Giving a Conference Presentation

Anthropology is one part secondary intellectual engagement and one part applied ethnographic engagement, that moment where the rubber meets the road and those theoretical abstractions and interventions intermingle with those imponderabilia Malinowski so lovingly spoke of. Writing often represents the link between theory and practice, when you situate yourself in the literature and finally produce your own. For burgeoning and seasoned anthropologists, presenting their research at conferences is a vital opportunity to test your ideas out, talk through your ethnographic research project, and share what you’ve done within the community. The idea of presenting at a conference may seem frankly terrifying, so here are a few tips to get you started.

Your Abstract is Not Written in Stone

Remember that abstract you submitted months ago, the one you wrote when you were just in the beginning stages of fieldwork and theorization? You might have thrown around some buzzwords like heterodoxic or liminal or neoliberalism in the hopes that your proposal would be accepted. And it has! But now that you’re actually approaching a presentation, your ideas, your orientation, your research questions have likely changed. That’s totally ok. You’re even allowed to flag the fact that your research has evolved. It demonstrates that your engagement has been flexible and responsive to the conditions of your fieldwork or the way certain authors might hit you in the ethnographic sweet spot and elucidate a completely different understanding of your data. It is, however, also important to consider the audience of your presentation. What’s the subject of your panel, who are the other authors, and how does your paper or presentation articulate with some of the broader questions posed by the conference?

Another option is to coordinate your own panel rather than submit an abstract individually. You don’t have to be a senior scholar to organize a panel, particularly if you already have colleagues or friends whose research fits together geographically, thematically, methodologically, etc. Organizing a panel of colleagues and contacts is a great way to build connections and generate collaborative projects or publications in the future. For example, the editors of TGA put together a panel on geek anthropology for the 2013 AAA annual meeting, even though we hadn’t all met in person. The Anthropology in Outer Space Series was eventually pitched as a conference presentation topic as well, using a collaborative project to talk about similar issues but in an alternative format. Not all panels are paper presentations either–some can be organized as more informal discussions that circulate around a key set of questions that are determined ahead of time. Discussion panels still require preparation and practice, but have the potential to be more conversational and involve audience participation.

Form Follows Function

Presentations usually follow a particular format: a statement of the problem that you hope to address, how this issue fits within the ethnographic and theoretical literature, a provisional thesis illustrated by your fieldwork and/or secondary data, and the reasons why your analysis and findings matter. But anthropologists also pride themselves on writing outside and beyond the borders, dabbling within the marginalia. The short duration of presentations also calls for a certain amount of creativity and flexibility. You might find it useful to begin with a vignette from your fieldwork, providing a poetic or descriptive prelude to the larger ethnographic argument you’ll be making. Consider what excited or inspired you to conduct this research in the first place to provide an ethnographic hook at the beginning of the presentation. If you’re still in the midst of fieldwork, you may consider discussing impressions from your preliminary data rather than making grand claims about the implications of your research. Anthropologists also vary in terms of how they employ theory throughout their writing. Some establish theory at the beginning of a paper or presentation and use it as a framing device to interpret the ethnographic data, interviews and encounters that follow. Others incorporate theory as they go, allowing it to emerge organically from their conversations or surprising experiences in the field, weaving a sort of theoretical dialectic between the speaker and the authors she draws upon. It’s for you to decide what structure will work best to suit your argumentative and expository needs.

Timing, however, is everything. A 15-minute presentation could only be five to seven double spaced pages. Presentations therefore demand a certain amount of condensing and synthesizing if they’re going to be effective. It’s important to recognize that you’re not going to be able to cover everything you might be able to in a twenty-page paper, nor are you necessarily looking to encompass the entire scale of your project. Think of the presentation as an annotated version of one of your thesis chapters. The chapter has a particular narrative, thematic or theoretical focus and it’s your job to winnow all the incredible analytical and rhetorical moves you made in the chapter into a more condensed, conversational version. You will have to decide what elements of your work take precedence over others, especially because nobody likes the person who goes over their time limit and takes time away from the other speakers and from the Q&A session. Pacing is also key. You don’t want to spend too much time setting up the context of your research and then find yourself rushing to through your best ideas during the last five minutes of discussion. Figure out a chronological flow and length that fits with how quickly or slowly you’re planning to talk.

You not only have to practice your presentation and give yourself a few minutes of wiggle room, but you also have to remember that speaking is not the same as writing. You may be adapting your presentation from a paper that’s already written, but readability does not always translate into verbal digestibility. You know those long sentences academics are so fond of, the ones with plenty of dependent clauses and circuitous syntax? While those may be compelling on the page, they can be difficult to follow when being spoken aloud. If citations are embedded in your text, you have to make them explicit in your presentation through phrases like, “As Foucault reminds us,” or “Returning to the notable absence of cthulhu in Haraway’s cthulhucene.” That’s why practicing your presentation out loud can be so helpful. If you stumble over a sentence yourself, your audience might also struggle to understand your meaning or your inflections. Practice with a pen in hand, marking those moments when you get lost or the language seems confusing. It’s also useful to listen or watch others present, to get a sense for the differences between their written and oral presentation styles. If presenting with a pre-written script will make you less nervous, there’s no shame in mapping out your argument ahead of time. But the reading should also feel comfortable and as natural as possible, which might come from practicing familiarity with the presentation.

Technological Takeover

Powerpoints, Prezis or other visual cues can help you to condense some of the content of your presentation into key slides and embellish your ethnographic interludes. These slides can include photographs, critical quotes or the themes you’ve used to organize your presentation and ensure that the audience is following the logical trajectory of your argument. But don’t overpower the slide with too much information or rely too heavily on your tech. People in the audience came here your spin on the panel, not your proficiency with Microsoft Office Software.

It’s also important to consider lo-fi or analogue materials you might need for your presentation. Water, snacks, something for your hands to play with while you’re waiting to present. You could do the Wonder Woman power pose before sitting down or ensure that you’re dressed both to impress and to feel empowered. “Professional wear” is just another cultural costume we don to feel important and grown-up, so you have license (within reason) to wear whatever will make you feel most presentable.

The Person Who Cares the Most About Your Presentation Is You

Unless you’ve been asked to give a keynote presentation at a major conference or speaking on a particularly prestigious panel, people aren’t going to be hyperfocused on the content of your presentation. While this may seem depressing, I actually find the possible lack of attention liberating. If you’re the one who cares the most about the presentation, and you’re also likely the one to get the most out of the process of presenting, then the presentation is simply an opportunity for you to produce exemplary work and stake your claim as an academic in the field. A conference presentation is nothing if not a personal exercise to see where you are with your thinking and whether or not you can translate all your scribbled fieldnotes and momentary epiphanies into a coherent narrative or argument. Take ownership of your presentation and remember that it will always be a work in progress. Unless there are particularly curmudgeonly audience members present at your panel, no one is looking to tear down your insights. Hopefully, you get feedback that your research is leading you in some fertile theoretical and methodological directions and your perspective shifts once you introduce your fieldwork to a broader network.

Let us know if you have any other tips or useful resources on anthropology conference presentations!

Useful Presentation Resources

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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