Giving a 20 minute conference paper

I hope you don’t find being given advice on 20 minute presentations patronising. The executive of the Design History Society thought it would be a good idea.

20 minutes is a standard length of time to give a conference paper. Session chairs have been given strict instructions to limit speakers to 20 minutes each. All sessions are an hour and half. So, we hope that with three papers in a session, this will allow a good 30 minutes for discussion. 20 minutes is, apparently, the average maximum time a grown human being can focus their attention on something.

We shall run paper presentations in each session one after the other. Questions between papers will be limited to asking for specific points of information relating to each one. Therefore the 30 minutes discussion after the papers can look to making links between the papers and allow speakers to comment on each others.

Here are some tips on giving a 20 minute paper.

1)            Provide clear signposts
Say what you are going to say.
Say it.
Say what you have said.
This means that you introduce your paper by outlining clearly what you want to demonstrate through it. What is your core argument? What are its implications for design history and design activism? How does your talk relate to other work its field? And then you can provide the evidence that supports these. Then re-cap on your points.

 2)            Address your audience
If you can, make reference to other papers you have heard or the overall conference or strand theme.
Try to avoid reading from a script. It is much easier to keep an audience engaged by preparing outline points and talking to them. There will be more opportunities to look at your audience and your voice will sound much more interesting when you are not reading from a script.
If you must read from a script, write it as if you are talking to your audience.
Focus on sympathetic people in your audience. See if you can get one or two of them to nod or smile.

3)            Avoid too much text in your slides
Don’t write complete sentences into your slides. Your audience won’t read them. In fact, some research carried out a couple of years ago argued that audiences take in less content when trying to read text off slides and listening to a speaker at the same time. Personally, I limit text to one or two keywords and use images to tell the story. It seems to work..  
And, in particular, do not read text from slides!! Your presentation isn’t an essay on a wall!

4)            Focus your content
Edit out slides that repeat the same point.
Avoid reading out long quotations.
Avoid too much detail except if your are to discuss a key example in your talk.

5)            Practice, practice, practice
Check for timing and pacing.
Be aware of nervous habits (we all have them) and address them.
If the talk is too long, don’t rely on talking faster to get it into 20 minutes. Edit material out and find ways of focusing your points.

6)          Enjoy it

There are plenty of other tips out there on the internet. Just google ‘giving a 20 minute conference presentation’.

Please add comments or extra tips.

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