How to Prepare for a Conference

By Ashley Belyea, Class of 2014

Step 1: Find a conference and apply.

Choose your paper. Look through the papers you have written this school year. Take classes that will allow you to write, including over J-Term.

Cast a wide net. And don’t take it personally when papers get rejected. That’s how this process works. None of us are famous yet. This is how we get there. Try, try again.

Cast specific nets. Look for calls for papers that are linked to something that makes your paper unique. If it’s a paper about Japanese agricultural interests lobbying the government about participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership process, don’t just apply to conferences about international law, or just about international economic agreements. Find a conference or special journal issue on the TPP or on agriculture in world markets or on special-interest lobbying in Japan. Many of us at HLS have planned conferences or symposia and we know how hard it is to put together a sustained, coherent conversation. In that role, we are looking for people that will drive a specific conversation. When we do this planning well, we title our program accordingly. Search for those titles.

Step 2: Congratulations, your paper was accepted! Now what?

Check with the conference coordinators. Figure out the format of the presentation. Is it a panel? Are you expected to speak for 15 minutes? 20? 45?

Check in with the presenter (you). Decide, within the conference’s parameters, how you want to approach your presentation. Will you use Powerpoint or Prezi (if so, please do everyone a favor and think about creative ways to use visuals that enhance your point, rather than cramming in text)? Will you (as some anthropologists apparently do) read your paper? Will you memorize a speech or prepare an outline and flex your extemporaneous speaking muscles? The answer will be largely about personal preference and experience with public speaking. Trust yourself.

Check in with other people you trust. Get lots of eyes and brains working on this. You know the material. You researched it, you wrote it, you made structuring and editing decisions that now feel like they are part of your very core. And the conference coordinators clearly liked it. But not all decisions that work for a paper make sense when you are translating them into a presentation. Ask a couple of friends or mentors to read the paper and tell you what questions it raises for them. Get their thoughts on how to structure a presentation. Try to explain your topic, your argument, and your conclusions to multiple people who are not experts on the issue. Refine presentation accordingly. Repeat.

Step 3: At the conference

Reach out. Whether you are someone who is thrilled about public speaking or who will feel a bit nauseous until the presentation part of the experience is over, try to keep your focus on how many talented and engaging people are around you. Ask them what they are working on right now. Ask them how they got to where they are. Be excited about all the cool people you meet.

Be excited about yourself. You are there because you have something to add to the conversation that no one else can add. You are developing expertise and will be better versed on many topics than other folks will be. And they will be experts on topics you know nothing about. Embrace it. Treat yourself and your credentials with respect and other people will too.

Maintain perspective. Understand what park you are in and then knock it out of the park. You have prepared your presentation, you have chatted up others at the conference so you are not staring at a room of strangers. Take the front of the room and share the interesting things you are there to talk about. You don’t have to change the entire course of a discipline with this paper. Your goal is not to reshape Western thought. Some people will already know parts of what you say but will be hearing other information or ideas for the first time. Other people will likely disagree with some of the things you are saying. (This is great! Talk to those people!) Keep an eye on your audience to gauge your pacing as you present, and trust yourself. You are contributing to a discussion—and that is something we are all very well prepared to do.


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