Mark Bauerlein has a great post at Brainstorm on conference presentations. He writes:
…But it is baffling to see experienced professors on conference panels running several minutes over. Why don’t they just identify a point or issue or distinction and sit down? They have 15 minutes at most, and 12 works better. That pretty much allows each panelist only enough room to pose a question or take a position on something. Not much nuance, not much subtlety, only one or two finer assertions.
And why fill that brief opening by actually reading words off a page? How refreshing it is to hear an academic speak in the conversational mode, not the lectern mode. This should be an occasion for exchange, debate, give-and-take, not one person’s display. A conference presentation with eyes downward, moving at the pace of the printed word, loses auditors.
One might draw a lesson in forensics: if you can’t expound your point by word of mouth, if you have to read it in paragraph form, then you have overwrought it. Bring it down. Don’t try to articulate all you know. Give the audience one thing to digest. Simplify, simplify.
Bauerlein raises the great debate over whether or not to read a paper or speak in “conversational mode.” Frankly, I feel more comfortable reading a paper. It is less work. All you need to do is write the paper (I try to write the paper in a more conversational style) and read it aloud a few times in preparation for the formal presentation at the conference. I think this approach is fine at an academic conference where it is important to offer a nuanced argument, as long as you stay within time parameters.
But while reading a paper may be easier and more comfortable, it is not the most effective way of speaking in real life–outside the academic conference. I have found that the only people who tolerate the reading of a paper are fellow academics. My students, for example, cannot understand why a visiting scholar who comes to campus for an address reads from a text. A few years ago one student remarked about a visiting lecturer: “He seemed so smart and knowledgeable during the Q&A when he was talking off the top of his head, I wish he would have done the same thing in actual presentation.”
This, of course, reminds me of my good friend Philip Vickers Fithian. While traveling through the Shendandoah Valley in 1775 he learned quickly that the Scots-Irish Presbyterians of the region did not like sermons to be read. In response to this revelation, Philip described the way his hearers normally responded to this type of formal presentation:
…Backs will be up at once; their attention all gone; their Noses will grow Red as their Wigs (sic)–And let me whisper this, you may bet your dinner where you breakfasted.