Mark Goodacre in his blogging about SBL San Diego, expresses frustration about people merely reading papers and calls for presentations instead. April DeConick disagrees, but I suspect that they may be saying more or less the same thing. Mark adds further thoughts, too.
Although I am a relative newcomer to the biblical studies research field, I’ve been attending conferences and presenting papers for quite a long time in my “previous lives”. My two pet peeves are the person who simply reads the manuscript that s/he plans to publish and the one who has five words written on the back of an envelope and has clearly not thought through how to present what they want to say or given any attention to the time it’s going to take.
On the one hand, the well-written academic paper is often boring and difficult to follow when read aloud because that’s not how it was designed to be accessed. The audience can’t re-read dense sections of an oral text to make sure they’ve followed your point. Audience members are more likely to lose the thread of long, complex sentences and wander off into their own thoughts. The person who is merely reading the text usually doesn’t make eye contact with the audience and has no idea whether the audience is following her or him, so they can’t add extra information, or skip sections that are clearly unnecessary.
On the other hand, if you only have 15 minutes to present and quite a bit that you’d like to say, it’s almost imperative to have a written script or you run the risk of either going overtime and earning the ire of the other presenters in the session and the session chair, or not covering everything you want to cover. And if you have an hour and you ramble all over the place, people will also lose the thread and will probably also feel as though you don’t think they’re important enough to prepare properly for.
And as someone who has been on the organising committee for a number of both national and international conferences, I also know that one of the criteria used for inviting keynote speakers is “has anyone heard her/him speak?” Organising committees don’t like getting feedback that the keynote speaker was boring and/or disorganised and a low point of the conference. It doesn’t feel like a good use of the money you’ve spent on getting them there. Some conference participants will also tell you that they feel they’ve wasted their money coming to the conference if your keynote speakers are poor presenters. “I could have stayed at home and read the proceedings.”
I would suggest that a good purpose-designed presentation is better from the audience perspective than even a competent reading of a paper designed for publication. However, listening to a paper that has been prepared to be read out loud and with which the reader is familiar enough to lift their eyes from time to time is better than sitting through a badly prepared and badly delivered presentation. The amount of preparation put in is possibly more important to how effective it is than whether its a read paper or a presentation, I think. I was sitting next to one of our university’s more effective presenters a month or so ago and he was mapping out a keynote address for a conference he is speaking to in July next year. He is presenting to a lay audience and he wants to make sure that he has time to think about presenting his material in a way that will be accessible to them!!
Update – the key to making real sense of the above paragraph is that I was sitting next to the person concerned on the plane while we were travelling from Armidale to Sydney. 🙂