So You Want to Be an Academic Panelist?

Inspired by having attended the American Political Science Association meeting last week in Chicago, here is a list of some tips to save academic panelists from fulfilling bad stereotypes, behaving in embarrassing ways, and forgetting commonsense.
(Disclaimer: I am not an expert. I just observe things.)

1. Don’t plan to be boring:
“My paper is on an obscure and mundane figure…”
This is not a very good hook.

2. Be a courteous co-panelist:
Think about how you are presenting yourself when your fellow panelists are formally presenting and you are not. Thinking about this should inspire you to not text, recline dramatically, chew on a pen, or prepare your own presentation while the others are speaking.

3. So what your title has changed? 
“The title of my paper has changed.”
Big deal. Who cares? And yet, how often do we hear someone begin an academic presentation like this? State your current topic directly and without apology. (Ideally your thesis will not actually contradict your title.)

4. Don’t waste time talking about time:
“Given the time limit…”
“Just to be brief…”
“I recognize I’m running out of time…”
Academic conferences involve 10-12 minute presentations of 30 page papers. This makes no sense since 30 pages of content (even double-spaced) will absolutely not fit in 10-12 minutes. I have not been able to sort out this convention except I’ve been told it has to do with the fact that presentations need to be short and journal publications need to be long. A presentation is like a performance; it should be polished and unapologetic.

5. Avoid Ism-ifying:
Realist, Liberal, Colonialist, etc., etc.
Avoid categorizing thinkers and texts with labels as a substitute for discussing the content of the arguments.

6. Your audience is the message:
“You probably won’t understand the complexity of my argument…”  
When your audience is familiar with the topic–and even when they are not–treat them as colleagues and co-learners rather than pontificating in a pretentious or patronizing way.

7. End apologies for inconclusiveness:
“I’m sorry but I have not solved all of the mysteries of the universe–yet.”
There is no need to repeatedly state your lack of final conclusions. Mentioning this once is certainly enough for it to be obvious from there.

8. Make it count:
“First, I am going to make one sub-point before enumerating my five sub-sub points.”
If you say to your audience that you have three main points, then you better not give only two or actually four.

9. Double negative:
Resist telling your audience what you are not doing in your presentation and then, on top of that, neglecting to communicate what you actually intended. You can communicate the limits and scope of your work positively and clearly by expressing simply what you do intend to communicate.

10. Name-dropping anecdotes:
“One day when John Rawls and I were eating Chinese food…”
If an anecdote serves to illuminate the content of your presentation, then share it. If it’s just boasting, then leave it out.

11. Prove it matters:
“My topic is very important.”
“This argument deserves discussion.”
Do not say these things unless you can follow it up with a “because.” Finish the sentence: This matters because…

12. Pay attention to your surroundings:
“In light of the general conference theme of the digital revolution…”
Allow some spontaneity and refer to other panelists’ presentations, to the general conference theme, and to current events when appropriate. This will serve to demonstrate that you know that a world exists beyond your delivery of your own conference paper.

13. Verbal quotation marks:
Don’t say “quote” and “end quote” when giving a quotation. Good vocal variety is sufficient to indicate when something is a quotation and when it is not. Here’s a bonus tip from Urban Dictionary:

Quote Unquote: A horribly incorrect way of citing a particular phrase or adding emphasis to a questionable term. Typically it preceeds the phrase and is accompanied by a stupid little fang finger gesture. If you currently use the term “quote unquote” (and especially if you do the finger thing) please stop it now. Don’t feel bad. It’s an understandable mistake because the idiots on Fox News say it all the time as does your boss at work, most probably…

14. Easy listening:
Make sure there are no words in your paper that you cannot pronounce. (Duh.) Try to strike a golden mean between conversational speech and academic writing. If we had half as much contempt for academics who read directly off the page as we do for politicians who use teleprompters, this might be a good thing. Rhetorical skill is not a substitute for worthy, truthful speech; it’s its correlate.

15. Have fun and practice!
Be encouraged to practice delivering academic papers and speaking on conference panels. There is so much to learn and there is always room for improvement. If you would like to explore ways to improve your public speaking and leadership skills, I encourage you to consider joining a Toastmasters club in your community.