Stick to the script… or not, whatever.

Script or no script? That is a question I have answered to my satisfaction, but opinion will vary based on personal taste. The conference last Friday was my 6th conference paper and the 3nd paper to be read from a script. Like the 1st one (actually, the 2nd one chronologically but you get the meaning), it felt clumsy, I read too quickly, I lost my place twice, and I’m not sure the audience was following me. From now on, it’s point-form notes only.

I suspect the majority opinion is that one should script a conference paper. The argument is that you will stick to your time better, you will be more coherent, articulate, and you can insert all the lovely details that you will invariably forget when faced with the academic equivalent of lime-lite. That’s all well and good for those who, unlike me, have no trouble reading from a prepared script with confidence. Apparently, and I think I can safely blame my first 8 years of formal education, I have a deeply rooted phobia about reading out-loud. I don’t like speaking to groups at the best of time, but after the initial rush of panic, I ease into it and I settle down and I can speak with some degree of casual ease and confidence unless I’m reading from a script.

For the last paper I kept changing my mind about how I would go about presenting it. I planned to do what I always did, which was to prepare a script / formal essay and then chop it into parts that were little more than paragraph headings. I would follow that outline for the actual presentation and this has, in the past, gone fairly well. The trade-off is that I must rely on my memory for the details and it does not work well to have quotes or more complex passages because I am likely to miss them. I also must rely on my own ability to form and speak coherently ‘on the fly’ and while I am reasonably good at that (when I know the topic well enough), no-one can proof read the paper ahead of time.

The most important benefit to reading a paper ‘off the cuff’ is that I don’t read while I try and speak. I’m not being obtuse. That is an important difference in how my head manages this sort of task. If I am reading off a script, I’m not watching the audience. If I don’t watch the audience I have no clue if they are following me. I am usually more concerned about loosing my place in the script than loosing the audience. Looking between script and crowd will inevitably throw off my eye and I will stand there, staring at my paper, trying to figure out where I was. That is a pressure I can’t handle.

For most of my past papers I have planned to read from a script but after repeat readings I would decide that it was crap, I would cut it into bits, re-arrange it, and follow some headings during the paper, filling the details as I go. I have never gone over time or seriously missed a structurally important point in the paper doing it this way.

Most conference attendees will forget your actual words. Few will notice any omission or mix-ups, unless you point them out. They will remember if you spoke too fast, if you looked particularly nervous or uncertain and they will judge your work and your ability on those features, more than the actual content of the paper. I know that, and yet, I decided to concentrate on content instead of form.

There was some hope of salvaging that paper in the question period. I do well with questions. The closer a paper is to a dialogue or a conversation the better and I was looking forward to questions so I could project a more relaxed and confidant image. Unfortunately, our panel started late and our convener ended the session early for lunch so the three presenters had about 8 minutes for questions. I got 1, from the convener, and that was it.

The conference wasn’t a total loss. I met some neat people and I did get to answer questions later but it was a disappointment to come across so poorly. Or, at least, I didn’t meet my personal standards. From now on, it’s pre-script before and improvise on the day.

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