Presenting at Conferences (Special Edition)

By Jennie Jarvis

Earlier this month, I presented a workshop at MegaCon 2013, a comic book convention in Orlando, Florida. Keeping this in mind, we here at 5writers thought it might be a good idea for me to share my experience with presenting at conferences. So here is a down and dirty breakdown of the three most common kinds of presentations that you might make at a conference based on my experience:

Reading of Academic Paper

The purpose of Academic Conferences is to share the research and findings of intellectuals across the globe. There are thousands of conferences worldwide that cover everything from African America Literature to Astrophysics. These are not the kind of conferences where you would present papers on the craft of writing. These are research or analysis based presentations that dissect existing works to help uncover hidden meaning or connections between texts.

If you want to present a paper at an academic conference, the process is pretty straightforward.

The first step is also the hardest, in my opinion – finding a conference that is focused on the general topic that applies to what you want to talk about. For example, if you wanted to present a paper on the use of the color red in Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, you might want to look for conferences that cover new media storytelling methods, symbolism, film studies or popular culture. Once you have identified conferences that cover those broader topics, then you need to check what their theme is for the upcoming year and see if your paper topic works for that theme or if you could adjust it to fit into that theme. For example, when I presented a paper on how vampires have developed as a sexual symbol in film at the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts Conference a few years ago, their theme for the year was focusing on race. Therefore, I needed to look at both sexuality and race for my paper to work. A great resource that I have used for finding academic conferences is http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/

Once you have found the conferences that you want to submit to, go to their website and check out their submission guidelines. Usually, the conference doesn’t want your entire paper. All they want is an abstract – basically a paragraph about what your paper will cover – and a bio. Yes, this means that you can submit an idea for a paper without actually writing it! A Professor friend of mine loves to submit abstracts to conferences that take place in cities that he wants to visit. This way, if he is selected, he can write the paper and go somewhere new. If he isn’t selected, he’s lost nothing but the time it took for him to find the conference and write up an abstract.

Most conferences are okay with you presenting a paper that you have presented elsewhere, as long as it hasn’t been published, but make sure that you check out their guidelines just to make sure. Many conferences will pick the “best” papers of the conference to publish, so check and see how you can submit your paper for consideration.

If you are picked to attend the conference, don’t expect them to pay for your travel or your hotel room. That is completely up to you (unless you are a big wig who is also picked to give a keynote address). It’s always important to confirm that you will be attending by replying to the email that tells you that you have been accepted. Read the entire email and make sure that they aren’t asking for additional information or materials, like a headshot.

Then you have the fun job of WRITING the paper, if you haven’t done so already. Find out from the conference how long you will have to present your paper. Usually, you will receive anywhere from 15-30 minutes. A great rule of thumb is that you should give yourself 2 minutes per double spaced page to read your paper. Therefore, if you have been given 20 minutes to read, make sure that your paper is no longer than 10 double-spaced pages. Using smaller font to cram more paper into those ten pages doesn’t count. It’s all about timing. Some conferences will just stop you in the middle of a sentence if you go over time, but others might allow you to finish. However, if you wind up running over time and this keeps someone else from presenting, then you are acting in an unprofessional manner, and they may not invite you to return the following year.

Academic Conferences are a lot of fun because there is a great mix of people presenting papers, from grad students to Fulbright Scholars. I was once in a room where over 20 fully tenured professors were getting into an argument about the validity of fast-moving zombies. It was a load of fun, and I highly recommend them to anyone that wants to share their ideas about something that they have been researching or studying.

Workshops

For those people that aren’t interested in research or analysis and who are interested in presenting on the craft of writing, then trying to book a workshop is a great goal to shoot for. A workshop is a broad term used to describe any classroom style setting where the presenter is teaching information to an audience. Workshops can be as short as 30 minutes or as long as multiple days, all depending on the context. Traditionally, however, I have most often been booked for workshops that last about an hour.

The best and most scary part of workshops is that the content is 100% up to you. You chose the subject matter, and you chose what to include and what to leave out. Just make sure that you know your material well. Don’t worry about picking something that will “interest people”. The worst thing is standing in front of a room of 200 people and being asked a question that you can’t answer. I’ve given dozens of workshops on a variety of topics, but I know better than to present on something that I’m not comfortable with. I’ll talk about screenplay formatting until I’m blue in the face, but you’ll never catch me giving a workshop on film budgets! Even if I spent hours researching it, if I haven’t worked in it, I’m not going to teach on it. Pick a topic that you know backwards and forward. It doesn’t matter how random or obscure it is. If you know it, then you can present on it – whether it’s overused tropes in romances, style in midgrade or world building in Sci-Fi. I guarantee that, if it has to do with writing, someone out there will want to hear you talk about it!

Finding a place where you can teach a workshop can be a bit of a creative challenge. The key is realizing that YOU are in control of the content of the workshop, so you have to find the best place to present the information that you want to share. Where can you find the audience for your particular workshop? For example, say that you want to teach a workshop on how to find an agent. This is a great topic, and there are tons of possible audiences for it. For this workshop, you can start looking at anything from larger writing conventions or conferences that meet once a year to smaller community writing groups that meet once a month. Where you wouldn’t want to look is at groups of established writers, most of which already have agents. Just because a conference is a “writing conference”, it doesn’t mean that all writing topics will fly. Do you research and make sure that YOUR audience will be at that conference.

I’ve found that, if you are willing to show some flexibility, you can find that perfect audience in non-traditional places. For example, my workshop “Crafting A Character Arc” is pretty universal. It applies to traditional literary writers, but it also applies to film and comic book writers as well. This is why I’ve been able to present this workshop in multiple places: from this month’s MegaCon to last year’s YA writing conference. The key is to make sure that you know your material well enough to adapt it to whatever the primary needs of the audience are. This year, my room at MegaCon was the largest room in which I’ve ever presented, and it was packed. And this was a comic book convention, where people were lining up to pay for autographs of Will Wheaton and the Weasley twins. Don’t snub your nose at the non-traditional conferences. If you can find an audience, that’s all that matters.

The important thing to remember is that many larger conferences and conventions prefer to book their workshop presenters early on, so you need to plan in advance. Once you have identified the places where you want to present, you need to see how they book their workshop speakers. Larger conferences can book their people as far out as 9 months to a year in advance. Smaller writing groups might be able to book you the day before you speak. Contact them and ask what their process is for considering and booking speakers and follow their guidelines. Many times, they will ask for a brief blurb about your workshop (which they will cut and paste into the program), but I’ve also been asked for a justification for why I’m qualified to present on that topic as well. If they have already booked their speakers for this year, tell them that you would like to be considered the following year and mark your calendar to follow up with them as soon as they open their application process.

When it comes to workshops, presenting can have its benefits. Depending on the organization, you can get anything from a free pass to the conference and a paid hotel room to gas money. Just remember that some organizations don’t have the budget to give you anything, so don’t expect the handouts. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to ask. As long as you kindly ask if they can comp you a ticket to the conference or help with gas money, they will kindly tell you no if they don’t have the money. At the end of the day, though, it’s about sharing knowledge more than gaining anything in return.

Panels

A panel is, at its simplest, a group of people sitting behind a table and talking about a particular topic. If selected, you can either speak on a panel or moderate one. The moderator is like a game show host, guiding the discussion and trying to keep everyone focused. The best moderators that I’ve seen have always done a great job of not letting any of the “talkers” overshadow the quieter panelists and have always tried to bring the discussion back to the main topic if the focus started to waiver.

To get selected to participate in a panel, the easiest way is to know the organizers of the event hosting the panel and to be involved in another capacity. When I was asked to moderate the Producers Pitch Panel at the Jacksonville Film Festival a few years ago, it was because I ran the Screenwriting Competition. My “official” position within the Film Festival put me in a place where I had proven that I was professional enough to guide a discussion with some major Hollywood big wigs. They would never have allowed me to run that panel if I hadn’t been volunteering my time with them for the previous two years.

However, you don’t need to be rubbing elbows to be a part of a panel. Just like with workshops, you can propose a panel to a conference or convention. In this case, it’s always helpful if you know other people that are also attending the event. This way, you can pitch your panel together as a team. For example, if you are a romance writer, and you want to pitch a panel on romance writing, then find three or four other romance writers to pitch with. This way, you are a ready-made package for the conference. They don’t have to do the work of finding other people for you to present with.

If you do get selected for a panel, it’s important to remember that you aren’t the only one presenting. Unlike a workshop where you are the center of attention, the audience is there to hear all of you speak. Don’t hog the microphone or feel like you always need to add “just one more thing”. You may have five different answers for a question that the moderator poses, but you don’t need to state them all. Let the other panels talk too, and be professional and courteous. If you find that you really want to talk, on and on, about one particular topic, then you may want to write yourself a note to propose a workshop on that topic the following year.

I’ve often found that you will rarely get selected to only participate on a panel and not do anything else. Normally, you will be asked to conduct a workshop in one time slot and then participate in a panel during another time slot. Because of this, the benefits for presenting on a panel are the same as presenting at a workshop.

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