To Read or Not to Read
In the previous post, I claimed that reading your paper at a conference is not necessarily bad. Not everyone thinks this. There is a large and vocal contingent of scholars for whom reading your paper is the worst kind of conference sin. This is typically because, as I stated above, a lot of read papers tend to be badly read.
So when is reading your paper okay? Or, rather, what makes a good reading? Part of it, as I also said before, has to do with how the paper is written: is it conversational? Does it clearly communicate one idea or topic? Can an audience follow that argument easily? These are the prerequisites for reading a paper aloud at a conference. If you’re presenting snippets from an essay, for the love of all that’s holy do NOT read it at your panel.
But there are times and/or reasons that make reading your paper useful – even necessary. I’ll confess here that, for the most part, I’m a reader, and I do it mainly because (TMI warning) the anxiety medication I take makes it difficult for me to quick on my toes, which makes me anxious, which makes me flounder …
You get the idea. In this sense, yes, reading the paper is a crutch, but I kind of need the crutch or I’m going to fall down. Hard. You may have your own reasons for doing it.
The point is, as much as we’d all like to be charismatic speakers who can present off the top of our heads, that’s not always going to be the case.
So, how do you read a paper well? Start by practicing it. You may think that practicing a paper you’re going to read is kind of unnecessary – after all, it’s going to be right in front of you. What needs practicing? Here’s what: pace, intonation, emphasis, language, timing (especially with slides). When I read a paper aloud, I annotate it extensively in practice with reminders to myself about where to pause, what to emphasize, where to show a slide, how to pronounce a tricky word – all the things that will make my read paper sound natural. The final draft often looks like a script rather than an academic paper – and it should if you’re going to read it.
But practicing also makes it fluent, and it will familiarize you enough with the content that you can afford to look up and make eye contact with your audience throughout. It doesn’t take much to alienate an audience, and keeping your eyes on the podium is one sure-fire way to do it. Practice enough that you know what’s coming next in a given sentence, so you can speak it without looking at your paper. Pause while your eyes are on the audience to make sure that connection is still there. Don’t rush – and this is where practice can help as well.
Above all, don’t – DO NOT – read paragraphs from a much longer paper or, God forbid, an essay or chapter. You see this all the time at conferences, and not only can it make for a very incoherent argument, but it’s also a clear sign that you’ve barely prepared for the presentation. Yes, you wrote an entire essay/chapter, but this is a conference, not a journal, and it’s the conference you need to be prepared for. Almost always, when someone is reading scraps from a longer paper, they run out of time and end up having communicated a lot of set up with very few – or even no – conclusions. This is what makes a read paper so bad, and what gives it such a bad rap.
If you choose to read – and I hereby give my Seal of Approval for you to do so if you’re doing it right – prepare, prepare, prepare. Reading it aloud isn’t an excuse to blow off preparation; if anything, readers have to prepare more so that people will hear you and take away from it what you want.