Skip to Main Content

Do Academic Presentations Have to be Boring?

Ilana Abramovitch, AJS

Is this you? Reading your conference paper quickly, eyes tight on the page, trying to get through as much of your valuable material as you can, attempting to reach those few colleagues in the room who are experts in the subject, perhaps going beyond the time limit but feeling justified, as the vital conclusions come right at the end. Perhaps you have a PowerPoint show, but you are possibly not so very adept and have tried to cram it full of material…

We have all been on the receiving end of boring presentations — no matter how fascinating the content — and are invited here to consider a few basic techniques to ensure our own presentations are of the livelier variety.

Many scholars feel strongly that they are not show people and that to present their research requires only a serious, straightforward delivery, rather than anything "flashy." An accompanying belief is that the material speaks for itself and requires no special preparation, aside from reading the conference paper, which is more or less an article.

If only it were true that the material speaks for itself! If only a presentation were simply an article to read out loud! How much easier it would be for conference presenters and listeners. [Much less need to prepare … much less succumbing to boredom and irritation …]

But alas, this is not the deepest truth about oral communication; in fact a conference is, for the most part, the locus of speaking and listening, rather than reading. And the successful presenter, whether senior or starting out, would do well to note the difference in the cognitive load of listening comprehension versus reading comprehension.

Presenting a paper is not the same as reading an article out loud. It's about vocal communication; we could even add … about narration. And the better you master these speech skills, the more successful the communication can be. On the other hand, you do not have to have all the bells and whistles of a TED talk to be a successful conference presenter and create a memorable presentation.

Many articles exist to help improve academics' skills at giving oral presentations; some of these articles are available as guides on the AJS website. Most of them make very similar points, tips which bear repeating:

It is an honor to be accepted as a speaker and present in front of a group of scholars; you have an opportunity to make an impact, so put the extra effort into preparation, and make your presentations dynamic.

What does "dynamic" mean in terms of oral presentations? Briefly, it means connecting with your audience.

Oral communication needs to be more highly structured than written communication: listeners cannot go back a few pages if their minds have wandered or if they have not followed your argument.

Some Ways to connect:


Have a clear and attention-getting introduction and conclusion; the conclusion can refer back to a quote, a question, an anecdote mentioned in the introduction. Humor can certainly work, too, if relevant (and truly funny!).

Use guideposts to tell the audience what you are about to say and later on, what you have said. Some reinforcement is needed in oral communications, including transitions, numbering your main points, recapping, etc.

Limit the number of main points, and make them very clear, avoiding information overload. Use brief examples/evidence to enliven your ideas.

Think of the presentation as a narration: most people enjoy a story, and narrative structure can give your talk a lively shape, as can rhetorical devices.

Remember, you are not speaking only to the small number of specialized experts. In the audience, there may well be younger, or seasoned, scholars of other specializations who might get inspired by your talk. Or offer you a new job! But certainly, they may after your talk want to read your articles, in which you certainly make much more detailed observations.

Be prepared to answer questions. Anticipate the questions, and practice some answers.


Slow down. It takes time for people to take in your complex ideas.

Use vocal variety to animate your voice so that the enthusiasm you feel about your work can come across. Ask rhetorical questions. Make it clear when you are driving home a point.


Look at the audience. This adds a lot to a sense of connection. This also means you will not be reading most of your talk. Yes, this is a different way of presenting, but it can be done by rehearsing your speech.

You need to practice your talk enough so that you can speak, at least partly, extemporaneously. This means knowing your points so well that you can speak without memorizing or reading.

Time yourself, so you can avoid a timing panic. This is what expert speakers do. Cut back the "fat" of your presentation to fit the slimmer version into the time allowed.

With practice you will only need index cards at the ready for the main ideas, names and guideposts. It makes sense to keep a copy of the whole text for backup, but not for reading.

Facial expressions and gestures that feel appropriate can also add animation to a presentation.

Using AV equipment could be a whole other article but the basics are similar: Keep AV simple; keep it legible; keep it consistent. Turn slides off when you are not referring to them.

So, the answer to the question posed in the title? It's up to you!

In addition to serving as the Conference Program Associate, Dr. Ilana Abramovitch also teaches public speaking at BMCC/CUNY. She will be leading a workshop at the conference on this topic. Want to ask Ilana a question in advance of the conference about preparing a lively talk at the AJS Conference? Contact her at