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I'm a MA student, and I think I've made a big mistake submitting to my first conference...

I submitted an abstract to a regional academic conference over the summer, and it was accepted. I had to submit the full version of the paper for the student competition a few weeks ago. I was having trouble cutting my material down to meet the limit-- all the conference said was that papers should be "no longer than 20 minutes." The due date crept up on me, and I did my best to cut it down as much as possible, not having enough time to read through my drafts out loud to see how "long" they were.

The conference is two weeks away, and I have started practicing out loud...and it's taking me around 27 minutes to read my paper. What do I do? Is it a big faux-pas to shorten my submitted paper for the presentation so it doesn't go over the time limit? I've had trouble getting in touch with the conference organizers about other things, so I'm doubtful that I'll be able to talk to them about this.

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    Are you actually supposed to read your paper out loud? – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 28 '16 at 19:36
  • I'm assuming so, since the length of the paper is supposed to be 20 minutes? They had 0 guidelines anywhere, so I emailed the conference organizers to ask about this, asking if I should prepare a powerpoint-style presentation that goes over the main points. They misunderstood me and just said they're not sure if there will be powerpoint capabilities, so don't be reliant on a powerpoint. I emailed back for further clarification and they never answered... – anon Sep 28 '16 at 19:43
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    That all sounds like a terribly organized conference. Is it common in your field that people simply read their paper to the audience? In mine that would be considered about as poor of a talk as imaginable. – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 28 '16 at 19:45
  • I think this is a more common format for literature/cultural studies fields? Still learning my way around the field though! – anon Sep 28 '16 at 19:52
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    @Tobias from what I've heard, it is indeed standard in the humanities. – ff524 Sep 28 '16 at 20:11
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Keeping in time is mandatory

In general, you can expect to be cut off if you are over the time limit, so you definitely should shorten your presentation - it's very likely that important parts of your talk are at the end so it's very important not to lose the ending!

In most fields, presentations are very, very different from the actual content of the paper - if someone wants to read the paper, they can do so at any time; but the presentation should cover why they'd want to read your paper afterwards and also explain things that might be easier to show or demonstrate rather than read about.

Even if in your field tradition is to read the paper as-is, that is optional but keeping the schedule is mandatory. I would suggest to reduce some parts that describe the background/foundation/earlier results which would be known by the conference attendees but might be less known for a general reader of your paper. You should mention earlier work, but you don't need to go into detail about that even if you do so in your paper.

Keep the focus of your talk on the novel parts of your paper, and also make sure cover in detail the motivation of this research and it's wider context in your field.

  • Super helpful, thank you @Peteris! Freaking out a little less now :) – anon Sep 28 '16 at 20:35
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I'm going to go out on a limb (well, an educated limb) and state what is probably obvious to all who have been to conferences of any kind before: The term "to read a paper" is not meant to say that you should "read out aloud every word and sentence of something that you have submitted before". Rather, it is meant to say "present the material that you cover in the paper you submitted". (This is in the same sense as a "Reader" in the British university system is not actually "reading" anything out aloud to the students, but is in fact just a regular professor who is lecturing -- even though they use the word "professor" for something different.)

In other words, prepare to give a lecture or presentation of some sort about the material you covered in the paper. How these presentations look like is quite different for different communities, but you definitely have the freedom to:

  • Use words other than those you chose in the paper (and in fact, you should: written language and oral language are quite different; for example, when we speak, we almost always use far shorter sentences, and speaking as we write makes it unnecessarily difficult for listeners to follow).
  • Select among the material in your paper and determine what you think is the most relevant if you have a 20 minute time limit.

Most conferences today have projectors that you can use to display slides. If they do not support Powerpoint, you will almost always be on the safe side if you show up with PDF file of your presentation. Whether they have projectors, and whether they have computers you can use, or whether you have to bring your own laptop, will depend on the conference. You should ask the organizers again about this aspect.

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The session chair will (or at least should) try to keep the talks at a conference within the allotted time.

When you appear to use more time, the chair might start to notify you that you need to wrap up. When you fail to do this, and it becomes clear that you are taking more than a few minutes extra, the chair might even cut you off.

Finally, I would like to point out that extra time taken by you might lead to less time for the speakers after you, or less time for scientific discussion. You have a responsibility to your peers to be prudent in claiming their time.

  • Thanks for answering! So given how important it is to stay under the time limit, is it acceptable to modify my presentation even though my submitted paper is too long? – anon Sep 28 '16 at 19:56
  • Yes, as long as your main message, findings, and supporting evidence are done justice. – Danny Ruijters Sep 28 '16 at 19:59

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