Presenting at a conference: notes on the process


In this post, I want to talk about how I prepared a paper for a jazz conference.

The 7th Rhythm Changes Conference, on the theme “Jazz Then & Now”, has been hosted by the Conservatorium of Amsterdam from 25 to 28 August 2022. A four-day multidisciplinary convention about jazz studies that, according to their website, brought together “some of the leading researchers across the arts and humanities”. That was absolutely the case: the event reunited a big tribe of people that, coming from disparate parts of the world, were first-line in studying and understanding the global phenomenon of jazz music.

A tribe

This post will not be about the content of my paper. Rather, I will give an idea of the method that I used while I was putting it together, and reflect on some of the things that I learned from the process. If you are looking for a step-to-step method that might help you prepare a presentation, keep reading.

Down to the essential

The rules of the conference included a strict 20 minutes time limit for all presentations, and I have to say that squeezing my subject down to these 20 minutes has been a hugely useful exercise. It has been a great way to practice the art of selecting what is really worth to say. I realized how many were the details that, however they sounded cool or interesting, were in the end plain unnecessary. Or, at least, unessential.

And that is one of the great things about research: you learn to focus on the really important stuff. You are continuously asking yourself: what is important here? What is relevant to my peers? And what isn’t?

A paper is to read, or not

I am very happy that, after careful consideration, I have decided not to present my paper by reading a text. Reading at conferences, I discovered, is very common. Maybe it comes from the fact that you actually present ‘a paper’. The thing is, the ‘paper’ is delivered orally, so we are presented with a paradoxical situation.

Don’t get me wrong: there are indeed people that are good at the difficult task of reading from a sheet of paper while keeping a lively communication with the audience going. Nonetheless, I think that reading out loud your paper at a conference kind of misses the whole point of being there in front of an audience. On a personal level, I really felt that I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to connect with the crowd. In a way, talking in public is so close to what I do on stage while improvising music that, as a jazz musician, I simply didn’t want to make the decision to just ‘read from the score’.

Of course, given the strict time limits on the duration of the talk, it was immediately clear that careful preparation would be needed. So, what was my preparation process?

The process

I still wanted a fair amount of control over what to say in the assigned time, and be sure that all the important concepts and passages were there.

That is why my first step was to write down the full text of the paper. More or less what I would have been doing if I was to read it during the talk, but with one important difference: instead of making one long text made of elegantly interconnected sentences, I organized the content in phrases that were short and self-contained: ready to be transformed into bullet points. Having the full text written down was good for two reasons: it made it possible to time things carefully, and helped me choose the best, most concise words that I could come up with.

After the text was ready, I timed each section in order to keep the presentation within the time limits. This is where the big cuts happened. A lot of the things that I deemed important had to go in order not to exceed the 20 minutes. Many sections have been reworked during this stage, in search of a sharper, more concise language.

In the next step, I examined every surviving sentence and reduced it to a list of terms or central ideas. I tried to keep the list small: 1 or 2, exceptionally 3 items per sentence. This way, I ended up with a bullet-point outline of the speech.

Lastly, I rehearsed the talk, learning how to make an organic presentation out of the bullet-point list. Of course, having written the full text before helped me find the most effective way to explain each concept.

It worked. When it came to the actual presentation, I found myself confidently going through all the material, all while having the possibility to improvise and to react in real time to the mood of the room. I had the outline with the bullet points with me on the desk, but I soon realized that I was talking better when not looking at the notes.

Write the full text

Time it, trim it, rephrase it

Reduce to bullet points outline

Rehearse the talk

I prepared a few slides for the presentation, trying to keep the textual content to a minimum and rather give some visual complementary material, such as images and graphs. But this is a whole different topic, for which there are some very good resources online, for example this video. And on the more general topic of how to speak in public in an academic context, I can’t but recommend this lecture from a course that the late Patrick Winston used to deliver each year at MIT.

All the rest

There are many other things that I learned from participating in this convention. This kind of conferences are really great occasions to confront yourself with the current themes, ideas, and mood of a community of top-tier thinkers and artists.

Of course, I learned things that are specific to my research, especially from the Q&A session after the speech. The remarks and the reactions of the audience showed me something about my own practice that I had never suspected previously.

But a lot of the knowledge and the pleasure that I gained from the event came from more casual conversation. I met a lot of passionate jazz scholars, some of which are authors that I only previously knew by having read their names on books. All of them were very approachable, and I could ask for some first-hand information about subjects that I care for. At the same time, I spent most of my time with some young guys that are going to make a difference in the future of jazz musicology and artistic research, and I can say that talking to them was as exciting as having to do with the veterans.

(Photo credits: Foppe Schut)