Presenting at a Conference in the Social Media Age

Conference sign stating name of conferenceIn many respects the format of academic conferences has not changed much over the years. There will be some plenary sessions with keynote lectures but the hive of the conference is the parallel sessions where many presenters stand up, read their paper and answer a few questions afterwards. Once upon a time presenters may have used overhead transparencies. These have been replaced by powerpoint presentations which in the hands of most presenters are little different to the old technology.

But social media has introduced a profound change to the dynamics of conferences. The soundscape of plenary sessions at the Global Digital Humanities conference did not simply comprise the tones of the person speaking on stage. There was also the soft sounds of hundreds of fingers tapping on keyboards, reporting the conference to the world via Twitter.

Over several conferences I have been observing presenters and thinking about how best to present a paper in the Social Media Age. At the Australian Historical Association conference a few weeks ago I had a chance to put some ideas into practice.

Firstly I made sure I put my name and my Twitter handle on the bottom of every powerpoint slide. The best way of giving attribution on Twitter is to use the presenter’s Twitter handle but too often the people tweeting a paper are not aware that the presenter is on Twitter. The presenter misses out on a higher profile online and the possibility of connecting to more colleagues online. Likewise the audience misses out on an opportunity to expand their professional networks.

Secondly I did what many presenters do, I made my slides available on a presentation sharing service such as Slideshare. I recorded the URLs for all the websites I mentioned in my paper on the slides. I wanted people to focus on my talk rather than searching for URLs while I was speaking.

So I had to share just one URL while I was speaking – the place where people could find my presentation. I did this right at the beginning of my presentation, on my first slide.

When listening to someone speak, I am frustrated when the presenter says at the end, “by the way, the presentation is available online”. If I had known this I would not have spent the time frantically writing down notes from the slides, trying to note the presenter’s remarks, thinking through the ideas presented… and missing key points because it is not possible to do all that properly. There is only so much that even the fastest typist can handle.

Then I thought I would make it even easier for those in the audience who would be tweeting my presentation.

I tweeted while presenting my own paper.

I haven’t come across anyone doing this before so I treated it as an experiment and approached it carefully. First I warned people about what I was doing.

Twitter clients such as Hootsuite and TweetDeck have a useful feature which allows for tweets to be scheduled in advance. I can’t tweet and talk at the same time but because I knew the exact time my presentation would start I could start the tweets at the appropriate moment.

Why not helpfully send out a tweet with the link to my presentation on Slideshare?

My paper was about methodology, but I started with a couple of interesting comments from Australian soldiers about their interactions with Indians serving at Gallipoli. I had written more about these stories a few months ago so I tweeted the blog post:

My research primarily relied on the World War I diaries held by the State Library of New South Wales. I have written several blog posts about this important collection. One of these posts gives an overview of the resource and how to access it. This post would be helpful for other researchers:

I only scheduled four tweets during my paper. I thought it was a good idea but there might have been a drawback I hadn’t thought of. I also am cautious about introducing automation. Often people feel uncomfortable when confronted by automation for the first time.

But the feedback was positive. Kate Bagnall was in the room when I was presenting. She decided to try it for her paper the next day. She carried the experiment further by scheduling more tweets, resulting in a more comprehensive story of her research in her tweets:

In this case there were people in the room tweeting Kate’s paper. But what if there is no-one in the audience tweeting your paper? This is still a very common scenario. By tweeting during your presentation you are guaranteeing a wider audience for your paper.

Kate Bagnall shared a fascinating story about a Chinese-Australian child in her paper:

Isn’t this good? Kate gave a pithy commentary on her paper for people who were following the conference from afar:

One of the key points of my paper was the importance of historians informing cultural institutions about the use of their collections. Cultural institutions need to know about this so they can prove to their funding authorities that the collections are not only valuable, but that they are also the basis of important research.

For historians, tweeting your paper is a great opportunity to acknowledge sources. Why not tweet major references to a paper and give an @mention to the cultural institutions you rely on so they know they’re loved?

I have not shared all of Kate’s tweets, but my favourite was this cheeky one:

I was sitting in the back having a silent chuckle about that one. No, I didn’t ask the question.

After my paper, Vanessa Hearman joined the conference conversation online. She hadn’t heard about our experiment, but there is something out there in the ether:

Vanessa Hearman Tweet Paper convo

So get thinking everyone. How can we experiment with social media (not just Twitter) at next year’s conference? This is an important part of bringing history to the wider world.

This post is the first in a series about the use of Twitter at the 2015 Australian Historical Association conference.

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