Ralph's Rules of Presenting Empirical Social Science Papers at Conferences
Intended Audience: Graduate Students

This short list is intended to complement Jerry Ratcliffe's Powerpoint presentation rules



You have two pieces to prepare. These are separate pieces. First, you have a talk. This is a script from which you will read. Second, you have a powerpoint presentation. These are different things that serve different purposes.  The purpose of the script is so that you are not left stuttering inanely in front of dozens of  people several of whom might have been -- until they heard your presentation --  future employers. The purpose of the Powerpoint is to give your audience some visual highlights linked to what they are hearing.

Preparing the Talk

If you are doing a typical empirical presentation, your paper will have four parts:

You want your presentation to be balanced, meaning that each of these four sections receives sufficient air time. Some typical mistakes made when constructing a paper for presenting are to either:

Literature. The literature review section should close with a clear statement of

Your listener wants to know both what is original about your effort, and how it ties to the past work. Key prior studies and authors should be mentioned by name, although you need not list all 16 authors of a paper.

If you are doing grounded theorizing, describe the kinds of connections or concepts you are hoping to find, and why and how they might be important.

You want to keep your key hypotheses section short: 2 or 3 at the most. Why? - because you are only going to have time to present 2 or 3 results (See below.)

Methods and analysis. In this section all your listener needs to know are the following:

The key points here are:

Results. Just some, please!. Organize what you will cover, and compress as needed.

Discussion. Cover the following points:

Once you have your talk done, prepare your Powerpoint. It is a good idea to put breaks into your talk indicating where the overhead or slide changes.




Practice giving your talk in front of an audience at least once. Offer to buy a pal a beer or a pizza or both. In addition, you want to practice reading through it several times, standing up,  checking to see if you are reading your paper or delivering it. 

You want to rehearse this several times. Why?

First, your talk is likely to be much too long, and is going to need cutting. So go through it once, time it, and then start cutting back. Present again to see if you are on target with the time.  Although some session moderators at conferences are lackadaisical about time, many are not. You do not want to get cut off just as you were getting to the most important part.

Second, you are learning a script. When you get to the session you do not want to be reading from your script line by line. Rather you want to be delivering it, looking at the audience most of the time, and referring to the text when needed. You will be able to deliver it only if you are familiar with the text.

For your text, print it out in a way that is easy to read: I like 12 or 13 point Helvetica ALL CAPS, double or triple spaced. Be sure you have page numbers on the bottom.

Get Your Props Ready and Have Backups

If you are doing Powerpoint, have it on a couple of different disks. Floppies and cds go bad.

Be sure you have plain old overheads as a backup.

You also might want to have a brief handout. I usually like a 2 page handout with title, author, and abstract on the front, and a table or two of results on the back. Be warned, however, there is a danger with handouts that have tables in them: some person suffering from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) in the back row is likely to ask you "How come the standard error in one equation is .07 and in another equation with the same predictor the standard error is .007, and doesn't that just invalidate all your results?" People pick at things they can hold and read. It is what we get trained to do.

If your session has a discussant, it is polite to send the paper to him/her at least a week before.


Find your session room in advance. Get a sense of the room, and how large an audience it will be able to hold.

On the day of  your session, get to the room in advance. Find your moderator. Confirm how much time he/she will allow for your presentation.  Find out what "time" cues he/she will give you. Find if questions will be after each paper or after all the papers.

Before you start your presentation, ask the audience to hold questions until the end.

During your presentation, have some way of keeping track of time.

Finally, there is a good chance that, despite all your preparation, you may be at a session with your paper placed last, a careless moderator, an audience that will not stay quiet, and voluble co-presenters, leaving you just 5 minutes to present your 20 minute paper. It happens; a lot. If you see this unfolding, think ahead to which parts of your Powerpoint are most important, and just jump to those. Rather than try and do the whole shebang, tell the audience your  questions, and some of what you found. And if this happens, be gracious, not sour. It's just the way things are.