Rhetoric at Research Conferences

Carolyn Braganca ’15. 

To present at an undergraduate research conference is actually a very realistic opportunity for many Elon University students—one that is not very common at many other universities. This past weekend (Wednesday – Saturday) I attended the National Council for Undergraduate Research (NCUR), which was hosted at Eastern Washington University just outside Spokane, Washington. With more than 50 students presenting, Elon University was one of the most represented schools in attendance. I highly recommend anyone interested to apply to be one of those Elon students at next year’s conference (in the beautiful Asheville, North Carolina).

What better way to practice rhetorical strategies than to present at a conference?

For anyone interested at possibly presenting at a conference (be it NCUR or a professional conference), here are some rhetorical decisions to consider.

At a research conference, the major and obvious rhetorical decision you will have to make is how to present your research effectively and clearly. First, you have to consider what content to include in the presentation: how much background information is it safe to assume your audience will have? Depending on the conference, your audience may have a very solid foundation of knowledge, a relatively solid foundation, or even no foundation at all. At NCUR, for example, I attended presentations on topics of which I had only a wobbly idea. Likewise, I know I also presented my research on Sherlock Holmes to people whose only knowledge of Sherlock Holmes came from BBC’s Sherlock. Some conferences, however, may be biology conferences, at which it will be safe to assume your audience has a stable but broad understanding on basic biology.

In any scenario, you will likely have to present some background information, but you need to determine how much time in your presentation—remember, you will likely be given a small time slot—you want to devote to explain exposition.

Along with the oral aspect of your presentation, you need to consider the visual aspect of your presentation. Unless you are specifically told not to by the conference, always include a visual! People want to look at something, so give them something eye-catching but informational to absorb visually. When designing you PowerPoint, Prezi, poster, or whatever visual aid you decide to use, be sure to keep visual design and visual rhetoric in mind. Your research may be the coolest topic in the world, but if you present it using a PowerPoint presentation with a blank white background and default black words, your audience will likely not remember much about your research. Your visual should reflect your research in some way, so even if your audience does not pay much attention to the words you speak, they will remember the words you or ideas you wrote.

For more information on visual design, check out these websites to get you started: Web Style Guide, Visual Mess, and Usability.

Finally, an often not-fully-realized rhetorical decision you need to make at a conference is what to wear—you need to carefully consider how you present yourself. Most conferences have a business casual dress policy, but when presenting people often dress more business formal. Within those parameters, however, there are several choices you can make—particularly if you have the privilege of being a woman. Does the blue suit or the gray better represent you? The slimmer fitting pants or the looser ones? Do pants even suit you? Maybe you are more comfortable in a skirt? Heels or flats? Red or purple? Collared blouse or cardigan?

Standing in front of people with whom you are unfamiliar is often an uncomfortable experience, so counteract the discomfort of the situation with comfortable clothes. Yes, you should aim to look formal and nice, but if you feel more comfortable in your older black pants instead of your new gray pants, then wear your black pants! Or if you feel more confident in your flats than in your heels, then wear your flats! Remember: while looking formal is a priority, you can sacrifice degrees of formality for the sake of comfort and confidence. What you look like on the outside is an important rhetorical decision, but what is more important is how what’s on the outside affects the inside—if you are enthusiastic about your research and personable, and if that enthusiasm and personality shows in your presentation, that is what your audience will focus on and remember.

And for the love of all things good and beautiful in this world, don’t read from your paper!

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  1. Posted April 22, 2015 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    This is a great post! There’s definitely a lot of practice and research that must go into presenting at a conference and I love how you approached it from a rhetorical perspective. Most people will put most of their effort into their research, which is very important. However, visuals impact how the audience feels about your presentation almost as much as what you say. It seems like a good idea to fully analyze how your visual appearance will be recieved.

  2. Posted April 22, 2015 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    I love that you say “counteract the discomfort of the situation with comfortable clothes” when presenting research in front of an unfamiliar group. I am such a big believer in wearing what is comfortable in professional situations because it gives you a kind of confidence that will become obvious to those around you. Great post!