How to Have Your Best Academic Conference

Every year, the week before Thanksgiving week sees several major conferences for biblical studies and related disciplines.1 Not the least of these is the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Especially given the scale of SBL, it can be a challenging meeting to navigate well. But with 7 steps, you can help make your conference the best it can be. These are to

  1. Plan what sessions you will attend.
  2. Come to learn, and come to contribute.
  3. Focus on the sessions you attend.
  4. Take notes.
  5. Write or revise your paper to be heard.
  6. Budget adequate time to get from place to place.
  7. Enjoy the book exhibit and the serendipity of spontaneous meetings.

1. Plan in advance what sessions you will attend and when you’ll have other meetings.

At just about any conference—and especially at the larger ones—there’s always too much to take it all in. And just because you can fit a session into your schedule doesn’t mean you should.

Instead, be choosey. Use the conference program or planner to find the sessions most pertinent for you. Don’t worry; you’ll still have plenty to do.

But by being choosey about the sessions you attend, you’ll be able to go all in on the few that most align with your interests.

In addition, an academic conference offers a great opportunity to connect or reconnect with others. Simply by virtue of attending, everyone who is attending is somewhat out of their usual day-to-day routines.

So, during the general time frame of the conference can be a great time to catch up, collaborate on current projects, or pitch new ideas.

2. Come to learn, and come to contribute.

Whether you’re giving a paper or listening to one, come to learn and contribute.

Come to learn from the presenters about their work and contribute to the discussion of it. Or come to contribute to and learn from the audience about yours.

In addition, if you come to learn and contribute rather than to impress, you’re likely to do more of both while also lessening the time you’ll spend faced with imposter syndrome.

Particularly if you’re attending a session, recognize that “contributing” doesn’t mean being the know-it-all who “asks a question” that turns into a monologue and scarcely leaves the presenter time to respond or others in the audience time to ask their questions. It means asking a question or making a comment that

  • might help the presenter refine his or her argument or
  • highlights a topic you’d genuinely like to hear more about.

And “hearing more about” it means that you’re hearing while the presenter is talking. If you want to have a fuller conversation, ask or try to catch the presenter after the session.

But even there, recognize that good academic interchange isn’t about strutting or “winning” while someone else “loses.” It’s about cooperative creativity where, even if differences remain (as they well may), both sides walk away with something gained.2

3. Focus on the sessions you attend.

Nowadays, it doesn’t take attending many academic conference sessions in person before you notice something. During the session, some portion of the audience will be focused on … their email, Facebook, Twitter, the program book, or really anything besides the session they’re physically attending.

Maybe, they’re “multitasking.” But even if they are, studies show they’re not really paying attention.

I’ve been guilty of this practice in the past too, particularly later in a conference when sleep deprivation has tended to set in. But while this kind of distraction can help with staying awake, getting adequate sleep is a much better approach that will also help you pay closer attention to the sessions you choose to attend.

What Multitasking Means

As you “multitask” between two or more increasingly complex tasks, your ability to track with either at the same pace drops precipitously. You’ll typically need to elongate the time you spend on the multiple tasks you tried to bundle.3

By contrast, habitual tasks that require very little attention can be more successfully combined with other tasks that require more attention (e.g., folding laundry while listening to a podcast). For this reason, Greg McKeown suggests a helpful distinction between multitasking and multifocusing.4

Why You Shouldn’t Try to Multitask in a Conference Session

But problems naturally arise when you try to combine two incredibly complex and language-intensive tasks like listening to an academic paper and checking your email or social media.

In addition, the easier you make it for your brain to “escape” an academic paper into the world of your email or social media, the more difficult you make it to maintain focus the next time around on a different paper or cognitively demanding activity.5

Plus, if you craft for yourself a very selective conference schedule to start with, you’ll already have biased your schedule toward the sessions that you find more worth attending. And if they’re more worth attending, they’re more worth attending to while you’re in them.

4. Take notes.

Taking notes in a session is a great way to help keep your mind from wandering off—let alone wanting to seek out distracting stimuli like email or social media.

It’s also a good way of helping you retain the content of the papers you attend, whether or not you look at your notes again afterward.

You may have some electronic device with you during a session. So, you may be inclined to take your notes digitally on that same device.

If that works for you, that’s great. But handwriting notes can provide benefits you don’t get if you’re taking notes by typing.6

And if you want to store notes digitally after your conference, Adobe has a wonderful, free scanner app that makes digitizing handwritten pages very easy, even if they’re bound in notebooks.

5. Write or revise your paper to be heard.

For the academic conference sessions I’ve attended, the “acceptable public speaking” bar is quite low. There are some significant exceptions, but on the whole, biblical scholars aren’t generally known for being great orators. And you don’t have to be either. But it’s not at all uncommon for presenters to write and present their papers in such a way as to make it more difficult for the audience to comprehend.

There’s nothing stopping you from doing that. But your paper will probably get better engagement if you do some simple things to make it easier for the audience to assimilate.

5.1. Read your paper comfortably in the time you have.

You can make your paper easier to hear in several ways. But first and foremost, know how much time you have to present. Write or revise your paper to fit in this timeframe (or clearly mark out for yourself what sections you’ll skip if there’s too much to read it all).

In English, a normal speaking pace tends to be 100–120 words per minute. So, if you have 20 minutes, that gives you about 2000–2400 words. If you condense what you have to say so that you can say it at a reasonable pace and not need to speed read, it’ll be that much easier for the audience to track with what you’re arguing.

5.2. Use a “corrected conversational” style.

Second, if you’re writing your paper only to be read, you might be tempted to have one four-line sentence after another. But you probably don’t talk that way, and your audience probably won’t hear best that way either. Instead, write your paper in a “corrected conversational” style.

Don’t try to “sound smart.” The content of your argument will take care of that more than the grade level of your vocabulary or sentence structure. Instead, say things in your paper like you would say them in conversation. Just edit out the brokenness (e.g., “and um …”) and informality (e.g., “When I read x text, I was like …”) that sometimes characterize ad hoc conversation.

5.3. Explicitly signal your argument’s structure.

Third, give your audience an outline, whether you decide to have a handout or not. In how you write your paper, look for places where you can signal for the audience where they are in the overall structure of your argument.

Can you give them an outline at the end of your introduction? Can you explicitly enumerate the 7 reasons you’re right as you go through them?

Any of these structural signals will help your audience hear your paper better—not least if your paper’s later in the conference and so you’re presenting to an audience that’s correspondingly more “papered out.”

6. Budget adequate time to get from place to place.

Especially at a bigger conference venue, it can take a long time to get from place to place. Even if both places are technically in the same building, it wouldn’t be unusual for it to take 15–30 minutes to get between the two.

So, be sure you plan this transit time into your schedule. For instance, I’ll often try to leave 30–45 minutes ahead of time.

And as a bonus tip, if at all possible, wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll thank yourself after several days of getting in more than your usual step count.

7. Enjoy the book exhibit and the serendipity of spontaneous meetings.

Two things that an in-person conference facilitates really well are book exhibits and spontaneous meetings—often in the same space.

These features are another reason that, if you’re attending in person, you want to be choosey about which sessions you attend. The program doesn’t have a slot for “go through the book exhibit, find what’s been published that you hadn’t seen yet, meet new people, and bump into old acquaintances you’ve lost touch with.”

But all of those activities are part of what makes an in-person conference something you can leave feeling satisfied about when it’s done. So, make the most of these kinds of opportunities during the conference.


It can take some work to get the most from an academic conference. But with some forethought and preparation, conferences can provide great opportunities for you to hone your craft as a biblical scholar. And with some experience over time, you can learn still other practices that can help you improve your experience moving forward.

  1. Header image provided by Headway

  2. For further discussion of this kind of dynamic see, Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (affiliate disclosure; New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 193–296. 

  3. Multitasking: Switching Costs,” American Psychological Association, 20 March 2006. 

  4. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (affiliate disclosure; New York: Crown Business, 2014), 219–20; cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (affiliate disclosure; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15. 

  5. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (affiliate disclosure; New York: Grand Central, 2016), 157–59. 

  6. Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science 25.6 (2014): 1159–68. 

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