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To second and expand on Marcus’s answer to #3:

You don’t even need to write an entire paper to give a conference presentation. In fact, I would suggest that you don’t, because presentations where people read a paper word-for-word are AWFUL, even if you are interested in the topic.

Instead, think of a conference as a way to test out an idea without even needing to write 5,000 words about it. It could be a new argument, a new approach to a problem, a new problem, or whatever. But you’ve got an idea and you are going to test it out with your peers. You tell them what prompted the idea, what the idea is, what its implications are, and what possible problems you see with it. Then you let them tell you what they think, and hopefully you get some good feedback.

But for the love of your audience do not just read a paper. Your presentation will go better, and you will have a more invested audience, if you explain things more conversationally and informally.


Strong second on Bryce's comment. There's a special circle of hell reserved for people who read papers. Their punishment is to listen to each other for all eternity.

Daniel Weltman

I don't mind when people read papers. I think people should try to give presentations that are as engaging as one can reasonably make them, given other constraints (staying within the time limit, remembering to mention important points, phrasing technical details carefully so that small wording mistakes do not screw things up, etc.) and some people's presentation styles are such that this is more difficult if they are reading papers. So, that is one reason to try to avoid reading a paper.

But if someone can engagingly read a paper, I think there's nothing wrong with that. Or, if one cannot give a talk which satisfies many other important desiderata without sacrificing how engaging they are, then I think it can be worth having a less engaging talk.

For what it's worth, I had never read a paper before until I went to a conference with a 20 minute presentation time limit, which I felt I could not reliably hit without either practicing a lot (not something I really wanted to spend the time on) or reading a paper. So I read a paper, and I don't think it was the worst thing in the world. With online talks I've found it almost impossible to not read papers, so mostly I've been reading papers, and again I don't think the results have been exceedingly excoriable, although I guess you'd have to ask the listeners. I can report that I've heard many papers read both before and during quarantine (i.e. at traditional conferences and online conferences) and I've found them engaging or not in about the same proportions as I've found non-reading presentations to be engaging or not.

I also think the norms in various sub-disciplines vary a bit. My impression is that historians read a lot more than many other kinds of philosophers. So if one is a historian one might not worry as much about the anti-reading sentiment.

One final thing to keep in mind is that some people have presentation anxiety or other associated anxieties, especially perhaps some of the people inclined to be asking about the norms of conferences, and for some of these people, reading a paper can help alleviate that. I don't like the idea of heaping more stress and anxiety on people by telling them that one of the few things which alleviates their anxiety is terrible and ought never to be done, both because I think it's false and because I think exacerbating anxiety doesn't really help. Perhaps at best the suggestion should be something like "do your best to try to get your presentation to a place where you can do it without reading a paper, but if you can't get there, reading a paper is an acceptable mode of presentation."

Polaris Koi

During my PhD studies I've given presentations every which way - written the paper, not written the paper, written just a handout, etc. and my experience is that the ideal way to go is to indeed write the paper, at least a rough draft, but never read directly from it. I think having written it down makes it easier to give a presentation that's cohesive and well worked out. It has the added bonus that you can actually give the paper to colleagues who show interest, and they may give you further feedback that you can use to your advantage. This probably does not hold for people who are highly skilled in giving oral presentations -- as for me, I tend to get a bit flustered and worry about whether I misformulate something technical if I don't have everything written down. ( I keep my paper near me when presenting and read technical parts that require precision directly from it to keep my nerves from getting the better of me.) But absolutely, do not just stand there and stare at your paper, but use any presentation skills you have (or training in such that you can access -- including youtube etc. guides on how to give an academic presentation) to your advantage.

Philosopher in a history field

Strong second on everything Daniel Weltman says. Another consideration with respect to reading a paper vs. not is whether someone is presenting comments on one’s paper. When there’s a commentary following, this may be a good reason to read one’s paper, as, if one presents without reading the paper, one might be likely to accidentally add material in response to the comments, which is of course not at all fair to the commentator.

On a more personal note, I am in a history of philosophy subfield. When I present at these conferences, I almost always read the paper (or, at the very least, I present generally and then read key technical parts). Occasionally I’ll present at a more generalist conference, or a conference in a contemporary subfield, on which occasions I tend not to read the paper, because my aims and the audience’s expectations are different.

I always read the paper when I was a student presenting at conferences. Only more recently have I been confident enough to present in other forms.

In any case, I think most of the complaints about people reading papers are in reference to papers which were written just like a journal article (and these are certainly not written in a way that is easy for an audience to understand when read aloud). Or else the complaints are about presentation style itself (like the person staring at the pages the entire time, using a monotone voice, etc), which could easily also be a problem if one presents from notes instead.


I usually read the paper and found it helpful to format the "script" in a presentation-friendly way. For example, 16 pt. font, double-spaced, hard-return at the end of every sentence, hard-return for pauses, indicate (different types of) emphases with italics, underlining, and/or CAPS, etc. Dragging your finger down the page as you go lets you make eye-contact with the audience without then having to search to find where you left off. You'll process the last few words of a sentence faster than you will say them, so you can make eye contact as you end each sentence. While "off-script" may be ideal, my impression is that this method yields presentations that are totally fine (and tremendously less stressful).

I don't recommend reading papers!

I work in a department that is largely (about 75%) historians of philosophy, and one of our criteria for selecting colloquium speakers is whether we are fairly confident that this person will not read their paper to us.

So, just a data point. I sympathize with the anxiety thing and tell my grad students that they should work up to not reading and that it's ok to read at first. But... I do think that most people get a lot more out of non-read talks than someone just reading their paper--of course there are exceptions in every direction here! And I think there is a reasonable expectation that job talks will not be read (that's not to say that someone can't get hired who reads a paper!), etc. and so while grad students might be anxious about this stuff, it's also something they should probably work on overcoming early.

one more

I think people should have a paper ready before they present at a conference - hence, before they submit to a conference, even if only an abstract is asked for. I have been to too many conference presentations where the speaker had no handle on the topic, because they had not written the paper. I even know of a case where someone has a great powerpoint presentation, but they cannot publish it. They can't because the written version is a messy piece of ###. They have fooled themselves into thinking they have a paper because they can talk about the topic in a conference setting. But the argument in the paper version is confusing, and it is easy to see in a paper (but less so in a presentation).


I've given more than 40 presentations. I don't read. And, to make sure I get the timing right (since it's usually ~20 minutes), I practice giving the talk.

It works just fine for commentaries, as long as you hit the main notes in the paper. If you notice that something in the commentary hinges on something specific you say, you just make sure that you say that thing in the presentation.

My experience is that people vastly over-estimate their reading and writing-for-reading skills, as well as their off-the-cuff presentation skills. Also: their ability to get the timing right. *So* many read papers miss their timing entirely (likely because the presenter didn't practice reading the paper aloud).

On the whole, I prefer presentations that aren't read, because it's usually easier for me to follow them. But that's just a preference. I've seen plenty of great read papers, and tons of poorly presented papers. You can do whatever you prefer, although I think you should strive to do whatever that is well.

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