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Going Paperless at Conferences

A pile of shredded paperAt the recent MLA conference in Los Angeles I tried something I had long considered doing at a conference.

I went paperless.

Absolutely, totally paperless. No bulky program, no pen and notepad, no hardcopy of my presentations. Just one little piece of tech was all I carried around with me—in this case, an iPad. I was so delighted with my paperless conference-going that I wanted to share my experience here, as well as solicit tips from our readers.

Paperless as a Participant

As an attendee and audience member, I went paperless in two ways:

  • I used a PDF of the conference program, which several intrepid hackers (ahem) had downloaded from the MLA members’ site and made publicly available. But even more useful than this massive PDF was a blog post I had prepared beforehand, which listed all of the panels I might possibly want to attend (all digital humanities panels, naturally). I had both documents readily available on my iPad, and it was a breeze to search through them to find out where I wanted or needed to be.
  • I took notes during panels with the Profhacker favorite Evernote. The iPad version of the app works quite well, and it was reassuring to know that all of my notes would be searchable and accessible from my other devices and computers. I also participated in the Twitter backchannel using the Tweetdeck for the iPad, which let me easily follow several concurrent hashtag streams.

Paperless as a Presenter

As liberating as it was to be unencumbered as I moved from panel to panel, my paperlessness most significantly impacted my conference experience as a presenter. For the first time ever I didn’t read from printed notes or a 10-page hardcopy of my talk. I read straight from my iPad. Here’s how:

  1. I saved my presentation as a PDF, using Microsoft Office’s native “Save As PDF” feature. OpenOffice has this feature too, in case you’re not an Office user. I had composed one of my presentations in Word, and the other using the notes slides in PowerPoint—which print out nicely as well as PDFs.
  2. I moved the PDFs into my laptop’s Dropbox folder. Assuming you have Dropbox on your iPad (or whatever device you’re using), the PDF will magically show up on that device. Regardless of whether you or not you have a wifi connection in the conference room, I recommend starring the PDF within the iPad Dropbox app, which will ensure you have access to it, even if you’re offline.
  3. From here you have several options. You can use Dropbox’s native PDF reader or any other PDF app that hooks into Dropbox. Most of the PDF readers I’ve seen on the iPad (including Dropbox and iAnnotate) feature seamless page-to-page scrolling. This kind of scrolling looks nice when you’re reading most PDFs, but I’ve found that it’s easy to lose my place this way, trying to scroll, read, and look at the audience as much as possible. That’s why I use CloudReaders, a fantastic (and free) PDF reader. CloudReaders show each page of your PDF as a discrete screen, and tapping on the left or right side of the screen instantly moves your PDF back or ahead one page, respectively. It’s perfect for reading text aloud.

Benefits of Presenting Paperlessly

Since I wasn’t worried about printing out my talk, I was more relaxed about finishing. I worked on my talk on the plane, in the hotel, even during breakfast the morning of my talk. (It’s important to note that I did have my laptop with me during the conference, but it stayed up in the hotel room.)

I found it very easy to read my talk from the iPad. It was just as natural as reading from paper. I’ve tried to read talks from laptops before, but the screen was always too obtrusive; I felt like it blocked some crucial communicative space between my audience and myself.

Disadvantages of Presenting Paperlessly

The chief disadvantage of presenting paperlessly isn’t the actual presentation. It’s what happens afterward, in the discussion period of the panel. I missed not being able to quickly jot down ideas and questions from the audience directly onto my paper. I can type fairly quickly on the iPad, but there’s nothing like leaving actual marginalia.

The other disadvantage, of course, is the possible appearance of unwelcome technical gremlins. Paper works. It simply works. I’ve found the iPad to be extremely reliable, but there’s always the chance that something could go wrong.

Do you need an iPad to go paperless?

I don’t think you need an iPad to go paperless at a conference. You could of course use a laptop for everything I did. Or even more lightweight, a netbook. For the MLA conference in 2009 I had even investigated teleprompter-type apps for my iPod Touch, though none of the free apps showed any promise for conference-reading.

What are your thoughts on going paperless? Have you tried it? If so, how? And do you have any advice for other scholars who want to ditch paper at conferences?

[The Evidence photo courtesy of Flickr user David Morris / Creative Commons License]

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