I have offered thoughts on how to present a paper at SBL before, but I usually have new reactions and thoughts immediately after presenting.
First of all, it is not really that important how many people are at your session -it is more important that those who do attend (hopefully more than a handful) know something about your topic and can comment. So, don’t be too discouraged if you expected 50 and got 15. It could still be very useful in terms of feedback.
Resist the temptation to hit your time limit on the dot (like 25 minutes). That usually only leaves 5 minutes for questions. I shot for about 16-17 minutes and we had loads of time for questions and I can honestly say that it was a better experience for me.
Always have a handout of some kind and put your email address on it so that those who are interested in your research can follow up. One of my fellow presenters in my session just sent me a Facebook friendship request – we have much to talk about!
To do powerpoint or not? I did not, but two of my fellow presenters did. The upside is that it is visually useful to understand the main point or see a diagram. The downside is that your paper and the session overall may be forestalled if you have trouble getting the computer in sync with the projector (which happened to one presenter despite his claims that he tested it out earlier with no trouble). I tend to shy away from Powerpoint out of such fears even though I teach with powerpoint in the classroom (often, not always).
Handling questions: my normal tendency is to be defensive if a question is asked that challenges my thesis (versus a more clarifying or exploratory kind of question). I did not have any threatening questions, so that as a dodged bullet, but I felt relaxed overall – perhaps it was because the crowd was small, or because this is my 3rd year presenting at SBL and I am getting used to it. Anyway, be conscious of your emotions and your natural tendencies. The best way to feel calm about the question time is to write a paper you are proud of, you understand well, and that you have researched thoroughly. If you are ‘shooting from the hip’, as some do, it can be torturous.
One issue is determining just how radical your paper is going to be. If you are providing another reason why Paul did not write Titus, that is not really rocking the boat. If you are Doug Campbell, well…get ready for the fight. If it is your first paper at SBL, and you are going for the jugular, be prepared for push-backs. SBL folks are not shy.
It might pay to go to papers at SBL with a specific interest in seeing the strategies that people have for responding to questions. The best scholars have tact, calm, and think well on their feet. Also, of course, they are well read, both specifically and generally. That takes time, of course.
If some of you are scared, too scared, to try SBL, make sure to go for the regional conferences. I hope to present in the Eastern Great Lakes region (this year in Akron, Ohio).