Conference presentations – some tips and tricks

Professor Chris Gibson

Professor Chris Gibson

The 2014 IAG/NZGS Joint Conference is being held next week (30 June – 2 July) in Melbourne. So we’ve decided to revisit Chris Gibson‘s blog post from 2012 about tips and tricks for conference presentations. Feel free to add your own tips in the comments section of this post or share them with us via Twitter @AUSCCER. Continue reading

Networking at conferences – breaking the ice, without being a sleazebag?

Last week we posted on tips and tricks for presenting your work at conferences – especially for postgraduates and early-career researchers.

Another benefit of conferences is networking.

With conference season upon us, in AUSCCER discussion has turned to how to network at conferences – especially for postgraduate students and early-career researchers.

We absorbed some terrific advice from the geography postgrads at Manchester University: I recommend reading their comprehensive list of suggestions.

Another key dilemma we discussed is: how to make the most of networking at a conference, without coming across as an opportunistic sleazebag?

Dinner and cocktails, IAG conference 2011, UOW

Attend pre-conference workshops wherever possible

You’ll meet a smaller group of people with similar interests to yours. Much easier to break the ice when there’s a common interest. And, you will be able to reconnect with these same people over morning tea when the ‘big’ conference begins.

IAG 2011: Subterranean geographies field trip

Ditto official field trips. Who knows who you’ll sit next to on the bus. It’s how I met Gerard Toal and Anna Secor– at a political geography conference field trip in the West Bank in 1998, when I was a bumbling postgraduate (I’m still bumbling, but now thankfully with tenure…). We ended up backpacking for a while together after that trip. Although I rarely see them, living here in Sydney a rather long way from Washington DC or Lexington, I’ve valued their advice and views ever since.

Wallflowers anonymous

I know this is easier said than done, but if you feel isolated and alone try to overcome this as soon as possible on the first day. There’s only so many times you can check facebook on your phone. I recall attending conferences as a PhD student and not talking to anyone until the second day. Eventually striking up a conversation, I wished I had grown a spine earlier. Once you’ve had a pleasant chat with at least one person then the whole event seems friendlier and more open.

AUSCCER's Natascha Klocker and Kate Roggeveen at IAG 2011

Lining up for registration on the first morning is a good opportunity: talk to whoever is next in line… don’t try to make a deep academic insight, just normal small talk! And when you’ve got your name tag and calico bag, if the conversation has lulled, simply say “see you around” and find a nice nook in which to study the program.

Networking at conferences is not like picking up at a bar. There are no perfect ‘pick up lines’ and better to say hello and chat about the weather than try make a clever or witty comment. BUT just like picking up at a bar, if you do try to strike up a conversation and all you get in return is negative body language, then back out… quickly!

Quality over quantity

My PhD supervisor always advised to network and collaborate academically with people you like – your friends. Simple. No point in trying to establish a collaboration with a nasty or unfriendly person, no matter how close their research area is to yours, or how eminent they are in your field. Academic life will prove far more rewarding if you build a network of connections on the premise of friendship and respect rather than opportunism.

Shadow your supervisor for a little while, if need be. They should introduce you to their friends. You can quickly gain connections with like-minded folk by going for a coffee, lunch or beer with your supervisor and their existing “inner sanctum” of colleagues.

Business cards?

I’d be interested in hearing others’ views on this. I always take a bunch of business cards to conferences, but rarely hand them out – and often only when reciprocating after someone else has given me theirs. Are social media such as facebook, twitter and LinkedIn replacing the need for business cards? It could be a function of generational difference. I sit on the fence. Take some cards along, but don’t expect to hand out loads of them.

Tweet your thesis topic – short and sweet

Can you capture the essence of your thesis topic in 140 characters or less? Try it. I still find it difficult to talk about my research succinctly. Try telling someone about your thesis verbally, maximum two sentences.

When you strike up conversations at a conference, invariably you’ll be asked about your research. Make your reply short, but engaging – as with tweets. If there’s a genuine point of connection, you’ll end up talking for longer. If not, that’s ok – and you won’t have bored or annoyed someone with long or convoluted explanations.

Don’t expect instant fame

The Mancunian geographers emphasised this point too: if you come home from the conference having only met a few people, it’s OK. It takes time and many repeat visits to the same annual conference to build a friendly academic network. Better to form a few promising connections rather than try and make everyone know your presence at your very first conference.

If there are key people whose work you’ve already read and admired, watch their presentation and ask a succinct, friendly but engaging question. You might preempt a possible question before the conference, based on recent work of theirs that you have read. Invariably that person will come and have a chat after their paper, if you hang around a little while afterwards.

Do you have comments or suggestions? Do you take business cards to conferences? How do you break the ice?


Conference presentations – some tips and tricks

It’s conference season!

With both the Institute of Australian Geographers and IBG-RGS conferences looming, in AUSCCER we’ve been talking about making the most of conferences – especially for postgraduates and early-career researchers.

Much underestimated, but critical, are a few close details about presenting yourself and your work, when it’s your turn to talk.

Here’s a few tips and tricks.

Time it to perfection

  • Practice your presentation and time it. If it’s too long, even by a minute, cut it back further. If you’ve been given 15 minutes to present, do not settle for 16 minutes as ‘close enough’.
  • Before your session starts, for instance when you’re uploading your PowerPoint file, let the session chair know that you’ve practiced and timed your presentation and that it is exactly the correct time (or less). Your session chair will appreciate it. It makes their job of managing speakers, timing and questions easier. And often, the session chair is the most likely person to remember you from the conference – the most immediate person to make a good impression upon.

Dr. Leah Gibbs, presenting the 2011 Fay Gale Memorial Lecture, IAG conference, UOW

First impressions
  • Think VERY carefully about your opening sentence. Resist the temptation to waste precious seconds saying “Hi, my name is ….” or “I’m a PhD student from the university of ….” Instead, try to write a punchy, engaging first sentence that gets right to the heart of the wider issue/problem/debate in your paper or research field. When in doubt, write a short sentence in the form: “This paper confronts the question of ….”.
  • If you’re worried that this tactic will somehow seem unfriendly – don’t. The audience want you to get on with it ASAP.
  • Maybe use a dramatic example, an anecdote or an attention-grabbing ‘event’ to capture the audience from the very first paragraph. Ben Gallan from AUSCCER has a great example: a dramatic YouTube clip of urban street violence that immediately starts his presentation. The audience is gripped from the first second.

Last impressions

  • Also spend time carefully crafting your final sentence. Make it a definitive conclusion and deliver it in a manner that makes it obvious it’s your final sentence. Try deliberately slowing down for this sentence, and inserting a pause just before you launch into it. Don’t end a presentation by way of asking the audience if there are any questions: that’s the job of the session chair AFTER you’ve been applauded. Instead, just deliver your ‘punchy last line’ with style. When in doubt, return back to the theme of your attention-grabbing first line. If that first line was presented as a question, come back to answer it, or if a ponderance on a big picture problem, return to it in your presentation’s final line.

The art of the second paragraph

  • If you need to provide some background on you, or some context for your paper (e.g. that it comes from your PhD, or is a tentative ‘first stab’ at something), try placing this as the second paragraph in your spoken presentation – after your dramatic ‘opener’.
  • Also use this second paragraph to quickly position the paper in a field or literature. Or use this second paragraph to quickly explain what this paper is not about, or to ‘spot-check’ literatures that you’re aware of, but won’t discuss today. This is about preempting questions from the floor about some tangential literatures or debates that you won’t have time to discuss in any great detail.

AUSCCERites at the 2011 IAG conference, UOW

Theory vs case study?

Try to strike a balance between enough background/theoretical framing, and substantive case study material. I recall witnessing a disaster of a paper once, when a speaker spent his full 20 minutes (including allocated question time) boring the audience with the intricacies of his theoretical ‘model’, then got angry with the session chair when they stopped him before he’d said a word about the case study. Most audience members won’t be disappointed if you provide ‘just enough’ conceptual framing, in order to let the ‘story’ breathe. Also, resist the temptation to show how your case study has relevance to all manner of debates and disciplinary sub-fields. You can expand on or diversify your story at next year’s conference. For now, drill down to a single message, the single core story you want to tell on this occasion.

Finer points

Details of your PowerPoint presentation matter:

  • When in doubt, use plain background colours.
  • PowerPoint design experts reckon that san serif fonts like Arial or Calibri are best, and that there should be no more than three dot points per slide, max 6 words per dot point.
  • I like using a sequence of photos without any text at all. The pictures vividly portray things without words in dot points cluttering up my spoken story.
  • Don’t waste space putting in a slide outlining your presentation’s structure (especially if you’re sticking to a conventional structure anyway). Ditto a slide at the end with “Thank you – any questions?” written on it. There’s no need.

To read or not to read?

In light of the above, when in doubt use a fully-written script for your presentation and read it out on the day. Practice it beforehand to identify any phrases that are awkward to read out. Deliberately shorten all your sentences, and use a shorter word in the place of a longer one where appropriate. This doesn’t mean dumbing things down. It means being comprehendible and making your job of reading out a paper smoother and more enjoyable.

Why not just chat, off-the-cuff, to the audience?

  • Having a written script means you can practice and time your presentation precisely.
  • It means being in control of every word, rather than allowing splutters, ‘you know’, ‘like’ and other verbal ticks into your presentation.
  • Nuanced ideas are better usually better communicated on paper than off-the-cuff. The very best academics might be able to talk theory as if having a casual chat, but most of us mere mortals need a bit of help getting the key theoretical phrases ‘right’.
  • Having a written script disciplines yourself: you can pace yourself with confidence, and more reliably stick to your pre-determined ‘killer open sentence’, and ‘punchy last line’.
  • You’ll sleep better the night before.

Do you have other ideas or tips on conference presentations? Perhaps there are different ways to approach presenting your work? We’d love your comments or suggestions.

Next: conferences are a great place to build your academic networks – but is it possible to network effectively without coming across as a sleazebag? Click here to read more.

In the meantime, check out this series of posts by the geography postgrads at Manchester University for terrific advice on making the most from conferences.