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.

5 thoughts on “Conference presentations – some tips and tricks

  1. Another tip: don’t forget to breathe … Pauses are good. They allow your audience to listen and digest, and can create a little dramatic emphasis. They also help you to remain calm, catch your breath, and manage any lingering nerves or stage fright. All good things.

  2. Great comment Chris! Just one more. Spelling! Spelling, spelling! What you are saying is very important but don’t forget that if you are using PowerPoint or prezi (or any other presentation tools) that it needs to ‘look good’ too. A great oral presentation can be spoilt if the audience think you were a little slap-dash on the visuals. Get someone to check through it for you, find an audience to try it in front of – I’ve asked friends and colleagues to sit on my practices before conferences and their insightful comments have always improved the final presentation. Other than that, take a deep breath, enjoy the presentation and remember to take pen and paper so you can note down questions, comments and who asked them.

  3. Pingback: Networking at conferences – breaking the ice, without being a sleazebag? | Conversations with AUSCCER

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