Conference presentations

If you are heading to an academic conference it's a good idea to think really carefully about what and how you will present. It's tempting to throw your whole PhD at out there, or at least attempt to but this is never a good idea. Conferences do offer a good opportunity to get expert feedback on your project but if you want to keep your audience engaged and to make a good impression you should be selective about what you present and realistic about the amount you can cover in the time allocated. A conference presentation should not be your whole thesis! Even trying to condense one paper is a challenge. Be very selective about what you want to share and get feedback on. People want to hear about your research so spend minimal time on existing literature that directly impacts what your presentation is discussing. Spending too much time on theory and literature can make you look like you don’t have confidence in your own work so keep it short and mention you are happy to expand on it during questions.

1 - Planning

As well as the content you want to deliver, there are some important considerations you should make about the tone and style of the presentation:

A. Who is your audience?

  • At a specialist roundtable assume a good level of familiarity with your topic

  • At a big conference assume a well-informed audience with little knowledge about your specific topic. Take the time to situate your research and explain its importance

B. Format:

A safe format would cover these bases:

  • Overview and ‘hook’ – research question and theoretical framework

  • Method and case(s)

  • Background and literature

  • Data and results discussion

  • Analysis and conclusions

However, this can be formulaic and stuffy if you follow it like a prescription! Think instead about the story you want to tell. Take your audience on a journey through your research. You do need the clever detail but you must hold people’s interest, it will make you memorable to them and helps to generate discussion and feedback.

Be explicit throughout the presentation what your key points are, what they mean and what questions are raised.

2 - Using Powerpoint

It is usually a good idea to give a visual presentation. If you choose to use powerpoint there are some basic rules you should try to follow:

  • Keep your slides simple and easy on the eye. Plain sans serif font on a neutral background (not white on black, etc.!). In a busy room the bottom of your slide may be less visible to people at the back.

  • Nothing smaller than 24 point font.

  • Use bullet points not full sentences. Slides should be designed for your audience, not for you to read from.

  • Use good quality, relevant pictures and on these slides keep text to a minimum.

  • No more than one slide per minute.

  • If you include quotes, make them a part of the story and read them. Don’t expect the audience to read whilst you are talking.

  • Don’t hide behind a fancy presentation – make sure the substance is in what you say.

  • Avoid animations

3 - Presentation Style

One of the great things about conferences is that each presenter will have a unique style, and you should work on developing your own. That said, there are many presenter's whose style is disengaging, frustrating and confusing for audiences so try to do some self-assessment to gaugue how well your style fits with these principles and think through what you could do to improve. Even when you become a seasoned presenter there will be space for improvement!

  • Communicate your point in the simplest, neatest way possible

  • Structure is important – let your audience know what to expect, recap before closing

  • Don’t use language that is too formal; try to be engaging and academically correct!

  • Free form talking rarely works if you are not an exceptionally accomplished presenter!

  • Use notes with bullet points and key information to keep you on track.

  • What sounds good on paper can sound pompous or over complex when spoken. Reading straight from your paper is almost always a mistake.

  • For scripted work, it takes approximately 2 minutes to read a typed, double spaced page.

  • Look at the audience! Make eye contact. Talk slowly. Stand up. Project and animate your voice. Act like you have all the confidence you don’t feel!

4 - Timing

Under no circumstances should you exceed your allotted time. Often the panel chair cuts down time for comment and discussion of your paper, but taking too much time will almost certainly mean another presenter loses time, or the panel runs over which the audience will find frustrating.

Build time markers into your script or presentation notes after each section. You will be able to track as you are talking if you fall behind, and you can think on your feet about what you can skip. Don’t simply read faster! You can always say to the audience you realise you are running behind so will skip a certain section, but would be happy to explain further during the discussion.

5 - Questions

Once your presentation ends you can take a breath of relief, but only momentarily because equally important is the discussion that follows. This will be your chance to get important feedback and you should tackle it head on. Be attentive, make notes and try to give a response to everyone, even if they give you a comment rather than a questio - this is a chance to show what kind of academic you are off script!

  • Write down questions and comments as people speak, and notes for responding

  • Be prepared for the dreaded ‘what is your research question?’

  • If there is something you are not confident to discuss, don’t put it in your audience’s mind by raising it!

Remember, challenging feedback is the lifeblood of productive research, so welcome difficult comments and if you can’t answer, thank the person for raising the issue and assure them you will consider it as you move forward. Stay calm and take your time!

6 - Technical Considerations

However well you prepare your presentation, you should also be mindful about it all flowing well on the day. Technology is improving and typically things work well at universities and conference centres but there will always be occasions when you face problems. Keep a spare copy of your presentation on a memory stick, and have a print out (or two) of your notes. If you are planning to use your laptop, make sure you have appropriate adaptors. Make sure you know which room you will present in, try to check it out before your session, and then arrive early to set up. Time wasted on IT issues will be lost from your presentation and discussion time.


Key mistakes women make in academic settings

Jeannie Holstein writes for the Guardian 'How to Make the Most of Academic Conferences - Five Tips'

Chad Orzel writes for Forbes, 'Going to an Academic Conference? Here are Some Tips?

Alexandru Cernat writes for Understanding Society a 'First Timers Guide to Academic Conferences'

Pete Etchells writes for Scientific American A 'PhD's Guide to Academic Conferences'