Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Ten tips for (novice) conference presenters

A presentation to a farmer group on the Aran Islands on a wonderful summer's evening.
Not all presentations require slides!
Having recently attended a number of major international conference, I’ve seen a lot of good and not so good practices. If you are a novice presenter and willing to learn, here are a few pieces of advice, and some relevant further reading...

1.  Know your main message. Communicate your main message, and repeat it for emphasis. Ensure that the audience receives your main message. Again, the the most important point here is that your presentation (and you) actually has a main message – I’ve attended a few talks in which I don’t think the speaker knew their own main message (and neither did I). A good sign that you don’t have a main message is when you have three finishing slides called Conclusions 1, Conclusions 2 and Conclusions 3! And why not finish with a tweetable 140 character summary of your work? (latter two points from @entoprof)

2.  Familiarise yourself with your environment. This includes the room, the pointer, the screen, the lighting etc. Check that fonts, formatting and any animations are compatible with the local software/hardware – long before your talk begins. Larger conferences often have a dedicated room where you can upload and check this. Even if there is not a dedicated room, use the time during the coffee or lunch breaks to familiarise yourself with the room and the equipment. Have a glass of water poured and nearby the lectern (and away from electronics!).

3.  Introduce yourself to the session chairman well in advance of the session. Don’t leave them guessing until the last moment about whether or not you are attending, whether you are in the room, or whether you’ve uploaded your presentation.

4.  Include your Twitter handle/blog address, and keep it apparent on a few consecutive slides where people can get enough time to record/type it.

5.  This is especially for novice presenters: spend less time on your background and methods, and more time on your results and why they are important/influential. This is extremely important when the amount of time spent on methods starts threatening the time that’s available to present the results – this happens far too often. Looking at experienced presenters at plenary talks, they spend the minimum of time on methods, and most of their time on results and the impact of their results.

6.  Take time to explain your main points/results/figures/graphs. You may be familiar with them, but the audience is not.
Rehearse your talk in front of people who have not seen your talk before, and ask them questions about your main points/results/figures/graphs. You'll very quickly discover that they will not quite understand you in the way that you expect! This can happen to the best of presenters – which is why the best of presenters always spend a lot of time preparing.
You should never have to begin your explanation of a slide with an apology- this is a sign that something is wrong, which is also sign that something needs to be fixed. The most common apologies are: “I know there is too much text on this slide but…”, “I know that there is a lot going on in this table, but…”, and “It’s not so clear here, but…”.

7.  Don't run out of time at the expense of your most important messages. As a presenter, this is a wasted opportunity for your work and you to make on impression on the audience. As an audience, it is a waste of our time.
If time is tight, then make sure you prioritise your most important points, and that they appear well before, for example, the 10-minute mark of a 12-minute presentation. If you do run out of time, be very clear (beforehand) about which slides you will sacrifice toward the end, without compromising your main message.

8.  Leave time for questions -questions from the audience are your most important reward for presenting. Questions and comments from your audience represent a wonderful opportunity to receive feedback from other experts.

9.  Don't interrupt someone who is asking a question. This is surprisingly common. The longer you let the questioner talk, the more likely they are to further develop, explain and even paraphrase their question. This helps you to understand their question, and gives you more time to consider a response. Let the person finish their question in its entirety before you say anything- and then give yourself a few seconds of silence to think. If it helps your answer, then go to the slide that addresses the question – not everyone will remember it, and it will almost certainly assist your answer. In addition, you should be able to anticipate some questions, so why not have a few additional slides that you don’t present in the main talk, but that you can refer to if needed?

10.  Make sure that your last slide contains your main conclusions (which should reflect your main message – see point 1). While the chairman intervenes to ask the audience for questions, your main points will remain up on the screen and be reinforced, as well as being a good prompt for questions from the audience. This is far better than leaving the acknowledgements slide on-screen. You can provide acknowledgements somewhere else in your presentation. Lately, I provide acknowledgements as my second slide (after the title), and get them out of the way as part of some introductory comments.

PhD Skill: Conference presentations are a wonderful opportunity to impress others with your work and your skills. Prepare and practice, and make the most of the 15 or 20 minutes when you are centre stage. 

Further online reading
How to Be a Successful Speaker at a Conference: Advice from the Experts (blog post from Search Engine Journal). This is a great resource with three tips from each of several different experienced presenters. A must-read!

DonnaM. 10 tips for conference presentations. A great blog post. 

Sharon Goldwater. Advice on designing and giving presentations (Especially conference presentations). Also includes some other useful links and some specific examples.

Get a life, PhD (blog). How to Give a Fabulous Academic Presentation: Five Tips to Follow

UPDATE: Next Scientist. How to improve the Presentation Skills of PhD Students. Comprehensive treatment by Susanne Ulm - well worth a read, and very engaging.

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