Are you preparing to give your first talk at a scientific conference? Or perhaps you are a more seasoned scholar wishing to polish your presentation skills? In this blog post, I give some pointers on how to give a good conference presentation. In all honesty, I also share some opinions on what not to do in case you don`t want your audience to loll into sweet daydreaming or leave your talk with a heightened blood pressure.
This post is mainly attuned to the Covid-reality of Zoom-congresses and inspired by my summer spent in conferences of three different disciplines -psychology, information systems, and literary studies. Keep in mind that as this is my personal website, this is not a comprehensive all-inclusive guide to the art of conference talks. The text is shamelessly colored by my very own opinions and preferences regarding how to give a good conference presentation.
In-person and Zoom Conferences -Basics of the Setting
While the content of your presentation comes first, the setting of your speech has a huge influence on you and your audience.
Some quick key points regarding the setting of an in-person, physical conference:
- Get to know the location and the physical setting of your presentation as soon as possible.
- Familiarize yourself with the technology: Can you share the power point presentation (for goodness sake, you were going to make one, right? Right?!) or are they shared centrally, e.g. by the technical assistant of your session? Do you need to use a microphone and if yes, can you use it? Where should you stand (or sit) in order for your audience to see you as well as possible?
- When you give your presentation, acknowledge the presence of your audience first: Eye contact, thanks for them being there, presenting yourself. Keep acknowledging them throughout your talk -you are not mumbling in a vacuum here- and also at the end of it. If looking at the audience terrifies you, sharpen your eyes just above the heads of the people in the front row. In a bigger conference room, nobody will be able to tell whether you are looking at the people or not. If you know there is someone in the audience providing you with a reassuring smile, such as a friendly colleague, you can make eye contact with them. Otherwise, if you`re shy, just keep the gaze not fixed on anyone specific but let it hover above the audience.
- Pay attention to how you stand (or sit, if you for physical reasons cannot stand). Keep your back straight, shoulders down, chin up, and arms open. Don`t lean towards tables or chairs and don`t turn your back to the audience. You can use the physical space by walking or changing your position during the speech. However, avoid restless pacing back and forth in front of your audience.
Quick key points regarding the setting of an online conference:
- You have the chance to choose where you give your speech. Choose wisely. Home or office, or some other location altogether?
- Make sure that the technology works and you`re able to use all the necessary platforms and applications relevant to the conference.
- Test your audio and video beforehand.
- Even if you would otherwise be chilling in your armchair following the conference or lie on your stomach in the bed, make the setting for your presentation pleasantly professional. Often, standing instead of sitting gives you a nicer posture and a more self-confident feeling. Standing also allows you to use your hands in a more expressive manner.
- Make sure that there is enough light when you give your presentation, and no shadows covering your face or creating odd effects. Show your head and a bit of the upper body for the camera -thus, preferably, put more than just your head into the frame.
How to Give a Good Conference Presentation: Time is Money, Don`t Be a Thief
A tired chair of the session, with a tone implying he/she has said this same thing for about 59 times the past months: “Dear X, your time is out.”
Astonished speaker: “Oh, I would have had one more slide to show the points I really wanted to share with you” (after having spent his/her entire time slot merely introducing the topic and never getting to the point).
This is a dialogue I have heard so many times in physical and online conferences that I`ve lost count. In almost every session, there is at least one speaker who gives an introductory talk of 13 minutes and, if they happen to realize they are running out of time, spend the last two minutes skipping through 400 slides to show “what they actually really wanted to share”. Or, if they are not aware of running out of time, the chair will remind them they have to stop. To this, they respond in either of two ways.
They might just keep talking, as if the chair is just an annoying obstacle trying to ruin their show and not the time manager of the whole session. Alternatively, they respond by rushing through to the actual core message of their presentation. The first option is a form of extreme academic arrogance, where the speaker thinks that their chance to speak is more important than that of the others. If one person does not stay in schedule, in the worst case, the whole session becomes a chaotic running after the clock, a series of shrunk fast-forward presentations to make up for the time spend on the one person who would not stay within the limits of their allotted time slot.
Practicing and Timing Makes You Perfect
It`s incredible that I feel the need to say this to a readership that I assume consists of smart, educated, polite people interested and involved in academia, but apparently I do: Practice your presentation beforehand, with a timer. Don`t just assume that having a presentation of so and so many slides takes a certain amount of time. Remember that you will probably (hopefully!) not only read aloud your slides but introduce yourself and talk around your slides. What you have on the power point is not supposed to be the full manuscript of what you say (more of this later).
Take out the timer of your mobile phone and push the button, then speak your presentation aloud in the way you would at the actual conference. Keep checking the timing as you go, and make changes in your presentation accordingly. Talking less than your allotted 15 or 20 minutes is never a bad thing, going over the limit is impolite and selfish.
When you give your presentation at the conference, keep checking the time. Sometimes the organic nature of the actual presentation situation might take you by surprise and you end up talking more or less, faster or slower, than when you rehearsed. Don`t wrap up 10 seconds before your time is up, but a little bit before that. And if it so happens that the chair nudges you that your time is used, do not go on after that, at least for more than a couple of dozen seconds in case you absolutely need to vocalize a key point of your talk. Then apologize, thank your audience, and stop. Remember -this is not an encouragement to keep talking until the chair person intervenes. This is a gentle suggestion of what to do if it so happens that you`re overtime, despite trying hard not to be. All in all, a key secret in how to give a good conference presentation is knowing when to stop talking.
Articulation and Pronunciation is Not beyond Science
Everyone who has ever visited a scientific conference has probably participated in a session or workshop, or listened to a keynote talk, where the speaker is a super professional with interesting and relevant research to show, but you can barely understand what they`re saying. I`m writing about this even if I assume some people might intentionally decide to get offended and read me as saying something I am definitely not saying. How to give a good conference presentation has a lot to do with the how you speak and less than you might imagine with the what you speak.
Academic communities are large and international, and in the increasingly diverse conference venues, English is often not the first language of the participants. Most of us have an accent, and that is beautiful and okay. Personally, I speak with a Scandinavian accent combined either with an American or a British English version of English, depending on my humor and the speaking context. That being said, delivering a presentation in a way that allows your audience to actually understand and enjoy what you`re saying is not some supra-academic extra quality you can add to to the presentation just to be fancy. Communicating clearly is part and parcel of your scientific skillset.
It`s important to keep in mind that one can be a native English speaker and deliver a talk consisting of incomprehensible mumbling, half-swallowed words, and utterly butchered non-English expressions. One can just as well be of any national and ethnic background, have a limited English capacity, and yet, succeed in talking in a clear and accessible way. Back in my Bachelor`s degree studies, there was a lecturer at the university who would talk about political science and pronounce “democracy” as “demo-crazy“. Is that a lack of paying attention to other people`s talks and noticing how the word is actually pronounced or just simple laziness in making sure that you have got at least the keywords correct? Who knows, but I think demo-crazies can be, for the most, avoided.
We are not talking only about correct pronunciation here. Oxford English is not the goal, but delivering a talk that helps your audience to focus on the content of what you`re saying instead of struggling to decode the medium. As academics we are communicators. We communicate to each other within and beyond the boundaries of our home discipline(s) as well as with the “laypeople”. A conference presentation where the speaker articulates clearly, speaks not too slowly nor too fast, has attempted to find out how words are pronounced, and makes an attempt not to read out the slides but to talk to actual living beings in the audience is always a pleasure, no matter how non-native the English sounds.
How to Give a Good Conference Presentation: Talking Practice Tips
- Make a video- or audio recording of yourself giving your presentation, preferably a video. Pay attention to how you sound. You can even ask a friend or a colleague to look/listen to it and give you feedback. Are you clear? Are you speaking at a convenient speed? Is it possible to understand what you`re saying even without looking at the slides? Are you sounding like a pre-recorded artificial intelligence giving instructions on an application or does your speech have variations in tonality? Can one understand you without seeing your mouth move? Do you leave enough pauses for the audience to take in what you have said? All these are important points to take into account while preparing the how of your presentation -not less important than the what, the content part of it.
- Search e.g. on YouTube different researchers giving conference or other talks and pay attention to how they speak. Sensitize yourself to aspects such as intonation, pace, and articulation. Decide what you like and try if you could adopt some of it into your own way of speaking.
- In the next opportunity, ask for a friendly conference presentation review from a colleague. Ask them to tell you honestly how you sound and what could be improved in your talking. Personally, I have had my partner, representing a completely different discipline, follow my presentations just because I wanted him to give me feedback. Am I precise? Am I clear? Was I inspiring? Keep in mind that sometimes, having someone tell you unpleasant things is the best thing that can happen for you to learn how to give a good conference presentation.
- If your conference presentation is recorded, find out how you can get to see and listen to it. This exercise can be painful, but will teach you more of your ways of presenting than any external feedback ever will.
The Power-Point Presentation is not a Manuscript
Making a nice power point presentation can be a challenging task. In terms of the key points of how to give a good conference presentation, the thing to keep in mind is that if you want to write a whole ready-made speech for yourself to be read aloud (which I don`t think is a good idea, unless we`re talking about an actual keynote speech), make it a separate document. Power point slides are not the platform for a manuscript. Write as little as possible, and make it bullet points, not whole sentences. Highlight the most important words and concepts. Use graphics and pictures to support your message, not to replace it.
Do not read aloud simply what you have written on the slides, but talk around the key points presented there. It is incredibly difficult to read full sentences in the power point slides at the same time when listening to someone talk. Also, hearing someone read aloud the same sentences that are written on the power point is just boring.
Again: Practice your presentation beforehand. If you want to make yourself notes that you can look at while showing your slides, make sure you can also deliver your presentation without looking at them all the time. Even if the audience would not see you, they can hear whether you`re speaking spontaneously or reading directly from a text, and the latter is extremely boring and uninspiring to listen to. You`re the expert of the topic of your talk; you`re not just the voice hired to read aloud a text. Personally, I will rather listen to a speaker that searches for words or loses the track of his/her thoughts for a couple of seconds when searching for the next thing they were going to say, rather than a speaker who reads aloud a pre-written text sentence by sentence. In the case of the robot-reader, I just dose off and think about other things, to be honest.
How to give a good conference presentation: Make a nice power point presentation but do not hide behind it in any sense of the word.
How to Give a Good Conference Presentation is All About Being a Professional, not a Besserwisser
Roughly speaking, annoying academics in conferences can be put into two categories. No, actually, let me rephrase that -there is just one category. This nerve-racking class consists of the Besserwissers. These all-knowing wanna-be-experts give their talk in a manner oozing intellectual authority and arrogance, nitpick their colleagues, and when in the audience, make irrelevant questions designed to show off their superiority or advertise their own papers. Inside a Besserwisser there resides a very fearful and insecure individual who, after the conference day is over, will retreat to their room and get drunk with whatever their hotel room minibar offers. They will have a legit binge of Ben&Jerry`s ice-cream directly from the box, and cry over the phone to their momma what an utter failure they are in life.
No, not really. That is just me entertaining a vision that would render a Besserwisser a degree of humanity they otherwise seem to lack.
My point is that the attitude with which you give your presentation is what people will remember from it better than any scientific detail. It is your character that draws them to talk to you in the breaks and suggest a collaboration. Hence, it is also academically more productive to come across as a nice human being than something else.
Then again, being aware of the percentage of not so nice but yet successful humans in academia, I`m wondering if I just have you some bad piece of advice.
However, I insist that coming across as self-confident without being arrogant and appearing friendly without looking like a doormat is a good skill in any situation where you want to make a good impression of yourself. This is also true in our discussion on how to give a good conference presentation. It`s infinitely more pleasant to listen to someone who has a down-to-earth attitude to their own work and an open curiosity to the work of others, and who manages to relate to their audience in a friendly, collaborative manner, than to someone who thinks a conference presentation is a self-advertising arena or a guillotine where everyone else has gathered there just to witness one`s slow and humiliating death.
Be a Person(ality), not a Bore
The psychologist in me has spent quite a while observing how many university people seem to start developing a university persona, some right from the beginning from their PhD journey, some when they land on their first postdoc. What kind of a university persona they try to embody depends on the discipline and on the surrounding society and culture. It is a distinctive collection of whatever aspects of one`s habitus are considered signs of intelligence and status in a specific context. For a Humanist, there might be a chance they are going after the look of a book-devouring radical intellectual who can recite their Lucy Irigarays and Donna Haraways even if woken up in the middle of the night. The stylistic characteristics of this look are clear and distinctive, although have changed slightly since my days of studying Comparative Literature in the mid 2000`s at the University of Helsinki.
I am not saying that building a persona that looks like whatever is considered a smart and skillful person`s look in a specific context is a distinctively academic act. Already at the mid to late phases of my Master`s studies in Psychology, some classmates started adopting a look they thought embodies what a good clinical psychologist is supposed to look like. Usually this psychologist look, whether performed by not-yet-ready students or more seasoned clinicians, consists (or consisted, my days in the clinical fields are behind) of anonymous eyeglasses, neutral and natural colors, vast cardigans, and the clear attempt to not use too much make-up or look too business-like or posh.
Personally, I never went after for a profession-adequate look, and I don`t think it has ever worked against me. Just like the clients and patients would more easily relate to and trust a psychologist who looks and acts like a real human being (as opposed to a real human being who desperately tries to look and act like a psychologist), also conference audiences see through any attempt to fit into the crowd or make yourself into a discipline-relevant hip and cool character.
Yes, whether it is what you wear or how you act, be yourself first. Whether you are downplaying your personality to look like a true old-fashioned dry academic should, or dressing up to a hip version of your discipline`s hottest rockstars of the moment, chances are it is not working for your favor. Nothing is as fantastic in a conference as listening to a person who is comfortable in their own skin and genuinely likes themselves, not trying to embody or enact anyone else. A genuine, interesting personality giving a talk can get me interested about something I never found fascinating before. Previously, I have written about how to be a kick-ass unique female professional here (go and scroll down to the videos if you want to see some uniquely charismatic female professionals show their captivating speaker-presence). Also this post by Professor Francesco Lelli, summarizing the key points of a video by Patrick Winston, can inspire you to make a nice presentation that lets your personality shine through.
How to Give a Good Conference Presentation – By Remembering It`s Just a Conference Presentation
Sooner or later, everyone giving conference presentations will hit the low point in their congress career. It doesn`t need to be a complete flop of a presentation where your power points vanish into thin air mid-talk, then your computer explodes, and while putting out the fire, you realize you gave the talk you managed to give while having a huge food stain in the middle of your shirt. Perhaps it`s just that you get stuck with your hairdo in the microphone headset and lose half of your hair while ripping the headset off to hand it to the next speaker (this happened to me). Perhaps you have a Besserwisser in the audience making sure that you will doubt the validity of your research for five years after getting your degree. Whatever the case may be, having some healthy perspective will not do any harm. In the end, you learn how to give a good conference presentation by having some less successful experiences.
Many people listening to your presentation will not remember anything about it tomorrow. Many people listening to your presentation are not, frankly speaking, not even that interested in it -they just pretend to be, because they are polite. Largely, the audience is either anxiously preparing for their own presentation or recovering from it in a complete lowering-my-adrenaline-levels mental smog. Usually, your audience members don’t care about anyone else’s presentations than that of their own.
A conference is not a place where your validity and importance as a researcher is somehow collectively decided. You will enjoy and benefit more if you take it as a chance to get to learn about the state of the art in a particular discipline and make new connections with people as well as get some experience in talking to academic audiences. Giving a presentation is a chance to learn: It will help you formulate the key ideas of your research in a clear and concise manner as well as give the chance to get some useful feedback. Try and not to judge your presentation in terms of how it went (the possible answers usually representing a dichotomy of okay vs. terrible) but in terms of what you learnt. Even the sharpest criticism can -sometimes with a lot of mental effort- be turned into something useful, a learning experience. And if not, follow the advice of the team leader in one of my previous research projects: Ignore mode on!