Empty amphitheatre

How to present a conference paper

The conference season is coming up, so I thought that this might be a good time to go over some of the basics for academic presentations. In this post, I will share some advice about making the actual presentation, and next week, I’ll write about dealing with questions and feedback. The tips that follow are intended for people without much experience in academic conferencing, but more seasoned readers might want to read on, so that you may add to the points I made (or challenge them!)

Be prepared

  1. If you’re using a PowerPoint presentation, make sure you email a copy to the conference organisers, but carry a copy with you as well, just in case.
  2. Simple storage methods, such as a USB stick, are more reliable than sophisticated ones (Are you certain that there is internet access in the conference venue? Will the organisers’ firewall will let you access the Cloud?).

Know the lay of the land

  1. If possible, try to familiarise yourself with the venue where you are presenting. I prefer to arrive before the first session begins, while the room is still empty. This helps me to get a feel of the size and layout of the room, determine whether I can walk about, and find out what the ‘no go’ areas are, i.e., where I’d be obstructing the participants’ view or standing between the projector and the projection screen.
  2. Check whether your PowerPoint slides have been loaded onto the computer, and make sure they load properly. You don’t want reminders to register MS-Office or install critical updates popping up just as you are about to begin speaking (it happens more often than you think!). If you are provided with a remote clicker, familiarise yourself with the controls, and test its range. If you’re using your own clicker, this is the time plug it it and set it up.
  3. If you are speaking from a podium or a table with a fixed microphone, it’s a good idea to find out how to turn it on, and whether it is adjustable.

Get to know the panel chair

  1. The panel chair is responsible for introducing you to the audience, but you should not assume that they have been given all the information they need, so it’s a good idea to get in touch with them before the presentation. (Note to panel chairs: this is a great opportunity to ask how to pronounce presenters’ names!)
  2. While you’re talking, the chair will let you know when your time is running out, usually by holding out a paper sign. If you are concerned that you might not notice it, you could ask them to verbally remind you, or tap on the table.
  3. You should also discuss the practicalities of the question-and- answer session, such as who gets to nominate speakers, or whether follow-up comments will be allowed.

Ready to talk?

  1. Before you start talking, make sure that the microphone is switched on, and make any adjustments necessary. You should be able to speak to the microphone without leaning forward.
  2. Audiences are usually very sympathetic, so there really is no need to preface your talk with remarks such as “Please excuse my nervousness, this is my first conference” or “I apologise for not speaking English well enough”. Project confidence if possible; if not, pretend!
  3. Resist the tendency to gesture wildly. Hand gestures that are larger than the outline of your body make you appear nervous. You may find it easier to control you hand movements by resting your hands on the podium or table, by keeping one hand behind your back as you walk, or by having your palms face each other and touching at the fingertips.
  4. Make eye contact with the audience. You may find it helpful to focus on one individual at a time, mentally block the surroundings and pretend that you are talking to them alone. Continue looking for about as long as it takes to deliver a single sentence, or until you get a reaction (ideally a nod!), at which point you can move on to another ‘target’.
  5. Even if you are reading out of your notes, make sure you look up as much as possible. Try to look at your notes at the beginning of a sentence, but end the sentence with your eyes on the audience. Do not look down again until you have stopped speaking.
  6. Don’t be alarmed or disappointed if audience members stand up and walk out. It’s very common, especially if there are multiple sessions being held in parallel. For all it’s worth, I once had a full third of my audience leave the room (in my defence, it was lunchtime and a buffet was being offered outside).

Closing…

  1. Towards the end of your talk, the chair will start signalling that time is running out. You will usually get a first sign when you have five more minutes to go, and then again when you have two and/or one minute left. These signals are given to help you, and if you have timed your talk well you may find them reassuring. There is no need to panic, even if you can tell that you will need 1-2 minutes more than scheduled.
  2. On the other hand, if you find that have too much ground to cover, the five-minute signal is a warning to start skipping to the more important parts. By the time you get to the one-minute signal you should be ready to deliver your conclusion.
  3. Even if you feel you didn’t do as well as you would have liked, end off with your biggest smile! Nothing wins the hearts and minds of the audience faster than that.

When you have finished talking, the chair will most likely open the floor to questions. Surviving the discussion will be the topic of a subsequent post. Till next time, then!

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