Conference Presentations

The Art of Giving Conference Presentations

Conferences are one of the most important stepping stones for those looking for a career in academia. Just attending gives students the chance to meet people who share their academic interests and to find out what's going on in their field. But, if they're lucky, students aren't just watching presentations-they're also giving them. While this is a big opportunity for undergraduates and graduate students alike, the task of preparing and giving a talk is usually difficult.

What Goes in a Conference Presentation?

The exact style of a conference presentation or talk will vary from discipline to discipline, but the general idea is the same. Presenters have a short amount of time-anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, usually-to tell the audience about their work. In some fields it's common to just read from a research paper, but often the presenter will need to write a talk that's specifically designed for that conference.

Conference Proposals

In order to have to the opportunity to give a conference presentation, first you need to submit a proposal, which is a short (500-1500 word) summary of what you would talk about in your presentation. While it might seem like this step isn't a big deal, a well-written proposal is absolutely necessary if you want to present at conferences. There will likely be dozens or hundreds of other people all vying to present, and your proposal is what will get your foot in the door.
A good conference proposal will capture the reader's attention quickly and use that short amount of space to succinctly explain why your work deserves the chance to be heard. You should explain your research question and how it fits into the current research landscape and also your primary results. Make sure you're very clear about what your results are and why they're important-if you want you can even use that as the very first sentence of your proposal. Remember, you want to stand out, which means you should wow the reader without making them work hard.

You've Been Accepted - Now What?

Once you've been accepted it's time to write your talk. Focus on keeping your paper focused and easy to understand. It's always better to take a narrow topic, for example a single result you've found, and take the time to really explore it deeply than to give a talk that just brushes the surface of a lot of different topics. Below are some tips to help you prepare a successful presentation.

Keep it simple, stupid

This age-old acronym, KISS, is especially apt for conference presentations. Because people are going to be listening to your speech, not reading it, it's important that you keep your information simple and straightforward. If you ask the audience to follow along with complex sentences or keep up with overly intricate figures, they'll get confused and not pick up the main ideas of your talk. Also keep in mind that you're likely to have a range of expertise in your audience, so not everyone is going to understand if you immediately jump to complicated ideas without laying the foundation first.

Forecast, explain, and summarize

Because people listen differently than they read, it's your job at the presenter to make it as easy as possible for the audience to understand and remember your work. To help them along, use the forecast, explain, and summarize model. Start your talk by telling them what you're going to say (forecasting), then say it (explain). Finally, sum up what you've just told them (summarize). On paper this can look overly repetitive, but to those listening it will reinforce your ideas and make them easy to remember.

Organization

In general, talks should be organized a lot like a research paper. Start by giving a (brief) overview of your topic, then introduce your research question and methodology. Finish by giving a (brief) overview of your results and discussing their importance. Once you're comfortable with speaking about your work, you can vary move away from this style if you want, but always keep in mind that you want the organization of your work to be as straightforward as possible.

Know your audience

Tailor your talk to fit the needs of your audience. If you're presenting at an interdisciplinary conference or to people outside your field, make sure you explain terms and concepts clearly. On the other hand, if you're attending a conference devoted to a particular niche or subfield, it's safe to assume that your audience will already be familiar with most of the terms, which means you don't need to waste time explaining them.

Slides

These days it's common for speakers to have PowerPoint slides that accompany their talk. These visuals can help you hold the audience's attention and explain complicated idea, e.g., using graphs or illustrations. However, slides shouldn't be used a crutch or to help you remember what you plan to say. If you need notes, keep them on the computer screen or on index cards, not on your slides. A good rule of thumb is that you should have one main point per slide and no more than ten words of text. This means no long quotations or extensive bulleted lists. If you put lots of text on the slide, no one is going to read it, and you're going to lose the audience's attention.

Practice, practice, then practice some more

Students often think that just writing their talk down is enough preparation, but getting up on that stage without having practiced will likely end in disaster. For one thing, there's no way to know how long your talk is going to be unless you practice, which means you run the risk of ending up too short or, more likely, going over your allotted time. Plus practice will make you more comfortable with your material so that, if something goes wrong, you're prepared and can make needed adjustments.

Be prepared for questions

If you've done your job well, the audience will be engaged with your ideas and want to ask questions when the talk is over. Prepare for this as part of your practice sessions. Think about what people are likely to ask or have a colleague do a practice Q & A with you.

Giving the Talk

The same rules that apply to any kind of public speaking will also hold true for conference presentations.

Always introduce yourself

Get your audience's attention right from the beginning by clearly stating who you are, what institution your with, and what topic you'll be covering. Even if you were introduced beforehand, it's important to reinforce this for the audience.

Speak slowly and clearly

It won't matter how good your speech is if you're nervous and rush through the material, since no one will understand you. So, take your time. If you think you sound too slow, then you're probably speaking at just the right speed. And remember to take pauses-they'll give you time to think and will help guide the audience.

Don't fidget

This one is hard for everyone, particularly if you're a nervous public speaker, but it's also one of the most important public speaking rules. Don't rock back and forth, twirl your hair, or tap a pencil-all of those things will distract the audience and prevent you from getting your point across.
There aren't very many people out there who really enjoy this type of public speaking, so don't feel bad if you're uncomfortable or nervous. Those feelings are perfectly natural, and the only way to get rid of them is simply to do lots of public speaking. With practice you'll find your conference presentations will improve and impress.
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