Conference reflections: Preparing to present

Academic conferences are a huge part of research – they are where you share your research and get feedback from peers. A good conference leaves you feeling stimulated and psyched up to get back to your work, with new ideas and approaches and texts and people to email and things to read. And yet, there are horror stories of people’s conference experiences – particularly for post-graduates. You hear about the young researcher driven to tears by the zealous questioning of a single audience member who appears to know more and finds fault with the work. You hope that that is never you, and you prepare for your first conference with that image in mind – at least I know that I did.

I was incredibly lucky that my first conference was an AMPHORAE – an incredibly welcoming and relaxed post-graduate conference. Open minds, who were quick to point out that I did not need to apologise 20 times in my 20 minute presentation, as the research and reasoning were good. I’m not a natural presenter – the written word rather than the spoken is my forte – but I have come a long way from that first conference, and my last presentation contained no apologies at all!

So, here is my advice for those of you preparing for a conference – whether it is your 1st or 500th:

1. Start with the point you intend to make. Once you decide on the main message of your presentation, then the details you add will help you shape that message. If you don’t know what your message is, your presentation will be descriptive, not analytical, and the details won’t fit together for your audience.

2. Structure your presentation for a listener, not a reader. With a presentation, the audience do not have the option to flip back to the previous point and remind themselves of what you’ve said, so it is often necessary to remind them. It is usually expected that you will tell the audience what you are going to say at the beginning, give them the examples and evidence you told them you would in the middle, and then remind them of what you’ve said at the end.

3. Write more than you need. Although you have a limited time for presenting, and need to select your evidence clearly, most people talk faster when they get nervous and most people get nervous presenting. If you practice your paper and it comes out on time, write a bit more! Generally, 3,000 words will end up becoming a 20 minute presentation.

4. Design your slides well. Almost everyone does a PowerPoint presentation of some description these days, and yet some slides are still terrible. As David JP Philips says in this TED Talk, YOU should be the focus of your presentation, not your slides. Keep the font size large, the amount of writing small, and use the built in features to help your audience follow what you are saying. A dark background with off-white, grey or beige texts is also easier to look at than a glaring white background with dark text.

How to avoid death By PowerPoint | David JP Phillips | TEDxStockholmSalon

5. Be the expert. Your presentation is about your research – something you have been looking at in detail, and know better than you think. Even if your audience contains a scholar whose work is important to your research, they haven’t looked at the evidence the same way you have, to research the same conclusion as you. Be proud of the work you have done and take confidence in the fact that you know what you are talking about.

6. It’s okay to not know. I always get nervous about the questions at the end of my presentation, worrying that I won’t know the answer. This anxiety definitely lessened when I realised it’s okay if I don’t. If I know the answer, great. If not, I admit that as well – usually not as bluntly as saying I have no freaking idea! Instead, “I hadn’t thought about that. That’s a really interesting point and I’ll have to look into it” or “I wasn’t aware of that text. Can we talk about it more in the break/over lunch?” You may find that your audience respects you more when you acknowledge the gap in your knowledge, and you’ll walk away with more ideas than you started with.

7. Include your translation. When you are including the Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, or other language in your presentation, make sure that you include the translation on your slides or handout. This makes your presentation accessible to people who are interested but might not have the language skills needed to translate off the top of their head. You can also include any words you think you might mis-pronounce, so your audience knows what you intended to say!

Remember, conferences are made up of people who are just as passionate about your topic as you are. They want to hear what you have to say and share their knowledge with you.

– Aimee Turner