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Presentation 101: How to stand out at academic conferences

Even seasoned public speakers are not immune to pre-stage jitters before an important presentation. By taking the time to prepare in depth before you go on stage, you’ll minimize your nerves and increase your chances of your presentation going smoothly. Follow these tips to head to your next speech with confidence:

  1. Do your homework: Research previous speakers from the conference you’re attending and, when possible, watch video streams of their presentations to get a feeling for the conference space itself. While you’re watching these videos, jot down notes on what the presenters did well or poorly and use this for reference for your own preparation.
  2. Check out your field: Once you’ve researched the conference itself, find examples of excellent speakers in your discipline and, if you can, get your hands on their presentations. Use this as inspiration for the layout and structure for your own presentation, such as how much information to include on each slide, for example.
  3. Stick to the guidelines: Every conference has its own set of guidelines that you’ll have to follow, including time, subject and language. Read these carefully at the beginning of your preparation and always keep them in mind when you’re getting your talk ready.
  4. Less is more: Don’t try and jam-pack your presentation with too much content, both on the slides themselves and in your speech. Your audience won’t be able to follow if you rush through your speech, and including as much information as possible on your slides will likely result in a sea of glazed eyes looking up at you from the audience. Finally, going over time is always a guaranteed way to irritate both conference attendees and your fellow speakers, so be respectful of the time limit. 
  5. A picture is worth a thousand words: Graphics will break up your presentation and help you show, rather than tell, key messages. To keep your audience engaged, try and balance slides that are more text-heavy with ones that are more visual.
  6. Repeat key points: Conferences entail long days that are jam-packed with information. Your audience has likely already listened to hours of speeches in quick succession, so their concentration may not be at its sharpest by the time you get onstage. To avoid important findings being lost over the course of your presentation, don’t be afraid to reiterate points and include phrases such as ‘to sum up’. This will ensure your work is getting across in a clear and concise manner.
  7. Practice, practice, practice: Find a trusted advisor in your department or someone you admire in your field and rehearse your presentation with them. Ask them to provide feedback on any parts that were difficult to follow or unanswered questions your presentation raised. While you can’t cover everything in your talk, this can also be a helpful way to decide on questions to spark a discussion as it concludes.
  8. Design matters: Putting a bit of effort into the design of your presentation can make a world of difference for your audience. If you’re not a PowerPoint wizard yourself, consider asking a designer to briefly review your presentation to ensure the formatting and color scheme is aesthetically pleasing. Websites such as Fiverr are a handy way to find freelance designers who won’t charge you the world.
  9. Encourage discussion: As mentioned earlier, a great way to engage with your audience is to end your presentation with a discussion question. Ideally, target a topic that is somewhat controversial or divides people to encourage a lively debate. Also, remind your audience that they can always approach you after your speech if they would like to continue the conversation.
  10. Triple-check your suitcase: This may seem like a no-brainer, but there’s nothing worse than being stressed out last-minute because you’ve forgotten something you need for your presentation. As we mentioned in a previous post, write out a list of essentials for your trip and, most importantly, remember to check the AV requirements to see if you need to bring an adapter or any other technical equipment. 

Image credit: MIT OEIT

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