Although attending conferences and presenting your work can be an excellent opportunity for networking, preparing to give an oral paper presentation to a room of unknown academics may seem like a daunting task.
1. Read the call for papers and all information sent from organisers
The call for papers will generally tell you how long your presentation should be and whether or not there is anytime allocated for questions. Usually talks are between 10 and 20 minutes, and in most cases, you will have at least 5 minutes for questions.
Often, follow up emails will let you know what session you will be in, whether or not the organisers expect a written version of your paper to be sent, the availability of technology, and whether or not they wish for slides to be emailed beforehand, or if you should bring them on a memory stick.
2. Plan your paper
You won’t have time to discuss your full paper. So choose a theme/ research question that you want to focus on, and stick to it. However, you should always dedicate at least a couple of minutes to offering a general overview to your project so that your audience can understand the context to your research.
Even though your conference paper will read differently to a written paper, don’t forget about having a clear structure. Take your audience members on a journey, and remember to always summarise and reiterate your central argument throughout.
3. Write your paper
As a general rule of thumb, a good, clear speaking speed would equate to around 2,000 words every 15 minutes (1300 for 10 minutes, 2600 for 20). If you’re writing your presentation as a mini paper (even if you don’t need to submit it, this is always useful in case you wish to expand it into an article or chapter later), make sure to stick within these word limits. Going under time has no real effects other than giving you less time to present your ideas. Going over time means you’ll be remembered for messing up everyone else’s timing, or even worse, for making everyone miss lunch!
Even if you usually speak much quicker in day-to-day conversation, stick to these limits. Your audience will be grateful for a slower speed as it enables them to better absorb the information.
Also remember, that an oral presentation shouldn’t sound like a journal article being read verbatim. You’ll generally need shorter sentences and less jargon than for a written article.
4. Design your presentation
Visual aids can be a great tool to back up your presentation, but only if used well. Don’t rely on large blocks of text – your audience will spend more time concentrating on what your slides say rather than what you say!
Slides should be visual aids – use photos and images, graphs and charts, or display lengthy quotes you don’t have time to read out.
Keywords and key references should be included, and it’s usually useful to have a slide outlining the structure of your talk.
5. Decide on crib notes, a full speech, neither or both
This is entirely your personal choice, and you may need to give a few presentations until you find out what works best for you.
While some people find a full speech negatively impacts their presentation skills, and makes it harder to engage with their audience, others find themselves getting lost and overly nervous with just bullet points and notes.
Often it can be best to write a full speech and practice with it, and reduce this to notes after you’re more confident with what you’re saying. Some people prefer to have no notes at all and use their slides as prompts to remind them of structure
6. Practice in front of someone
Try to get a friend or colleague to watch you and give feedback on the content, structure, visual aids and your presenting style.
When you’re doing this, it’s always best to have your slide show up so that you get used to changing slides without losing your stride. Make any changes suggested and have another go. Try it with a full written paper and with shorter notes to see what you prefer.
However, don’t practice so much that you end up memorising your entire presentation. Whilst this may seem tempting, in most cases, it will result in a dull and monotonous presentation style.
7. Be prepared on the day!
Don’t forget to bring your presentation with you! This includes any notes you have to speak from, as well as at least 2 electronic copies of the presentation. Save it on a memory stick, but also make sure to email yourself a version just in case any technical issues occur on the day.
Always turn up to your session 5 minutes early. Talk to the chair and ask how they will let you know about your time limit (usually a few cards with 5 mins, 2 mins and STOP). Talk to the other presenters as well – after all, if you’ve been put in the same session, it’s likely you have similar interests.
8. Speak clearly and to your audience!
Whilst speaking clearly is especially important for larger, international conferences, where English is unlikely to be everyone’s first language, if you’re too loud, too quiet, too fast, or too slow, your audience (no matter who they are) are going to find it difficult to follow what you’re saying.
If you find when practicing that you don’t always speak clearly, then leave yourself notes throughout to remind you on the day. No matter how perfect your practice attempts have gone, nerves will often get the better of you, and you may find yourself speeding up.
Also, try to make eye contact with your audience members as you speak. Its much easier to engage and pay attention to someone who doesn’t have their nose in their notes!
9. Expect Questions!
In most cases, there’ll be at least 1 question following your presentation (although don’t worry if there isn’t, sometimes people may just not think of anything, or the session may run out of time!). Questions are very difficult to prepare for as you can never know exactly who will be in your audience.
If you don’t understand the question, ask for it to be rephrased. If you can’t answer the question, don’t lie and try to make something up on the spot, it’s much better to explain that you haven’t yet looked at this, and to note it down as something to keep in mind for the future.
10. Enjoy it!
Don’t stress out about how many people turn up. There’s many reasons to get a small audience (none of which are because people don’t want to watch you!), and often smaller audiences result in more detailed discussions. Similarly, a packed room may seem daunting, but it’s great practice for any potential lecturing you may do in the future.
It doesn’t matter if things go wrong! You’ll probably forget to mention something, or you may have to stop a couple minutes short. But your audience don’t know this, so don’t worry! Presenting at conferences is always great for CVs, but no employer is going to call up an audience member to see how it went!
About the author:
Maddy is a PhD student in the Geography Department at Newcastle University. Her research is funded by the ESRC and uncovers the geographical imaginations of Filipino nursing students and graduates. This project explores how geographical imaginations can be understood as a determinant of migratory aspirations, and she is interviewing both aspiring migrants and aspiring stayers. Maddy also has a concern with the gender discourses surrounding Filipino nurses and Filipino nurse migrants. More broadly, she is interested in postcolonial and feminist geographies, social and cultural geography, and interdisciplinary migration research. Her interests include travel, music and rugby league.