Participating in a regional or national conference provides you with a number of professional benefits, including further exploring your research agenda while getting immediate feedback from other scholars in the field. It’s also a perfect opportunity to network and connect with others who have similar interests. Good presentations share a number of key features: They follow the disciplinary format (or the format determined by conference organizers), make good use of simple visuals, and are well organized and presented in an interesting, engaging way. And good presenters are enthusiastic about the topic they’re presenting. Their purpose isn’t to impress; it’s to communicate clearly and understandably to others about the topic at hand.
Effective presentations have a clear narrative and an easy-to-follow structure. The structure of your talk depends on disciplinary norms but, in general, a good presentation includes three parts: an overview or introduction, the body of the talk, and a summary or conclusion. The overview tells your audience why your research matters and what you’ll cover in the next 15-17 minutes. The body of your talk clarifies your research questions, explains your methodology, and discusses the findings of your research. Finally, in the conclusion, the “take away” message should be clear. Wrap up your 20 minutes with a concise statement of what you’ve just presented.
After you write your talk, practice, practice, practice. Read the talk aloud, and listen to yourself speak. Are you using complex sentences that are hard to follow? Is the rhythm awkward or difficult to listen to? Are you enthusiastic? Is the point of your work unclear? Sometimes a talk will read well silently, but a number of challenges become apparent when it’s read aloud.
Next, practice your speech. Become comfortable with the words and time your presentation so you’re aware of how much time you have at any given point. Know where your major and your minor points fall so, if you find you’re running out of time, you’ll know which points you can omit or gloss over. Enlist the help of trusted colleagues to give you constructive feedback during a practice run.
Finally, envision the presentation. If the room has a setup that lets you get out from behind the podium, see if you can move while you speak. Keep hand gestures to a minimum (especially if you tend to move your hands more when you are nervous) and make eye contact with your audience. If you’re a nervous speaker, don’t hold papers or cards in your hands.
Walk confidently to the front of the room. Look squarely at your audience and take a deep breath. Begin by stating the purpose of your presentation, briefly telling your audience what your presentation is about. Then, review the literature and describe the methodology used to conduct the research. The bulk of your presentation should focus on your research results and your interpretations. Close with a brief summary, repeating the key points and invite the audience to ask questions.
Some speakers opt to use PowerPoint. If you do, aim for no more than one or two slides a minute. Remember, slides should support the key presentation points; don’t use them as a crutch. Slides should be light on text: Address one topic per slide, include only 4-5 bullet points per slide, and use six words or fewer per each bullet point. When possible, use images instead of text to support your narrative. Title your slides; also include credit and citations on each.
In some disciplines, conference papers are presented as part of a panel, with three to four presenters who talk for 20 minutes or more. Some disciplines prefer the talk be totally scripted and read off of a page. Papers may be circulated before the conference or they may be sent to the commentator so that comments and questions can be formulated beforehand. Other disciplines prefer talks that are well-rehearsed and presented in an extemporaneous manner. Be sure to check with your advisor or another graduate student who has previously attended the conference about your discipline’s standards. And follow the pre-conference deadline determined by the panel chair. Doing so marks you as a professional.
- Acknowledge the question (perhaps by saying “thank you”) or even by simply nodding and making eye contact with the questioner.
- Rephrase the question for the audience. You might say something like, “Let me see if I understand your question. You’re asking . . . . Right?” This gives you time to think about your response, allows you to check that you’ve understood the question, and also provides the opportunity for you to reframe it if necessary.
- Briefly answer the question. Your directness will be appreciated by both the audience and the other panelists.
Occasionally, you’ll receive questions that don’t relate to your research or that are intended to show the intelligence of the questioner. In these cases, it’s best to acknowledge the question, rephrase it, and put the conversation back on track. Do this quickly, and open the floor up for more questions.
Think of the best presenters you've heard. Most likely, the presenter did not read the entire presentation. Instead, she made eye contact with the audience and made good use of the floor space (but didn't pace). She probably used some humor, moderated her voice to convey enthusiasm, paused for emphasis, and used appropriate gestures. If you've prepared and practiced, you can be yourself and have fun. You can deliver a great presentation, too!