11 Tips for presenting at a conference

9 minute read

How to deliver an effective conference presentation (and beat those presenting nerves).

Presenting at a conference is a core part of scientific communication for any researcher or academic. Finding the right conference with the right audience and successfully communicating your latest findings is a great way to enhance your career prospects and, in turn, learn about the newest developments in your research field.

Before we jump in, an important note on fake conferences. There has been a growth in the number of predatory conferences in recent years, so before you register to attend and present your work at any conference, familiarise yourself with ways to tell a predatory conference from a legitimate one.    

Developing a conference presentation is no different to developing any other presentation – you need to be well prepared, consistent throughout and ensure you’re able to resonate with your audience.

One of the biggest challenges in giving a good presentation is managing your nerves. Even the most experienced and respected speakers and performers get a bundle of nerves before they start, so you’re in good company. The good news is that the techniques of an effective presenter can be practised. So how can this be accomplished? Here are 11 tips that will help you give an effective conference presentation.

1. Don’t touch that slide deck just yet

The first thing you need to know about creating an effective conference presentation is not to dive head first into your slides.

It’s hard to beat the feeling of getting an email letting you know that the proposal you worked tirelessly on for a conference has been accepted. Finding out that your work has been well received by a committee can mean a huge amount, especially when you’re driven by your passion for it, like the majority of researchers out there.

So it’s super easy to just start adding slide after slide to your presentation. When I first presented at a conference, I ended up with 40 slides for a 15-minute presentation. I was lucky enough to be working with some more experienced researchers that reeled in my confusing and inconsistent slides.

I started again and made a clear outline first. I simply sketched it out, slide by slide and got back into a flow,  but this time it was in a much more controlled manner. Take your time and make a strong outline to keep you on track. Use this checklist to keep you on the right road.

2. Build your presentation within time constraints

Ensuring your timing is right is so important when presenting at a conference. If you have ten minutes to present, prepare ten minutes of material. No more. If you don’t practice your timing, you may not get a chance to highlight your findings and recommendations – the most important part.

In my experience conference organisers are usually quite clear about how much time you have allocated. The best presenters know exactly how much time they have to work with, then they tailor their presentation to fit the time and keep an eye on the time throughout.

And if you are running out of time, stop. Jump past a couple of slides if you need to make one last point.

3. Use visuals to illuminate, not obscure

Images are key elements to any presentation. Whether it’s a pie chart to show percentages, or a strong image to convey a point, visuals can be much more effective than words. They help reinforce or complement the ideas or points you’re trying to get across. Your audience may be able to understand your message a little easier when it’s presented with visuals that relate to it.

But remember to keep your visuals clean and simple. Some of the worst conference presentations I’ve seen are ones with complex imagery that forces the audience to try and figure out how the image and the speaker’s point are related.

4. Aim for simplicity and consistency

Don’t be afraid of using some text and bullet points if you need to make a point that isn’t easy to communicate visually, or if you’re discussing steps or sequences.

But use them to communicate your point to the audience, not as a prompt for what you want to say. That’s what your speaker notes are for. You want your audience to listen to you instead of reading from your slides, so less is more in terms of the text on the slides.

Inconsistency in slides is a subtle thing but can take away from a presentation very easily. While slides with different colours may look nice, they may be distracting to your audience. Use a consistent template with the same fonts to make it easier for your audience to follow along.  And remember, your audience will view your conference presentation from a distance, so use large clear fonts and as few words as possible in your slides.

5. Know your research audience

One of the most common mistakes I have seen being made by conference presenters is presenting a roomful of people with information they already have. A great way to make this mistake is spending the majority of your presentation going over the existing literature and giving background information on your work.

Just like when you’re in the audience at a conference, researchers are there to learn about your new and exciting research, not to hear a summary of old work. The worst speakers assume that the audience doesn’t know anything and need educating.

Before you begin speaking to a group, find out what they already know and where they are up to with your topic. It’s not easy to get details on all delegates but you will know the plenary sessions and whoever you have networked with before this. Most conferences use mobile apps now, and these are a great way to get an insight to exactly who is attending the conference and what their speciality topics are from the programme.

This can give you a good idea of how much background you need to give so that your key presentation points will make sense. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re giving a 15-minute presentation, by the 6th minute you should be discussing your data or case study.  

6. Rehearse your presentation

I shouldn’t even need to include this on the list, but so many people fail to do enough of this. Rehearsing is crucial to making you feel comfortable with every word you are going to say. Rehearse your paper aloud in private and in front of a friend. This can feel a bit embarrassing, but reading it through in your head never corresponds to the time it takes to read it aloud in public. The more times you say the words aloud, the more you will be familiar with it. And if you are familiar with what you’re saying, your confidence in your conference presentation will increase.

When I’m practising for a conference presenting slot, I rehearse out loud in my bedroom. It feels strange but it works. If you’re feeling self-conscious about this (or don’t want your housemates to overhear) you could play some music at the same time.

Another strategy that works well is recording yourself. This lets you see where you’re doing well and where you need to improve. And if being recorded makes you feel under pressure, this helps mimic the actual feelings you’ll have while presenting in front of a real live audience. So you’ll get a good idea for how you will perform on the day.

After I’ve recorded myself, I usually ask a friend or colleague to listen and be critical of my efforts. Getting grilled beforehand really helps ease any presenting nerves or anxiety you will get if you’re unlucky enough to get grilled after your presentation.

7. Prepare, prepare, prepare

Preparation for anything is key, especially for conference presentations.  You’ve prepared enough to find the right conference, and to submit a proposal worthy of acceptance, now you need to prepare to present it.  

Know your slides inside out. You should use them as a guide for your presentation, not an autocue.

Think about your clothing. Wear something that makes you feel comfortable when facing your audience. If you’re not sure what clothes are appropriate, check the dress code with the organisers or with colleagues.

Conference session rooms can get stuffy, so if you’re someone who sweats when they’re nervous, choose clothing that won’t show it. And don’t wear something that’s awkward and restrictive, even if you think it will project a confident image. If you’re not comfortable, you won’t look or feel confident.

Try to get a good night’s sleep before your presentation; everything looks better and more manageable when you’re well rested.

8. Back up your backup

A good way to think about your presentation technology requirements is this: any tech you want to use can and will fail. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility for your memory card or flash drive not to work when the big moment comes. Or for your laptop to decide to reboot. Or for the conference’s presentation facilities to fail.

Arm yourself with a back-up plan so you aren’t left stranded if things go awry. As well as following the conference instructions to submit your presentation online or at their drop-off desk, copy your slides to an online deck service and upload a copy of your presentation to Dropbox. Then email yourself any links you need so they’re within arms reach if you need them. Take no chances.

And if you have any specific audio-visual requirements, make them known to the conference organiser well in advance. If they don’t ask, tell them anyway. Never assume that they’ll just know. Not all conference venues can accommodate the latest technology.

9. Get to know the presenting space

One thing presenters often forget to do before starting a presentation is sussing out the room they’ll be speaking in. If you get the opportunity, get down to the room where you’ll be presenting ahead of time and check it out. This will save you from the last-minute panic of running across an unfamiliar campus, trying to find the room you’re supposed to be in.

Most rooms will be kitted out with everything you need to present, but there’s no harm in making sure all the equipment you need is there and works. Take no risks and you’ll eliminate nasty last-minute surprises.

Get comfortable with the presentation area, walk around it until you feel familiar with the environment in the room. This will save you the shock of unexpectedly being faced with a large/tiny room. Bring your set of notes with you, and make sure you can read them in the lighting conditions in the room. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need – if there are open windows that are bothering you, ask for them to be closed.

10. Use body language to your advantage

Body language has an important role in presentations, especially at academic conferences. There are usually a lot of facts and findings to be highlighted in a conference presentation, and you need to use all the presenting tools available to you to remain interesting and effective throughout. Your gestures, tone of voice and positivity can be seen through your body language and may determine how engaged your audience is.

When you’re speaking, a few body language tips can help improve your rapport with your audience. For your audience to engage, it’s important that they can see you and that you look at them and make eye contact. Try to spread your gaze, rather than staring at one person. And avoid focusing intently on your laptop screen, your notes, or the floor. This can give the impression that you’re nervous or uninterested, and can also prevent you from projecting your voice clearly.

If possible, don’t stand behind a lectern or hold any notes. Instead, keep a straight, relaxed, open posture, and feel free to be comfortable with the full stage and move around the stage a little as you speak.

The great presenters use gestures to emphasise their points and to highlight their visual material to guide the audience’s attention. When you see a speaker rooted rigidly to the spot and without positive body language the presentation loses a lot of its emphasis. Avoid other distracting movements, such as repeatedly putting your hands in and out of your pockets, jingling coins in your pocket, or fiddling with pens, clothing, or props such as laser pointers.

11. Encourage questions and discussion

If you manage your time well, you’ll have sufficient time left for questions and an open discussion after your conference presentation. Expect questions, but don’t worry if there aren’t any. If your audience is reluctant to ask questions, a good session chair will usually pose a question. Presentation questions are a good thing. They give you a chance to elaborate on something that wasn’t clear or address the topic that everyone wants to know but you forgot to include.

Answering questions can be nerve-wracking because of the fear that you might not be able to answer them. But when the audience is asking questions, it’s generally out of genuine interest, not to trip you up, so see it as a good opportunity to explore how you can expand your work.

Though the majority of questions in a conference Q&A session are fairly benign, like me, you could find yourself at the end of a grilling (perhaps from someone who’s research you’ve had the temerity to challenge) after you present at a conference. If you think this might happen to you, it’s worth doing some reading on how to respond to destructive criticism from peers.

And if you’re feeling nervous about facing tough questions, here’s something that might help: if you’re attending with someone you know (and trust), ask them to ask you a question. Some people even like to agree in advance what the question will be. This can simply help get the ball rolling and boost your confidence.

And finally, a trick I learnt from an experienced researcher is to keep a notebook and pen handy and to make notes of the good questions to reflect on later.

Presenting skills are for life

Once you’ve mastered the tips above, you’ll be all set to give a great conference presentation. And the more you do, the easier they’ll get. Until you’ll reach a point when you can’t remember how nervous they used to make you.

One final note on audience size: never take it personally. Some of the best papers out there were presented to small audiences. Nobody ever asks how many people were in the audience, and you don’t have to state it on your academic CV. No matter what size the audience, a great presentation is a great presentation.

Brian Campbell

Brian helps researchers find conferences on PaperCrowd. He enjoys entertaining his baby nephew, playing an insane amount of sport, and being wildly competitive at party games. (He’s a pass-the-parcel champion.) Previously, he worked as the admin of an international entrepreneurship research conference.