Presenting your first paper at a conference? Use this conference presentation checklist to help you prepare.
Sometimes it can seem like the skill of presenting is gifted to only a magical few who can captivate a room full of conference delegates. But a good presentation is mostly the result of solid preparation.
If you’re an early-career researcher, you may already have experience standing up and teaching classes. However, if you’re presenting at your first conference, stepping onstage to be eyeballed by senior researchers in your field is a different dynamic entirely.
If your first conference paper has been accepted and you’re feeling apprehensive at the thought of presenting it, use this conference presentation checklist to help you thoroughly prepare.
Your conference presentation checklist
Checklist for pre-conference prep work
- Trim it down
If your conference presentation is a slimmed-down version of a longer paper, spend time cutting it down before the conference – don’t plan to wing it on the day. If you skip this step, you may find yourself getting mired in detail and omitting a critical point or running over time.
- Check your timing
Time your practice sessions to make sure your presentation fits your conference time slot and your presentation style, leaving time for a Q&A session. You probably speak at an average of between 125 and 150 words per minute, but you should aim to slow this down when presenting. Your word count will also depend on whether you’ll be presenting with slides and discussing them, or simply speaking to the audience. Tweak as necessary.
- Practice in front of your peers
Practice your conference paper in front of your fellow grad students or your supervisor and ask them for honest feedback. It’s helpful if this makes you a bit nervous as you’ll get a clearer picture of how you’ll perform on the day. And it may be the focus you need to help you spot any missing joins in your argument or tricky linguistic gymnastics (try saying that aloud) that may trip you up on the day.
- Video yourself
Ever been to a presentation where the presenter did something so distracting it diverted your attention from their message? Film yourself giving your conference presentation. This can be slightly painful but it’s useful to see if you do anything that may distract your audience when you’re stressed. Better to work on this now then only become aware of it on the day.
- Find out how the organizers want your slides
If your presentation includes slides, find out how the conference organizers want them. If the conference is using a system like Ex Ordo, you’ll need to upload them in advance. But other organizers may request them through email, USB stick, or have them running via your own laptop on the day. Make sure you know which so you don’t arrive to the room and find your slides can’t be displayed properly.
- Print your presentation
Print your presentation in large typeface (14 pt) with ample line spacing (1.5 or 2) and staple it together. Big type and lots of space will help you keep your place, even if you’re only glancing at the sheets from time to time. And stapling stops any awkward fumbling with loose pages when you’re nervous.
Checklist for the day of your conference presentation
- Arrive in plenty of time to meet your session chair and find out if they need any introductory information from you.
- Give the session chair a couple of sample questions to ask you if there aren’t any from the floor. Sometimes the audience needs someone else to start the ball rolling. It also helps your session chair who may not have the time to read your paper closely.
- Double-check that your presentation is working on the conference computer, or that your laptop connects ok.
- Familiarize yourself with the layout of the room you’ll be presenting in. Will you be standing at a lectern? Is there a microphone, or will you need to project your voice?
- If there are no sessions running, stand on the podium and picture yourself presenting to the delegates. Visualize how you’re going to feel standing there when the time comes.
- Avoid high-caffeine drinks before your presentation. They can make you jittery, especially if you’re prone to nerves. Save yourself some stress and stick with decaf or herbal teas.
Checklist for the presentation itself
- Empty your pockets of your wallet and keys so you have fewer distractions when all eyes are on you.
- Wear a watch or bring your phone (on airplane mode) to the lectern so you can keep an eye on the time.
- Bring your printed presentation up. Even if you’re not planning to read from it, the idea that you can glance at it anytime you need will help you stay calm.
- Bring water with you to help you remember to take a pause.
- Remember to slow your speech down and speak clearly. If you’re presenting your paper at an international conference, there’ll be delegates who are non-native English speakers. Visualize speaking directly to them.
- Leave enough time for a Q&A session after your presentation.
- Offer a way for interested audience members to get in touch with you after the conference.
Checklist for after your presentation
- Stick around to answer any questions that weren’t covered in your Q&A. If you’ve got business cards, now’s a good time to have them to hand.
- Once the questions are over, find somewhere quiet to relax for a short time after – it’s likely you’ll have a post-presentation adrenaline crash. Sit back and jot down your impression of your presentation and what you’d like to change next time.
- If your fellow students or colleagues were at the conference, ask them for honest feedback on how your presentation went.
Congratulations, you’ve just presented at your first conference. You’re on your way to becoming a seasoned conference presenter.
Further reading to help you prepare your first conference presentation
This is a great piece on how to give a conference paper, by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn.